Eugenic Fieldwork and the Monitoring of Feeblemindedness at Home, 1910–24

Friday, January 6, 2012: 2:30 PM
Chicago Ballroom VI (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Sara A. Vogt, University of Illinois at Chicago
This presentation examines the surveillance of disability in the home by eugenic field workers in the United States.  Eugenic science during the early twentieth century emphasized the menace of feebleminded individuals and their families who were “at large” in the community, “tainting” the gene pool, posing a danger to the health and strength of the nation.  In the spirit of the conference theme, this presentation examines communities at the familial and national levels, and their monitoring by the network of eugenic researchers and field workers. Eugenic field workers visited families suspected of being feebleminded and documented their pedigrees to catalogue the number of feebleminded individuals present within communities throughout the United States. 

The pedigrees created by eugenic field workers constituted a significant segment of the research done by the Eugenics Research Office between 1910 and 1924.  Eugenic fieldwork consisted of compiling family pedigrees that tracked the inheritance of various conditions, such as feeblemindedness, insanity, and Huntington’s Chorea.  In doing so, eugenicists aimed to infer the genetic makeup of each person charted as well as that of entire family lines.  Their work granted eugenic scientists the raw data to analyze and disseminate in scientific and political forums.  Still, few of the individuals and families charted were subsequently institutionalized or sterilized as a result of these pedigrees.  In this presentation I ask the following question:  how did the surveillance of feeblemindedness in the family and domestic sphere impact eugenic science in the United States during the early twentieth century?  I argue that while the family pedigrees rarely resulted in immediate segregation or sterilization of monitored family members, by tracking the propagation of families deemed feebleminded and its purported menace to the nation, this research directly contributed to the implementation of laws aimed at the eradication of disability from the national gene pool.