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Dr. Harry H. Laughlin to Dr. Carl Schneider

Truman State University, Harry H. Laughlin Papers
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tags: health & hygiene science & medicine

type: Letter

Well known as an educator, scientist, and sociologist, Dr. Harry L. Laughlin was a major advocate of eugenics in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. In recognition of his important contributions to that field, Laughlin received an honorary degree from the University of Heidelberg in Nazi Germany in 1936.1 Laughlin's gratitude at the receipt of this "high honor" is detailed in this letter to Dr. Carl Schneider, Dean of Heidelberg's Faculty of Medicine.

This correspondence demonstrates the connections between the US and German eugenics movements. Both American and German eugenic theory promoted a hierarchy of races that privileged Anglo-Saxon people over those of Eastern Europe or of African or indigenous descent. Laughlin noted this belief in his letter, linking Aryan Germans to Anglo-Americans.2 

Like Laughlin, many other leading American scientists advanced the "science of race," seeking methods to improve society by promoting the growth of Anglo-American families and restricting that of other groups. Public health efforts, immigration policy, and the forced sterilization of "inferior" individuals were employed to carry out this aim.3 Laughlin was instrumental in promoting policies that targeted for sterilization of those with mental illness or disabilities, criminals, epileptics, alcoholics, and physically disabled people.4  In part due to Laughlin's efforts, dozens of American states enacted laws dictating the forced sterilization of citizens deemed imbeciles, or suffering from certain mental disorders. According to one scholar's estimate, by the early 1960s, more than 62,000 sterilizations had been performed in the United States.5

American eugenics lent credibility to the Nazi Regime in its efforts to promote the "scientifically proven" superiority of Aryan German citizens. In 1933, Nazi Germany passed the Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases, based in part on the practice of eugenic sterilization in the US.5 Through this legislation, an estimated 400,000 people were forcibly sterilized by the end of the World War II.

Perhaps due to the "success" of this campaign, Dr. Schneider wrote to Laughlin to recognize his accomplishments. The American enthusiastically accepted, remarking that "To me this honor will be doubly valued because it will come from a nation which for many centuries nurtured the human seed-stock which later founded my own country and thus gave basic character to our present lives and institutions."

For more details on the origins and impact of eugenics in the United States, see the related item Eugenics Charts from the Kansas Free Fair.

Barry Trachtenberg, The United States and the Nazi Holocaust: Race, Refuge, and Remembrance (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018), 18–19.

Wendy Kline, Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 2–6.

Paul Lombardo, ed., A Century of Eugenics in America (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2011), 20–22.

According to this estimate, 60 percent of those sterilized were women. See Rebecca M. Kluchin, Fit to Be Tied: Sterilization and Reproductive Rights in America 1950–1980 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press), 17–20.

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Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Truman State University, Harry H. Laughlin Papers
Source Number Box E1–3:8, Manuscript Collection L1
Date Created
May 28, 1936
Document Type Letter
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