Historical Issues: Grappling with Our Past

The field of genetics has a long history that includes periods of contribution to scientific rationalization of sexism, racism, and eugenics. Simultaneously, our department works within a cultural context that has historically undervalued the potential of women, immigrants, non-Europeans, those not heterosexual and cis-gender, those of little economic means, disabled persons, and the full spectrum of human variety and diversity in general. This is reflected in a department history that is often a history of the careers and research interests of heterosexual white men. Particularly, the department was founded contemporaneously to the rising American Eugenics movement, a time when racist and sexist views were held broadly and adamantly among the public and university community.

On this page the Laboratory of Genetics presents several specific instances in which founding members of the department and their contemporaries at the university have documented connections to the eugenics movement. While other instances may exist, we have not presented them, either because in many cases such bigotry was unremarkable and unrecorded in archival historical material compiled by empowered, largely white male members of the community, or that the department has not found what records remain of past members to identify further specific episodes. Support for these ideas within the general university community is evidenced, however, by the popularity of social engagements like the eugenics club and minstrel shows during the decades following the department’s founding. More important than attribution of blame, or individual or collective moral guilt, is understanding how the institutions of the University and the antecedent departments of the Laboratory of Genetics were active in supporting the establishment of societal changes that hurt many people, including almost 2,000 primarily institutionalized Wisconsinites sterilized on account of their ‘feeble-mindedness’ or ‘moral imbecility’. And, understanding that there is still opportunity to mitigate continued impacts of these changes. The Laboratory of Genetics is committed to actively combating this legacy, and to establishing an institutional structure that protects against discrimination and a welcoming community where everyone feels they belong.

A Brief Account of the Early Eugenics Movement

Before discussing the specific history of eugenics in the department, it is important to provide a historical background on the eugenics movement and its origins. At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, the proliferation of manufacturing, transportation, and communications innovations brought an increased research interest in applying scientific theory towards industrial efficiency. Contemporarily, there was a significant body of research into the nature of heredity, following the publishing of On the Origin of Species in 1859. Much of this work focused on improving domesticated organisms by experimental breeding, but a number of researchers focused on human heredity. Many such researchers, steered by a belief in intrinsic faults of immigrants and the social lower-class, came to the belief that people socially undesired by the cultural majority carried these failings genetically, and that societal improvement could then be engineered by regulating who had children. This idea was codified as ‘eugenics’ in 1883 by Francis Galton (1), who advocated for it for the rest of his life. Initially, this was a marginal movement, in part because heredity was still poorly understood and largely opaque.

At the beginning of the 1900s, improved techniques for microscopy and resulting cytological studies led to the re-evaluation of particulate inheritance and of Mendel’s 1800’s work on pea inheritance (2,3). William Bateson coined the term ‘genetics’ in 1905 to describe the study of inheritance (4), and Wilhelm Johannsen coined ‘gene’ in 1911 to refer to units of Mendelian inheritance without carrying assumptions about the physical mechanism of inheritance (5). The developing field of Mendelian Genetics had early success in explaining inheritance of mutant characters in a wide number of experimental systems, and therefore gained large academic support and even public recognition. Mendelian analyses of agricultural organisms identified several genes and showed promise in improving the experimental breeding of domestic strains. However, the emergent procedural dogma in the field of genetics, to expect a single, stably inherited ‘gene’ to causally underlie a single identified trait, had severely negative consequences when applied in an overly-broad manner, and when mixed with cultural biases. Building on culturally accepted assumptions of racial difference in ability and behavior, many geneticists attributed genetic causes to the perceived characteristics of socially unwanted persons, including the ‘feebleminded’, epileptic, ‘wayward’ women, immigrants, and Native and African Americans. Studies attempting to demonstrate these connections proliferated, despite attacks by early genetic pioneers like Thomas Hunt Morgan on the scientific rigor and reproducibility of the work (6). Many researchers further advocated eugenic responses to the ‘societal threat’ posed by these conclusions, either increasing the reproductive rate of favorably perceived individuals, or preventing unwanted members of the community from reproducing by sterilization or institutionalization. Eugenics had been developing before Mendelism, but the field now gained broad, public, international support. This empowered movement led to forced sterilization laws targeting poor and disabled persons, further racial discrimination and racially targeted immigration control, and eventually influenced acts of murder and genocide across the next several decades (7,8).

A History of Eugenics in the Department

Two publications by Leon J. Cole:
Publications highlighting early ties between the Laboratory of Genetics and the eugenics movement. (Left) Reprint of department founder Leon J. Cole’s speech to the First National Congress on Race Betterment, 1914. (Right) Cole’s contribution to Popular Science Monthly, 1912.

The U.W. Madison Genetics Department was founded as the Department of Experimental Breeding in 1910, with a focus to apply genetics to agriculture. In 1911, as Eugenics was gaining steam as a public cause in the U.S.A., a number of professors and graduate students across campus, including Experimental Breeding Department Head Leon J. Cole, formed the Eugenics Club at the University of Wisconsin (9). This was created to provide a popular venue for bi-monthly lectures by experts, and began with 75 members and 100 regular attendees. A note in the American Breeders Magazine on club activities advocated both prevention of the reproduction of ‘defectives’ and encouraging academics to rear large and healthy families (9). This focus was recapitulated in specific departments, and Leon J. Cole presented eugenics in Experimental Breeding seminars and repurposed at least one eugenics lecture as a Popular Science Monthly article (10).

If the breeder has born into his herd a sickly or abnormal or otherwise undesirable animal, he does not trust to its dying of “natural” means, but his intelligence comes into play and he takes means at once to eliminate it from his breeding stock. … Is it not desirable, and necessary, that we should employ equal intelligence to the development of the human species that we do to our domestic animals? We shall have to utilize special methods of elimination of the undesirable, but the general problem is the same (10).

He similarly advocated eugenics in public speaking appointments, as to the Kellogg-sponsored First National Congress on Race Betterment in 1914. This speech was reprinted in the Journal of Heredity (11).

eugenics club announcements, 1912
(Left) The Wisconsin Alumni Magazine announces the establishment of the nation’s first university eugenics club, 1912. (Right) Establishment and activities of the eugenics club are described in the Journal of Heredity, 1912.

This activity fit into a social context of broad support for Eugenics across the University. Michael F. Guyer was soon hired in Zoology and taught a course – Heredity and Eugenics – for decades (12). A cross section of departments taught sociology courses examining ‘race competition’, particularly in the labor market, and ‘racial suicide’, led by E. A. Ross, who continued this instruction as head of the newly independent Department of Sociology and Anthropology in 1929 (12). The university president (1903-1918), Charles Van Hise, vocally advocated for eugenic laws in the State of Wisconsin as a part of the ‘Wisconsin Idea’ whereby university experts informed the public and legislators of relevant science (13). The university, and Van Hise and Ross in particular, were highly respected by the public and politicians of the Wisconsin Progressive movement (14), and this additional academic credibility helped drive the 1913 Wisconsin sterilization and marriage statutes, authorizing involuntary sterilization of inmates of mental and penal institutions, and requiring verification that both parties to a marriage were not ‘epileptic, insane, or idiotic’ (14), nor carrying venereal disease (15) – syphilis was assumed to be a disease of ‘degeneracy’ carried by the poor, foreign immigrants, African Americans, and otherwise marginalized people.

Course listing for Heredity and Eugenics, 1945 course catalog.
Course listing for Heredity and Eugenics, 1945 course catalog.

Wisconsin sterilized around 1,823 ‘wayward, criminal, or defective’ individuals from 1913 until 1963 under various legislative measures, 79% of whom were women (16). The final repeal of the sterilization law did not occur until 1978 (17), and repeal of the marriage law did not occur until 1981 (15). At the same time that state eugenic sterilization was in decline, it thrived in Wisconsin at the federal level. Many doctors treating patients on federal social welfare followed eugenic ideas about the reproduction of ‘burdensome, unfit’ people or groups, which had been taught for decades at educational institutions like UW-Madison across the state and country. Further, in 1965 the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, began a policy of providing family planning services, and interpreted Title X of the 1970 Public Health Service Act – providing federal funding for family planning as part of federal financial assistance – as including subsidy for surgical sterilization (18). With this additional personal financial incentive, many Doctors chose to coerce, misinform, or otherwise force countless disempowered patients into involuntary sterilization, particularly members of federally recognized tribes provided with treaty-arranged healthcare through the Indian Health Service (18-21). Most tribal members were on federal healthcare, and at least a quarter to one half of Indigenous American women in the 1970s were forcefully sterilized (18,21). A 1977 investigative report by the United Nations and the Native American Solidarity Committee declared these actions to be one aspect of ongoing genocidal practices of the U.S. government (22).

The University of Wisconsin-Madison contributed to this societal drive toward eugenics with courses specifically teaching and promoting eugenics in the departments of sociology, criminology, genetics, and zoology began in the early 1900’s and continued until 1948, shortly after Guyer’s retirement (12). The Laboratory of Genetics is committed to acknowledging this history by engaging with it in genetics instruction, and informing students on the history and the scientific failings of eugenic studies. The recent availability of genomic data and packaged tools to evaluate correlations between traits and genetic variants has led to the publication of many studies that again claim to link social characteristics to genetics, despite substantial methodological shortcomings or data that do not support such conclusions (23). This occurs in a context of ongoing use of racialized terminology in genetics (24), and a distinct bias in who performs research and whose genomes are studied (25). In the face of these challenges, we are equipping our students and faculty with the ability to critically evaluate the rigor and bias of a scientific study, hypothesis, or theory, and an understanding that eugenic ideas are harmful and false.


  1. Galton, F., Milwaukee Academy of Medicine, & Book Collection. Inquiries into human faculty and its development. (Macmillan and Co., 1883).
  2. Brannigan, A. The Reification of Mendel. Soc. Stud. Sci. 9, 423–454 (1979).
  3. Bungener, P. & Buscaglia, M. Early Connection between Cytology and Mendelism: Michael F. Guyer’s Contribution. Hist. Philos. Life Sci. 25, 27–50 (2003).
  4. Bateson, W. Letter from William Bateson to Alan Sedgwick in 1905. (2007).
  5. Johannsen, W. The Genotype Conception of Heredity. Am. Nat. 45, 129–159 (1911).
  6. Allen, G. E. Eugenics and Modern Biology: Critiques of Eugenics, 1910–1945. Ann. Hum. Genet. 75, 314–325 (2011).
  7. Jackson, J. P. & Weidman, N. M. The Origins of Scientific Racism. J. Blacks High. Educ. 66–79 (2005).
  8. Reilly, P. R. Eugenics and Involuntary Sterilization: 1907–2015. Annu. Rev. Genomics Hum. Genet. 16, 351–368 (2015).
  9. Baker, O. E. The Eugenics Club at the University of Wisconsin. Am. Breed. Mag. 3, 69–71 (1912).
  10. Cole, L. J. The Relation of Eugenics to Euthenics. in Popular Science Monthly Volume 81 November 1912 (1912).
  11. Cole, L. J. BIOLOGICAL EUGENICS Relation of Philanthropy and Medicine to Race Betterment—Study of Genetics Shows that no Race Can be Bred Immune to All Diseases or Defects—Nevertheless, Medicine and Charity Must Pay More Attention to Heredity. J. Hered. 5, 305–312 (1914).
  12. The University of Wisconsin Catalogue. (Published by the University).
  13. Van Hise, C. ADDRESS BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN at the Maple Bluff Golf Club Luncheon, afternoon of Friday, May 23. in City Club Bulletin 469–475 (The Club, 1913).
  14. Vecoli, R. J. Sterilization: A Progressive Measure? Wis. Mag. Hist. 43, 190–202 (1960).
  15. Wathen, E. In Sickness and in Health? Wisconsin’s Eugenic Marriage Law, 1913–1981. (2017).
  16. Paul, J. ‘ . . . Three Generations of Imbeciles are Enough . . .’: State Eugenic Sterilization in American Thought and Practice. Buck V Bell Doc. (1965).
  17. Reske, P. E. Policing the ‘Wayward Woman’: Eugenics in Wisconsin’s Involuntary Sterilization Program. Wis. Mag. Hist. 97, 14–27 (2013).
  18. Lawrence, J. The Indian Health Service and the Sterilization of Native American Women. Am. Indian Q. 24, 400–419 (2000).
  19. Torpy, S. J. Native American Women and Coerced Sterilization: On the Trail of Tears in the 1970s. Am. Indian Cult. Res. J. 24, 1–22 (2000).
  20. Kappler, C. J. Treaty with the Winnebago, 1832. in Indian affairs: laws and treaties, Vol. 2 (Treaties) 345–348 (Government Printing Office).
  21. Ralstin-Lewis, D. M. The Continuing Struggle against Genocide: Indigenous Women’s Reproductive Rights. Wicazo Sa Rev. 20, 71–95 (2005).
  22. Report of International NGO Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas, 20-23 September 1977, Palais Des Nations, Geneva, Organised by the Special NGO Committee on Human Rights (Geneva), Sub-Committee on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Apartheid and Decolonization. (NGO Sub-Committee on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Apartheid and Decolonization, 1978).
  23. Graham Coop. Polygenic scores and tea drinking. gcbias https://gcbias.org/2018/03/14/polygenic-scores-and-tea-drinking/ (2018).
  24. Williams, J. E. Decoding Racial Ideology in Genomics. (Lexington Books, 2016).
  25. Bentley, A. R., Callier, S. & Rotimi, C. N. Diversity and inclusion in genomic research: why the uneven progress? J. Community Genet. 8, 255–266 (2017).

Further Material and Resources

UW-Madison Addresses Its History

Public History Project: A multi-year effort to uncover and give voice to those who experienced, challenged and overcame prejudice on campus. The broad intent of the project is to ensure that all students and alumni are aware of the full history of the university, including the accomplishments of campus community members from marginalized populations whose stories previously may have been hidden or not widely known.

Historical Perspectives on Wisconsin Eugenics and Eugenics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

There are a number of informative works available online on the history of eugenics at the University of Wisconsin and in the state of Wisconsin. Some of them include:

Sterilization: A Progressive Measure?: An accounting of the growing support in Wisconsin for eugenics across the era of marriage and sterilization laws, discussing a number of major actors in the Progressive branch of the Republican party and several UW-Madison figures who advocated for eugenic ideas and served as expert consultants to the state legislature. By Rudolph Vecoli, published in The Wisconsin Magazine of History in 1960. 

In Sickness and in Health? Wisconsin’s Eugenic Marriage Law, 1913–1981: A detailed discussion of the eugenic marriage laws enacted in the progressive era in Wisconsin, and their effects on women, couples seeking marriage licenses, doctors, and the state as a whole. By Emma Wathen, a senior honors thesis in history published in 2017, available through the History Department website and the UW library system.

Policing the “Wayward Woman”: An analysis of the discrimination against and differential targeting of women in the content and enforcement of the involuntary sterilization laws of Wisconsin. By Phyllis Reske, published in The Wisconsin Magazine of History in 2013.

Wisconsin progressives had regressive beliefs: A profile of several major figures of the University of Wisconsin – Madison who were involved in Progressive party measures and advocacy for eugenic laws in Wisconsin. By Thomas Leonard, published in Wisconsin Interest in 2016.

Eugenics History Aggregation or Archive Websites

There are several Eugenics movement archives available on the internet. Some of them include:

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory – Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement: An online collection containing many of the documents and images collected by Charles Davenport’s Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, a major lobbying force for the adoption of Eugenic legislation in America from 1910-1939.

The Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada’s online Eugenics Archives: An online resource page founded with a focus on forced sterilization in Alberta, yet further containing a useful an encyclopedia of terms, summaries of eugenic history by country, and an exploratory connections page that helps to visualize the interacting historical actors and terms of the Eugenics movement.