Race betterment was a concept originating in the early 20th century that promoted the improvement of the human race in the broadest sense through healthy living, improvement of environmental conditions, and implementation of radical measures such as positive and negative eugenics. While health reformers and eugenicists in Britain, United States, Canada, Germany, and France agreed with Francis Galton’s (1822-1911) goal of human improvement, their definitions and methods of achieving the betterment of the human race differed. While some emphasized positive eugenics, by promoting a healthy lifestyle among its citizens in order to achieve a stronger and healthier population, others emphasized negative eugenics, by implementing measures to limit the production of undesirable characteristics in the populace. The quest for race betterment must be viewed within the context of late 19th and early 20th century developments including industrialization and urbanization, wars, declining birth rates, and declining health among the population. These processes produced significant changes in the social and economic structure often leading to social tensions and problems. Health reformers and eugenicists sought solutions to these problems.
Race betterment in the United States, Canada, and France
In the United States, John Harvey Kellogg’s (1852-1943) idea of race betterment included a combination of euthenics—human improvement through the manipulation of environmental factors—and positive eugenics. Kellogg promoted several measures for race betterment, including health surveys, school medical inspections, health education, exercise, limiting alcohol and caffeine, etc. (Fee and Brown, 2002; 935). Many American eugenicists, however, viewed Kellogg’s methods as ineffective. Nevertheless, historian Alexandra Minna Stern suggests that individuals such as Kellogg and his Race Betterment Foundation “functioned as handmaidens, helping to crystallize a eugenics movement that privileged surgical sterilization, marriage laws, immigration restrictions, and ever more elaborate ways of counting and classifying the fit and the unfit” (Stern, 2006; 54).
Further north, Canadian eugenicists were preoccupied with national degeneration, particularly after the First World War. In Alberta, for example, social reformers and eugenicists called for a stronger and healthier Canada through the implementation of measures such as social welfare, eugenics, prohibition of alcohol, etc. (Dyck, 2013; 31) At the same time, they singled out groups, (immigrants, the mentally disabled, Aboriginals, etc.) who they viewed as threatening Canada’s progress towards this goal. In 1928, Alberta implement its Sexual Sterilization Act following pressure from eugenicists such as the United Farm Women of Alberta, who argued that involuntary sterilization allowed for “racial betterment through the weeding out of undesirable strains”(Grekul et al, 2004, 362; Dack, 2011; 95). As a result, 2834 individuals were sterilized (Grekul, et al, 2004, 358) in pursuit of race betterment.
Similar to Kellogg and some Canadian eugenicists, French eugenicists emphasized positive eugenics grounded in a Lamarckian view of heredity, the theory of acquired characteristics. Neo-Lamarckism laid the groundwork for French eugenics because, as historian William Schneider suggests, “it permitted French eugenicist to argue that the improving the quality of the French population would not only permit the birth and survival of more offspring, but that the superior qualities would be passed along to subsequent generations” (Schneider, 1982; 271). A number of internal and external factors, including strong natalist organizations and the impact of the First World War, pushed the French Eugenics Society toward positive eugenics as a way to achieve race betterment. The focus of the French program for race betterment mirrored that of Kellogg’s and it included the treatment of hereditary diseases, treatment of alcoholism, improvement in living conditions for workers, better nutrition, among others.
Shifts between positive and negative eugenics: The case of Germany
In Germany, the eugenic or racial hygiene movement emerged in response to social and economic developments during the late 19th century. In 1895, Alfred Ploetz (1860-1940) coined the term Rassenhygiene (race hygiene). Racial hygiene had two goals: to improve the hereditary quality of the German population by increasing the number of “superior characteristics”, and also to decreased the number of those that were viewed as “undesirable”. (Weiss, 1990, 8; Proctor, 1988, 15). In Imperial Germany, eugenicists were concerned with preventing population decline. For racial hygienists such as Wilhelm Schallmayer (1857-1919) the population issue needed to be solved as it was seen “as a matter of survival for the German nation” (quoted in Weiss, 1990; 28). He and others recommended a number of measures, including government incentives to have larger families, in order to boost Germany’s population. The connection between positive eugenics and race betterment became more evident in Weimar Germany where eugenicists were concerned with preventing the decline of German Volk and the state. This concern must be viewed in the context of Germany’s losses in the First World War. Defeat in the war, along with the social and economic fallout were seen by many as a threat to the nation’s health. As a result, positive measures for racial betterment (improved housing, education, limiting the consumption of alcohol, preventing maternal and infant deaths, etc.) became dominant (Weindling, 2010; 320). As historian Paul Weindling shows, in this period, “eugenics became accepted as official policy, not to eliminate parasitic racial inferiors, but as a strategy of national survival” (Weindling, 1989; 330). In 1929, however, due to an economic depression, there was a re-examination of the expanding welfare state in Germany, and shift toward negative eugenics (Weindling, 1989; 330). The most radical shift toward race betterment occurred in 1933 following the Nazi seizure of power. The positive welfare measures were transformed into policies targeting individuals deemed to be biologically and racially inferior. First of these measures was the Sterilization Law of 1933 targeting those suffering from a variety of health conditions including Huntington’s Chorea, schizophrenia, alcoholism, and severe mental disability. Second, the Nuremburg Laws of 1935 promoted racial segregation and restricted the legal rights of German Jews including citizenship and participation in German civic life, marriage between Germans and non-Germans, and sexual relations between Germans and non-Germans (Weindling, 2010; 322). Until its downfall in 1945, the Nazi government continued its policies of cleansing Germany of “undesirable” elements including Jews, Roma, and the mentally and physically disabled, in order to achieve its goal of a pure German race.
The concepts of race betterment and eugenics developed around the same period and entered into a symbiotic relationship whereby eugenic methods became critical components in the drive toward race betterment. While some eugenicists believed that race betterment could be achieved through positive eugenic methods, by the 1920s and 1930s negative eugenics began to predominate. In most countries, support for eugenics began to decline by 1945, especially because of its association with Nazi Germany. Despite this trend, Alberta’s eugenics program continued until 1972 due a combination of unique social, political, and economic circumstances.
Dack, W. Mikkel. (2011). “The Alberta Eugenics Movement and the 1937 Amendment to the Sexual Sterilization Act.” Past Imperfect 17: 90-113.
Dyck, Erika. (2013). Facing Eugenics: Reproduction, Sterilization, and the Politics of Choice. Toronto: Toronto University Press.
Fee, Elizabeth and Theodore M. Brown. (2002). “John Harvey Kellogg, MD: Health Reformer and Anti-Smoking Crusader.” American Journal of Public Health 92, no. 6: 935.
Grekul, Jana, Harvey Krahn, and Dave Odynak. (2004). “Sterilizing the ‘Feebleminded’: Eugenics in Alberta, Canada, 1929-1972. Journal of Historical Sociology 17: 358-384.
McLaren, Angus. (1990). Our Own Master Race: Eugenics in Canada, 1885-1945. Toronto: McClelland & Steward Inc.
Proctor, Robert. (1988). Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Read, Geoff. (2012). Citizens Useful to Their Country and to Humanity”: The Convergence of Eugenics and Pro-Natalism in Interwar French Politics, 1918-1940,” CBMH 29, vol.2: 373-397.
Schneider, William. (1982). “Toward the Improvement of the Human Race: The History of Eugenics in France.” Journal of Modern History 54: 268-291.
Sonn, Richard. (2005). "Your Body Is Yours": Anarchism, Birth Control, and Eugenics in Interwar France. Journal of the History of Sexuality 14, no.4: 415-432.
Stern, Alexandra. (2006). Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Weindling, Paul. (1989). “The ‘Sonderweg’ of German Eugenics: Nationalism and Scientific Internationalism, “British Journal of the History of Science 42: 321-333.
Weindling, Paul. (2010). “German Eugenics and the Wider World: Beyond the Racial State” in The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics. Edited by Alison Bashford and Philippa Levine. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Weiss, Sheila. (1990). “The Race Hygiene Movement in Germany, 1904-1945” in The Wellborn Science: Eugenics in Germany, France, Brazil, and Russia. Edited by Mark Adams. Oxford: Oxford University Press.