Sandwiched between J. Walter Wilson and the Pembroke Walkway, Walter Hall recalls another period of the university’s history. The building is named in honor of professor Herbert. E. Walter, who taught various biology courses—including one on eugenics—at Brown during the 1920s and 30s.
Together with Assistant Professor Paul Baldwin Swain, Professor Walter taught eugenics courses at Brown from 1932 to 1937, at which point Swain took it on by himself and continued teaching the course until 1939. Before Brown, Walter taught high school biology in Chicago, as well as biology, zoology, genetics, and comparative anatomy of vertebrates at the university level.
Colleges and universities were particularly instrumental in advancing the pre-war eugenics movement in the US; Walter’s course was by no means one of a kind. Between 1914 and 1928, the number of colleges and universities offering eugenics classes increased from 44 to 376, with an estimated 20,000 students enrolled in these courses nationwide.
Sterilization in the US
In keeping with the Progressive spirit of the time, eugenicists hoped their work would help decrease crime and improve future generations’ quality of life. Eugenicists believed they could help rid the country of criminals and ‘feebleminded’ individuals, as well as control certain hereditary diseases, by preventing people with those traits from contributing to the gene pool.
Only two years before Walter would begin teaching eugenics at Brown, the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell had effectively legitimized sterilization laws across the country. Based on eugenic reasoning, state governments had by 1944 condoned the sterilization of more than 40,000 Americans. About half of these individuals were considered insane and the other half ‘feebleminded.’ Rhode Island, however, never had any laws allowing for compulsory sterilization.
Eugenicists’ concern about the number of criminals and mentally ill citizens was echoed in medical circles, as well. In a 1933 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, the editors wrote: “The burden on society resulting from this increase in feeble-mindedness is tremendous. For one thing, persons with subnormal intelligence are always potential criminals…The financial loss to the country is appalling…If we wait too long, this viper that we have nourished may prove our undoing.”
Increased understanding of genetics and heredity would later expose the errors in eugenicists’ thinking, especially with regard to how traits are inherited. Still eugenics flourished as a popular (pseudo)science in the United States during the first three to four decades of the twentieth century. In fact, during the pre-Nazi years, eugenicists in Germany admired their US counterparts.
In the US, eugenics was particularly in vogue for those hoping to improve society. At Charles Davenport’s leading eugenics lab in New York, patrons included prominent ‘men of affairs’ like W.K. Vanderbilt, John K. Roosevelt, and Henry Stimpson, who was the Secretary of War under President Taft, Secretary of State under Hoover, and Secretary of War for Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Chalk it up to your traits
In his photos, Professor Walter (b. 1867) is a spry-looking man with a small, oval-shaped face, a bushy brown mustache, and big ears standing out amiably from the sides of his head. Everything about his appearance looks friendly; despite the faded coloring of old photographs, Walter looks in every shot like a man who smiled easily and raised his eyebrows often—in a comical, good natured way. By the time Walter began teaching eugenics, he had a reputation as a well-beloved and personally invested professor.
Walter taught both male and female students while at Brown, and many were considering a major in biology. Students browsing through the course catalogue between 1932 and 1939 would have come across “Eugenics: Heredity in its social applications,” a class whose only prerequisites were two years of undergraduate biology.
Thanks to an 800-plus page autobiography Walter left behind, as well as photographs and letters—both personal and professional—we have some idea of what his eugenics class may have been like.
As he stood in the front of the room, notes in hand, Walter might have looked out towards his students before writing on the slate blackboard, quickly but with care—still feeling the presence of students behind him, the women in dark stockings with lace-up shoes and the men in crisp, mostly white collars.
It is well into the 1935 fall term, and Walter is on Roman numeral XIII: IMMIGRATION. Crawling across the blackboard with punctuated claps of chalk on slate, Walter’s handwritten script is neat and characterized by a short loopy “l” and an unhooked lowercase “g.” Perhaps he smiled at his students while jotting down “Point 1: The right of the State to regulate its make-up.”
Sketching out the day’s general themes, Walter would have written the following brief phrases, one on top of another: Asylum for the oppressed, Labor supply, Future blood for the nation. He would have begun by saying that the United States has long been an asylum for the oppressed, and then mention various historical immigration crises: the Indians and the white colonists, the English and their French and Dutch neighbors, ‘Negro’ slavery, ‘Oriental’ invasion, and industrial migration from Southern Europe.
In his lecture notes, Walter wrote that the idea of a melting pot was biologically a myth, but “sociologically not so.” He taught students about the utility of army tests and intelligence ratings and also presented various recommendations—such as requiring passports to include eugenic data and a system for the deportation of undesirables at any time. He concluded that only those foreigners who could be Americanized should be admitted into the country, and also that “We should clean house from within—not by exclusion only.” Cleaning house, to Walter, would probably have meant reducing the likelihood that future generations would have undesirable traits, such as mental illness, criminal tendencies, alcoholism, and diseases like Huntington chorea, schizophrenia, and epilepsy.
Not only focusing on the genetic diseases that could be avoided, Walter also lectured on positive traits that could be passed on from one generation to the next; he explained to his classes the ways in which intellectual, artistic, and literary genius could be traced through a single family.
At the very beginning of the academic semester in 1934, Walter had written in his lecture notes that the study of eugenics could contribute to improved sanitation, controlled disease, a lower incidence of handicapped persons, and a general rise in human intelligence. Under a section header of what eugenics was not, Walter also listed: a barnyard, uniformity, Superman production, interference with human liberty, free love or trial marriage, scientific love-making, or a form of birth control.
A few years earlier, in 1929, Walter had mentioned eugenics in his lectures for genetics classes and listed several “common misconceptions about heredity.” Some of these were: “That all men are born equal,” “That acquired characteristics are inherited,” “That cousin marriage is dangerous,” “That cupid is blind, “That we are ‘made so’ not ‘born so,’” and “That eugenics goes counter to religion.”
Curiously, Walter’s 1929 lecture notes for his Genetics class include Hitlerism in the “What eugenics is not” list, though the 1934 notes do not. By that time, Walter may have been familiar with the fact that Hitler mentioned eugenics in his 1924 book Mein Kampf. In it, Hitler wrote: “There is today one state in which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception (of immigration) are noticeable. Of course, it is not our model German Republic, but the United States.”
Walter died in 1945, just eight years after he retired from teaching and was granted the position of Professor Emeritus. Laws enacted in some states during the US Eugenics Movement (1907-1939) resulted in the sterilization of thousands of individuals, mostly criminals and those considered insane.
Walter’s courses in eugenics may, at first, seem gasp-worthy now that we have the benefits of hindsight and the knowledge of how Hitler used eugenics to justify the Holocaust. However, the eugenics debate is still present, to a certain degree, though it has morphed into the less traumatic forms of upscale “spit parties” in New York City—where participants go to discover whether their children may be at risk for certain diseases, or even why they have freckles—the designer baby industry, and in certain cases of abortion in which the woman has learned, from advanced scientific procedures, that her child will have a deformity or serious disease.
Almost a century later, Brown courses are still addressing issues of mental health, immigration, poverty, and crime—though in completely different ways. Brown now has a specialized Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies, as well as Public Health courses such as “Pathology to power: Disability, Health, and Community,” which focuses entirely on the concerns of people with disabilities. Though no longer home to eugenics scholars, the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary biology building still bears Walter’s name, reminding us that the nature of universities has always been to change and adapt with the times, responding to trends in scholarly thought and practice.