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Website opens window on dark episode in American science

Cold Spring Harbor, NY — Today, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s DNA Learning Center opened its Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement web site to the public.

The Archive contains over 1,200 photographs and documents chronicling the early 20th-century American eugenics movement—a movement dedicated to improving the genetic stock of Americans through “better breeding.”

“The major aim of the Archive is to provide materials that will stimulate people to think about the similarities between eugenics and our current preoccupation with the implications of the Human Genome Project,” says David Micklos, editor of the Archive and director of the DNA Learning Center.

The American eugenics movement arose out of the increased immigration and industrialization at the beginning of the 20th Century that produced large numbers of urban poor. Eugenicists misused the new science of genetics to explain the poor’s “feeblemindedness, alcoholism, and criminality,” claiming that these and other social problems arose from people who had inherited “defective germplasm.”

The eugenics movement aimed to solve human social problems by preventing people with such defective germ plasm from having children and by encouraging people with better stock to have more children.

The DNA Learning Center’s Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement lets the public explore this period in history by releasing documents and images from four sources: the American Philosophical Society Library, the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Research Archives, the Rockefeller Archives Center, and Truman State University.

These documents include eugenic studies on the heredity of “love of the sea”; items related to Buck vs. Bell, the Supreme Court decision upholding forced sterilization; and transcripts of a leading eugenicist’s Congressional testimony supporting immigration restrictions.

Visitors to the web site can learn about the history contained in these documents in a series of virtual exhibits. Written by leading scholars, the exhibits explain the movement’s social and scientific origins, research methods employed by eugenics scientists, and the social legislation influenced by the movement.

Visitors can access the documents either by reading smaller topic essays, such as “Fitter Family Contests” or “Mental Illness,” or by entering keywords in the site’s search engine. Both search methods display the documents, along with extended captions that provide context and emphasize the fundamental flaws in most eugenic research.

The Archive on the American Eugenics Movement is funded by a grant from the Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications of Human Genetics Research (ELSI) Program of The National Human Genome Research Institute. The ELSI Program was established to anticipate and address the ethical, legal and social issues that arise as the result of human genetic research.

The Archive has been in development for two years, under the direction of editors David Micklos and Jan Witkowski, Director of the Banbury Center at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Members of the Editorial Advisory Panel provided expertise and guidance in developing editorial policies to ensure that the Archive protects confidentiality of persons and medical information; provides adequate historical, social, and ethical context; and identifies disproven elements of eugenics.

  • Garland E. Allen, Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri
  • Elof Carlson, SUNY—Stony Brook
  • Patricia Colbert-Cormier, Lafayette High School
  • Nancy L. Fisher, Regence Blue Shield
  • Henry Friedlander, Brooklyn College/CUNY
  • Daniel J. Kevles, California Institute of Technology
  • Philip Kitcher, University of California
  • Martin L. Levitt, American Philosophical Society
  • Paul Lombardo, University of Virginia
  • Nancy Press ,Oregon Health Sciences University
  • Philip R. Reilly, Shriver Center for Mental Retardation, Inc.
  • Pat Ryan, Carolina Biological Supply Company
  • Marsha Saxton, World Institute on Disability
  • Steven Selden, University of Maryland
  • G. Terry Sharrer, National Museum of American History
  • Elizabeth Thompson, ELSI Research Program, NIH

The DNA Learning Center has been an innovator in science education since its inception in 1988. It is the world’s first institution devoted entirely to educating the public about DNA-based science.

In 1998, the DNA Learning Center‘s web site unveiled the first animated genetics primer, DNA from the Beginning. The primer guides individuals from basic concepts of inheritance to current methods of DNA analysis.

Written by: Public Affairs | publicaffairs@cshl.edu | 516-367-8455

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About Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Founded in 1890, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has shaped contemporary biomedical research and education with programs in cancer, neuroscience, plant biology and quantitative biology. Home to eight Nobel Prize winners, the private, not-for-profit Laboratory employs 1,100 people including 600 scientists, students and technicians. The Meetings & Courses Program annually hosts more than 12,000 scientists. The Laboratory’s education arm also includes an academic publishing house, a graduate school and the DNA Learning Center with programs for middle and high school students and teachers. For more information, visit www.cshl.edu