Monday, April 15, 2013

My family is fitter than yours! “Fitter Families for Future Firesides”: Flourence Sherbon and Popular Eugenics

This article, written by Laura L. Lovett of the University of California Press, is about the eugenics contests held in the 1920s, staged at agriculture fairs (such as the Iowa state fair). By appealing to farmers, they introduced human as “livestock.” They encouraged farm families to reimagine their family history completely reshaped as a result of scientific analysis. It was called “The Fitter Family Contest” and it was designed to fuse rural nostalgia with the contemporary scientific control. They judged entire families, not just their children, in order to determine the quality of their pedigree.

Flourence Sherbon studied nursing in Iowa and became a part of the Children’s Bureau in 1915, which was structured to examine the health of newborn babies. Her mission was to reduce infant mortality rate by improving the health of the mother and child, by getting rid of midwives and raising medical standards by making births completely hospital controlled. She began these contests.

The contest entry went as follows: a family made an appointment, and before entering, watched a puppet show at the “Mendel Theater” explaining eugenic principles. They’d often use a cage with a black and white guinea pig, demonstrating dominant and recessive traits. This illustrated what families should avoid and should strive for. Then following, the family was checked physically every which way, and took note of their health habits. They were interviewed about their ancestry.

The prize: the fittest family.

Eugenics honestly sounds like science fiction. In the 1920s, eugenics wasn’t seen as morally unjust or dehumanifying. In fact, it was a rather ideal and what was determined as a healthy alternative. It began as a motivation to create healthier children, and lowering infant mortality rates (Sheppard-Towner Act: promoting child and maternal health). It yields a larger sense of control of a child’s hygiene through their life By scientifically controlling someone’s genetics, families could be made healthier, stronger, smarter, and better. By running these contests, it would promote the Children’s Bureau indirectly, and appealed to the increasing popularity of eugenics. It would take longer for criticism to catch up.

Many of these Eugenics were also animal breeders. Hmmm.

Obviously, it was Hitler and his genocide that reflected the inhumanity of eugenics. In addition, it denied the individual as a unit, and viewed people only in reference to their family. This perspective is what shaped Hitler’s ideal of the Aryans: the blond haired, blue-eyed people. At this point, eugenics was twisted in a way that truly evil, but also seen for what it really was.

Keep in mind; this was during a time when the nation was changing from a largely farm-based society to an industrialized utopia. There was a certain kind of romanticism about changing human beings to become longer-lived and more intelligent city-slickers.

But, imagine if the WWII holocaust never happened. Would eugenics still be as popular as it was back in the 20s and 30s? Would families still be going to the “Fitter Families” contest, in high hopes to become the healthiest and strongest unit of people? Could it still be seen as a completely justifiable motive to make humanity more modernized?

I think these questions are left mostly open-ended. Varying opinions would suggest two opposing arguments:

First, people would remain deluded, blind of the psychological unjust of the contests, so long as it remained a positive experience with a promising outcome of a healthier and stronger family. Everyone is always looking to improve their personal health as well as their family health: eliminating bad habits and controlling heart disease. It would be some kind of Generational Darwinism.

However, the more critical hypothetical is obvious: it’s morally incorrect. To control everyone’s family heritage, we’d lose our individuality. That’s the very human condition: to be ourselves.

Article is here. 

--Betsy Peterschmidt

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