Land-Grant Eugenics: Spreading an Idea in Rural America

Eugenics as an explicit social program went mostly out of favor in the United States after the Second World War, although many of its underlying beliefs, methods, and goals persisted. The science and language of genetics remained. The techniques used to modify plants and animals continued. Horticulture continued to develop (“Horticulture!?” you ask. Why yes, the language of, course requirements for, and extension programs associated with horticulture all contributed to the spread of eugenics). All of those things still exist, perhaps with some new, more efficient mechanisms like CRISPR (a popular gene editing technique), but that’s a difference in scale rather than in kind. For as long as these techniques remain in use, the legacy of eugenic science continues. Today we see news stories about the genetic origins of aggression, criminality, and homosexuality.

We continue to believe as a culture that genes dictate (at least statistically) behavior. And it is implicitly understood that we are seeking out the genetic causes of behavior that we do not like, so that at some future stage we might be able to “fix” those anomalies. I believe that only by coming to terms with, and actively resisting, this history will we overcome this legacy and produce a science that is free of the problematic taint of eugenics.

One small thread of this legacy is the one land-grant institutions have promulgated, universities whose eugenic programs continue to resonate today. Companies like Monsanto (now part of Bayer), which partnered with Virginia Tech in 2010 to improve wheat varieties, seek to perfect their transgenic crops against the warnings of ecologists. And thus the eugenic legacy continues.

Nederlands: Monsanto-vestiging in Enkhuizen. (Karen Eliot/Wikimedia)

In 1916, the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute (popularly referred to as VPI at the time and Virginia Tech today) introduced a course in the horticulture department on the brand new field of genetics. In 1921, the course description for this cutting-edge science class added a final line: “the subject of eugenics will be treated briefly.” For the next 29 years, H.L. Price, Dean of the Horticulture Department and a dedicated ornithologist, taught this and other courses that directly and indirectly used eugenics and its referent language.

Eugenics is the “science” of “improving” or enhancing the desired qualities of organisms.1 Much in the same way that we have bred wolves into Golden Retrievers, Schnauzers, and Dachshunds, our cows and chickens to be meatier and more delicious, and our tomatoes to be larger, redder, and hardier, scientists believed that we could breed certain traits into, and out of, humans. Eugenicists’ main targets for breeding out were poverty, criminality, sexual deviance, congenital disability, and “feeblemindedness” (a catch-all phrase used to indicate low intelligence).

Simultaneously, they wanted to breed in improvements to our intelligence, chastity, civic responsibility, and general health. The practice of eugenics was often racist, sexist, ableist, and heavily targeted poor folks. People of color, women, and the disabled were sterilized in the United States in large numbers, with over 7,000 people (some estimates put the number well over 8,000), nearly two-thirds women, sterilized in Virginia alone between 1924 and 1979.

Both academic and popular works have tended to focus on the leaders and institutions at the center of the movement.2 Volumes abound that treat the life and work of Francis Galton, Charles Davenport, Margaret Sanger, the Eugenics Record Office, Harvard University and the University of Virginia, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and the Buck v. Bell Supreme Court case.

Eugenics, however, was not restricted to elite institutions like Harvard or the minds of business moguls and Supreme Court justices. It also existed on the periphery, in universities all over the country, even tiny agricultural and mechanical colleges that dealt little with human biology. Historian Hamilton Cravens found that there were 376 colleges and universities with eugenics programs with over 20,000 students enrolled in those classes by 1928.3

Burruss Hall 1939, Virginia Tech. (©Virginia Tech)

Between 1921 and 1950, for example, Virginia Tech offered three different courses that explicitly taught eugenic science, all of which met the requirements for multiple majors. There was the Genetics (Horticulture 311) course, a Genetics and Eugenics (Horticulture 315) course for third-year students, and an Advanced Genetics and Eugenics course which was only offered for a few years, and was mainly aimed at graduate students.

Virginia Tech was tasked, as all land-grant universities were, to teach mechanical and agricultural skills with a light dusting of liberal arts education to rural and underserved populations. Virginia Tech produced farmers, engineers, high school and vocational teachers, and community leaders for Southwest Virginia and the Blue Ridge Appalachian area. Then, as now, land-grant universities ran extension programs that sent undergraduate and graduate students and faculty into rural areas to teach the newest science, agricultural techniques, and mechanic arts to farmers and vocational workers.

The only two majors at Virginia Tech that required the Horticulture 315 Genetics and Eugenics course, agricultural education and rural sociology, were explicitly associated with the extension programs. Both majors sought to produce teachers and community leaders for local communities. Other majors, like biological sciences, zoology, botany, and the various husbandries (animal, dairy, poultry), required the Horticulture 311 Genetics course, for which 315 was an elective.

It may seem surprising that it was the horticulture department that offered the genetics and eugenics courses. Even at the time, that department was mostly about orchards, fruit growing, gardening, and landscaping. However, because of the sorts of hybridization studies that were done with plants, fruits, and orchards, the Horticulture Department worked most directly with the newly-rediscovered Mendelian genetics.4

The Genetics and Eugenics course in this department did not touch on human biology at all. In fact, there was little to no human biology taught at Virginia Tech in those days. That content was instead presented in physical education courses and focused on fitness and hygiene and producing strong soldiers for the military.

Horticulture and related fields did not get all its science and terminology from eugenics. Quite the opposite. Horticulture had been around for decades before eugenics became the “progressive” new way to talk about heredity. In fact, because horticulture and other agricultural sciences had been around for so long, eugenic sciences picked up its language from them. Many of the terms that were used in eugenics — atavism, degeneracy, like-begets-like, and more — originated in the agricultural sciences. Horticulture was so well-established that when eugenics began using its language to provide a genetic explanation for human biology, scientists and the public instantly gave credence to its methods. In fact, eugenics soon took over from horticulture as the standard science for determining the techniques to improve any living organism.

Over the nearly thirty years that Dr. Price taught his eugenics courses, many graduates from Virginia Tech went on to become farmers and high school teachers; others entered military and intelligence jobs and local, state, and federal government positions. Some started businesses that were not directly associated with their work at Tech. These people were community leaders, who produced policy and laws and both funded and defunded projects. What assumptions, knowledge, and beliefs about biology (and humans) shaped their decisions and actions? It’s impossible to tell, exactly. But the stickiness — the inertia — of eugenic ideas in the biological sciences and more broadly in our cultural zeitgeist seems to suggest that eugenics had quite a large impact.

By co-opting the language of horticulture, and becoming the go-to science for all things biological, eugenic ideas became ingrained in generations of not only rural populations but also America at large. Through the conflation of eugenics with horticulture and the agricultural sciences, and the extension programs that were central to the land-grant mission that passed this science on to rural populations, these beliefs became foundational to our social understanding of biological science.

There were consequences to these developments. Virginia has long struggled with its place in America’s eugenic history, haunted by its thousands of sterilizations and the infamous Supreme Court case of Buck v. Bell. In 2015, the Virginia State Legislature passed a reparations bill, which guarantees $25,000 for each individual sterilization victim or their estate. What used to be the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded, the institution at which Carrie Buck and her mother, along with hundreds of others over the years, were forcibly sterilized, is finally being closed and demolished in 2020.

These measures cannot possibly repair the damage Virginia’s eugenic programs wrought, much less those in the wider United States, but facing up to our past, acknowledging it, and doing what we can to atone is a good first step. It is currently unclear if horticulture as a field, or even individual departments, have any institutional memory about their role in spreading eugenic ideas. Actively engaging with this past, and working diligently to overcome its racist, sexist, and ableist legacies must be the next step.

Notes

  1. Eugenics literally translates to “well born” or “good stock.” Francis Galton, coiner of the term and “father” of the movement defined it as “the science which deals with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race; also with those that develop them to the utmost advantage.” (Francis Galton, “Eugenics: Its Definition, Scope, and Aims,” The American Journal of Sociology 10, no. 1, 1904.) Return to text.
  2. See Gregory Dorr, Alexandra Stern, Daniel Kevles, Diane Paul, and Steven Selden. Return to text.
  3. Hamilton Cravens, The Triumph of Evolution: The Heredity-Environment Controversy, 1900-1941 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988). Return to text.
  4. Mendelian genetics is a theory of heredity that posits dominant and recessive genes; it is where the Punnett squares for genetic traits we all learned in high school biology come from. It was invented by an Augustinian friar named Gregor Mendel in Austria in the mid-19th century, and released to a resounding “meh” by the scientific community at the time (mostly because he published in a small, little-known, journal). Mendel’s work was “re-discovered” in 1900, and became the catalyst for what is known as the “Modern Synthesis” in biology. Return to text.

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