Wednesday, August 11, 2010

An Embarrassing Bit of History -Eugenics Movement

As I peruse more Montreal Gazette archive articles while researching Flo in the City, my novel about a girl coming of age in the 1910 era in Canada, based on the letters of I am forced to revisit a sketchy topic I touched upon on my website: Eugenics.

Carrie Derick (or Derrick) Canada's first female full-time professor, a botanist, and a President of the Montreal Council of Women 1909-1912 and founder of the  Suffrage Movement was, at least at one time, a proponent of 'unnatural' selection as promoted by the Eugenics Movement.

So, apparently, was Emily Murphy, a famous Canadian suffragist.

Now, how could a person who supported suffrage, in large part because women were seen as better suited to tackle the grave social problems of the city, support sterlizing the feeble-minded and the weak? I mean, that was the argument made by men to keep women down, that women were naturally feeble-minded and gentle-hearted and spiritually fine.

Before we judge, however, we must keep in mind that eugenics was a trendy belief among the educated in 1910. Theodore Roosevelt was a proponent as was Tommy Douglas, our Greatest Canadian, as well as Alexander Graham Bell, whose wife was deaf. So imagine!

In Derick's case, well, in 1909 she presided over a lecture by a gentleman, a Professor Witmore, who was endeavoring to improve the lot of the feeble-minded (I'm just using their term)by understanding them and taking care of them, thereby promoting the "useful citizenship of the imbecile."

Then in 1913, Derick gives a lecture in favour of sterilizing such people. Her argument seems ludicrous, it almost makes you laugh. She's supposedly lecturing on genetics and the nature/nurture debate, something of interest to all who are concerned with 'the improvement of the human race." She gives two real life examples to illustrate her point: A man named Jukes, 'a lazy drunken wastrel' who is the first in a line of thousands of such degenerates. Then she names another man, who is respectable, hardworking and god-fearing, I presume, who begets a huge line of superior "clergymen, physicians, college professors (sic) distinguished army and navy officers and good, pure women (sic again).(No poets, though :)

And, then, the political side of this eugenics issue rears its ugly and predictable head: "In the shipbuilding of Canada, unguarded immigration isone of the greatest dangers. Not only should the health and character of immigrants be known, but the record should also embrace his or her parents and grandparents and should a taint of degeneracy be disclosed, rejection should follow. Remember, Canada was experiencing a huge increase in immigration.

Well, I guess I'm not going to get to be alive: my Yorkshire ancestors were sheep-stealers. My French Canadian ancestors were Filles du Roy (prostitutes and otherwise imprisoned women sent to the New World as breeding stock.)And the Nicholsons, well, they are descended from Norseman, the mother of all pillagers and rapists.

(Which brings to mind something my son likes to say: A low class sociopath ends up in prison. A high class one ends up a CEO of a large corporation or working for Wall Street)...but I digress.

Well, this part of our history has been glossed over, largely because eugenics got associated with the Nazis. But one aspect is still with us and is highly respected. The IQ test. The IQ test was created in 1912, (as a tool of the eugenics movement?...Something to replace the science of phrenology?) Even back then, they tried to give these tests to immigrants, who didn't even know English. So I guess they failed and were deemed imbeciles.

One of the odd things Derick says is that 'alcoholism doesn't cause degeneracy, it's the other way around, degeneracy causes alcoholism.' And although that sounds ridiculous, today alcoholism is considered a disease by some and there is a proven? genetic factor underlying addiction. (Or is there?)

And just yesterday, the news media was abuzz with the story that a spinal fluid test can prove conclusively if a person is going to get Alzheimer's. As a fifty five year old who can't remember anything and whose father died of Alzheimer's I was a little freaked out to hear this. But I was especially concerned with the GIVEN that Alzheimer's Disease was genetic. I mean heavy metals and other environmental issues must be behind the rise in Alzheimer's disease. Or the numbers would be stable.

And my first thought was, yea, find out early and your husband leaves you and you get fired or at least not given tenure,(well no one gets tenure anymore) or your insurance stops covering you... EWWWW.

This genetic testing (for any disease) whatever the rationale, smacks of the eugenics movement.

And if the eugenics movement proves anything, it's that otherwise intelligent, thoughtful, good people, can be terribly WRONG about certain things.