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 contributions to that field, Laughlin received an honorary degree from the University of Heidelberg in Nazi Germany in 1936.1 In the featured letter, Laughlin expresses his appreciation for this "high honor" to Dr. Carl Schneider, Dean of Heidelberg's Faculty of Medicine.
This letter shows the connections between the American and German eugenics movements. Both American and German eugenics promoted racial hierarchies, which Laughlin noted in his letter.2 Many other leading American scientists also supported the so-called "science of race."3 Laughlin was active in the promotion of forced sterilization of people diagnosed with epilepsy, certain mental and physical disabilities, or alcoholism. People with extensive criminal records were also targeted.4 In part due to Laughlin's efforts, dozens of American states enacted laws that forced certain people to be sterilized against their will. According to one scholar's estimate, more than 62,000 sterilizations had been performed in the United States by the 1960s.5
American eugenics gave credibility to the Nazi regime in its efforts to promote the supposed superiority of so-called "Aryans." In 1933, Nazi Germany passed the Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases, based in part on the practice of forced sterilization in the US. Under this legislation, an estimated 400,000 people were forcibly sterilized by the end of the World War II.
In the featured letter accepting his honorary degree from Heidelberg, Laughlin remarked 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."