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Cold Spring Harbor and German Eugenics in the 1930s

Karl Saller to Charles Davenport, September 9, 1933. CSHL Archives, Carnegie Institution of Washington Collection

Göttingen, September 9, 1933.

Dear Professor,

Please forgive my approaching you with a very personal request. Recently, circumstances have changed here in Germany such that I am increasingly prevented from freely expressing my scientific views, and I have reason to fear for my livelihood, although I am not a Jew and have never been engaged in partisan politics.

For this reason I turn to you to ask if you could not find me a position somewhere abroad that would permit me to continue with my research and support my family. You are familiar with my work; I can promise that I will work with the same diligence as before. Things being as they are at present, my concern is not to improve my professional situation through emigration; I am moved solely by concern for the future of those dear to me, who will be without support if I lose my livelihood, and I would accept any position which would secure this livelihood.

A Dutch friend who just took part in the heredity conference here was so kind as to take this letter over the border and secure its conveyance. It goes without saying that I trust you will handle this letter in confidence.

With kindest regards, I am your very humble

K. Saller
Anatomical Institute, Göttingen [Germany]

The document pictured on the right and translated above is a copy of a letter sent to Cold Spring Harbor in September of 1933 by Karl Saller. Although it is not personally addressed to Cold Spring Harbor’s director, Charles Davenport, it is among his papers and he was probably its intended recipient.1 At first glance, it appears to be from a scholar persecuted by the Nazi regime in Germany and seeking escape to the United States. However, Saller expressly states that he is not Jewish, and claims that he has never been engaged in partisan politics. Why did he fear he would lose his job?

Saller (1902-1969) was an anthropologist and medical doctor with a position at the Anatomical Institute at the University of Göttingen in Germany. His research focused on genetics and heredity, and his publications included textbooks on anthropology and human heredity and eugenics.2 The reason he feared for his livelihood in 1933 had to do with the politics of the study of anthropology under the so-called “Third Reich.” Saller was not an opponent of the Nazi regime. In fact, he was a member of the party, and in 1933 even attempted to join the Nationalsozialistische Kraftfahrkorps (NZKK), a Nazi paramilitary organization.3

What brought Saller into conflict with the Nazi regime were his views on race. Saller’s anthropological work offered a model of human races that, while scientifically unfounded by modern standards — he considered them to be scientifically measurable biological categories — nevertheless differed from Nazi dogma. The Nazi regime claimed that races were not only biologically rooted but also fixed, and that mixture among them would lead to degeneration. Saller in contrast argued that races developed over time through interaction with the environment and that for this reason, the mixture of races was a positive thing. He was banned from public speaking or lecturing, which is probably what led him to start searching for a new position abroad. In 1935, his permission to teach was revoked.4 While that was a significant professional blow, Saller and his family did not suffer further persecution from the Nazi regime. After his forced retirement from teaching, he and his wife founded a private sanatarium, and during the Second World War he served as a military doctor. Ultimately he went on to have a distinguished career as an anthropologist.5 Saller died in 1969.

At first glance, it might seem that Saller wrote to Davenport for help finding a position abroad simply because of Davenport’s status as a biologist and eugenicist and the presence of the Eugenics Records Office at Cold Spring Harbor. There was a lot of overlap among the fields of eugenics, medicine and anthropology in the early twentieth century, and Davenport’s extensive academic connections would be helpful to someone in Saller’s position.

Charles Davenport, 1927. CSHL Archives.

The links between Saller and CSHL were much deeper than that, however. The connections between the ERO and the Nazi “racial hygiene” movement were extensive and well-known. The ERO’s newsletter, Eugenical News, was one of the principal conduits through which German racial ideas reached an American audience in the 1920s and 1930s. Influence moved in the other direction as well. German eugenicists in the early 1900s paid close attention to American eugenics legislation, and leading eugenicists from both sides of the Atlantic held conferences and supported the exchange of information and scholarly materials. In the 1920s, for example, Davenport “at one point instructed [his colleague at the ERO, Harry] Laughlin to send complete sets of reprints and information about eugenical sterilization in the United States to Eugen Fischer, Director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institut für Anthropologie, Menschliche Erblehre und Eugenik” [Institute for Anthropology, the Study of Human Heredity, and Eugenics] in Germany.6 Davenport was crucial to the re-integration of German “racial hygienists” into the international eugenics movement after the First World War, and correspondence shows that he was on “close professional terms” with Fischer and other “major geneticists and eugenicists in western Europe and England.”7 Saller had been a student of Fischer’s,8 and it may have been through this connection that he knew about Davenport, Laughlin and the ERO.

Had Saller found a position in the United States, one that brought him to Cold Spring Harbor to meet with Charles Davenport and Harry Laughlin at the ERO, they would likely have had a fairly spirited conversation. Saller’s doctoral work with in the 1920s had focused on gradation of hair color in “mixed populations,” which was one of the topics that the ERO’s data-gathering and analysis was supposed to elucidate.9 (The Fischer-Saller scale for describing hair color is related to this research.) Saller’s more recent work on race, racial mixing and development would have been of more interest, however, alongside the political and scientific state of affairs in Germany. Davenport continued to maintain connections with German colleagues in the 1930s, drawing a line between science and politics that allowed him to “cultivate and extend his relations with Nazi racial hygienists” in the years before WWII.10 He and Saller knew many of the same people. What Saller would have made of Laughlin is an interesting question. They would have disagreed on the value of “race-crossing,” for example — Laughlin was very much against it. But in the end, Saller did not come to the United States.

The window for someone like Saller to make use of professional connections to Davenport and the ERO to get out of Germany was a short one. Davenport retired from his position as director of the ERO and the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Department of Genetics at Cold Spring Harbor in 1934. His successor as director of the Department of Genetics, Albert F. Blakeslee, had no strong interest in stepping into his shoes as far as the ERO was concerned. More than that, eugenics of the Davenport-Laughlin flavor was falling out of favor in the 1930s. Geneticists interested in human heredity objected to its racism, classism, anti-semitism and extremely dubious scientific foundation. Both eugenics in general and Laughlin in particular had become a liability for the lab by the late 1930s, although it is worth noting that many of the policies and concepts of eugenics, such as forced sterilizations and efforts to change or improve human genetic material, did not end with WWII.11 Cold Spring Harbor’s public association with eugenics did, however. Laughlin was let go and the ERO closed in 1939.12

Karl Saller was not the only scientist with connections to the German “racial hygiene” movement to appeal to Davenport for assistance. The eugenicist Rainer Fetscher wrote to Davenport from Dresden via his (Fetscher’s) sister Lili in Vienna in November of 1933 to request Davenport’s help finding a job abroad. Although he confessed in his letter to Davenport that (as of November 1933) he had not experienced any “political difficulties or personal molestation,” he said that he would nevertheless be interested in a job elsewhere and was writing to Davenport because of “the interest which you repeatedly showed for my work.” Davenport told Fetscher’s sister that he had “heard from two or three others who desire positions in this country” and said that he would do what he could.13

Fetscher’s story is complicated. In East Germany after WWII, he was celebrated as a hero of the resistance against fascism during the war, but work by historians has revealed that Fetscher’s anti-Nazi credentials rest on very doubtful evidence, most of it presented by his son. What we do know about Fetscher is that he wrote extensively in support of sterilization laws and stated that he had personally sterilized 65 “minderwertige” [inferior] people — this before such forced sterilizations were even legal in Germany. His writings reveal him to be deeply concerned about the reproduction of “inferior people” in Europe, given that white Europeans were losing the “reproductive race” with non-whites on other continents. Fetscher lost his teaching position in February of 1934. He had probably seen this coming, hence his letter to Davenport in late 1933. His son claims that Fetscher was fired because he called for solidarity with his Jewish colleagues who had all just been dismissed, but there is no record of this call for solidarity other than the oral account passed down to his son. A historian with expertise in Fetscher’s history argues that there was a great deal of competition among eugenicists for positions, and Fetscher was denounced as a “friend of the Jews” by someone who wanted his job. The denunciation was based on a statement that Fetscher made in one of his books, that there was no clear line between “ordinary marriages” and “racially mixed marriages,” i.e. the accusation was that Fetscher was muddying the concept of race. The quotation from Fetscher’s writing used to denounce him is often used as proof of his anti-fascist stance, but elsewhere in his writings Fetscher argued against “mixed marriages,” and there is no evidence he opposed the racist and anti-semitic policies of the Nazis. In the end, he abandoned the search for a job abroad and opened a private practice in Dresden. He died at the end of the war, shot by either the SS or the Russians in 1945 — again, his son and professional scholars differ on the story.14

Scholars have noted the strong links between Davenport, the ERO and the European eugenics community. Saller and Fetscher’s efforts to find positions in the United States through these connections are less well known, and they offer a contrast with the better-known and, indeed, praiseworthy role American academics and institutions played in assisting scholars whose lives, not just their job security, were threatened by the government in Germany. Davenport’s successor as director at Cold Spring Harbor, A. F. Blakeslee, received a letter in 1938 with the same request but a very different context: a German Jewish scientist, Helene Mayer-Unger, forced to leave Germany and then Italy, had reached New York and was looking for a position.15 The contrast between the letters received by Davenport and the one received by Blakeslee suggests that when we talk about “the scientific community” in the 1930s, we should keep in mind that Davenport’s network of correspondents was quite different from Blakeslee’s. The same institution, Cold Spring Harbor, was seen as a source of help for people contributing to the dubious racial “science” of 1920s and 30s Germany and those who became, or could have become, its victims.

The archival material in this essay is from the Carnegie Institution of Washington Collection. Find out more about the collection here.


[1] Carnegie Institution of Washington (CIW) Collection Box 25, Folder: Davenport, Charles B. 1933-1934 (Folder 1), K. Saller to Davenport, September 9, 1933.

[2] G. Ziegelmeyer and F. Schwarzfischer, “Karl Saller, 1902-1969,” Anthropologischer Anzeiger 32, 3/4 (September 1970): 287-288.

[3] Bernhard vom Brocke, “Bevölkerungswissenschaft im nationalsozialistischen Deutschland,” in José Brunner, ed., Demographie – Demokratie – Geschichte: Deutschland und Israel (Göttingen, Germany: Wallstein Verlag, 2007), 157; Katharina Trittel, Stine Marg and Bonni Pülm, Weißkittel und Braunhemd: der Göttinger Mediziner Rudolf Stich im Kaleidoskop (Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 2014), 216.

[4] Bernhard vom Brocke, “Bevölkerungswissenschaft im nationalsozialistischen Deutschland,” 157; Trittel et al., Weißkittel und Braunhemd, 216; Volker Zimmerman, “Eine Medicinische Facultät in Flor Bringen”: zur Geschichte der Medizinischen Fakultät der Georg-August-Universität Göttingen (Göttingen, Germany: Universitätsverlag Göttingen, 2009), 94-95.

[5] Wikipedia (German), Karl Saller, accessed September 16, 2021.

[6] Garland E. Allen, “The Eugenics Office at Cold Spring Harbor, 1910-1940: An essay in institutional history,” Osiris 2 (1986): 225-264, pp. 252-253.

[7] Stefan Kühl, The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism and German National Socialism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), Chapter 2; Mark B. Adams, Garland E. Allan and Sheila Faith Weiss, “Human Heredity and Politics: A Comparative Institutional Study of the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor (United States), the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics (Germany), and the Maxim Gorky Medical Genetics Institute (USSR),” Osiris 2nd ser., vol. 20: Politics and Science in Wartime: Comparative International Perspectives on the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (2005): 232-262, quote p. 237.

[8] vom Brocke, “Bevölkerungswissenschaft im nationalsozialistischen Deutschland,” 157.

[9] Ziegelmeyer and Schwarzfischer, “Karl Saller,” 287; Adams et al., “Human Heredity and Politics,” 237.

[10] Kühl, The Nazi Connection, 68-70.

[11] Allen, “The Eugenics Office at Cold Spring Harbor,” 250-254 ; Adams et al. “Human Heredity and Politics,” 237-240; Daniel T. Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity (New York: Knopf, 1985), 199.

[12] CIW Box 14 (Vannevar Bush Papers), Folder: Bush, Vannevar, 1939, correspondence with Blakeslee and others.

[13] CIW Box 25, Folder: Davenport, Charles B. 1933-1934 (Folder 1) correspondence between Davenport and Lili and Reiner Fetscher, November-December 1933.

[14] Kerstin Schneider, “Rassenhygieniker Rainer Fetscher: Die Stadt Dresden ehrt einen ‘Rassisten’,” Der Stern, October 26, 2007.–rassisten–3227004.html

[15] CIW Box 9, Folder: Blakeslee, A. F. 1938 (July-December) Meyer-Unger to Blakeslee, Dec. 18, 1938 and following items.