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Letter from Henry Goddard to Robert Yerkes, November 5, 1912.
Robert M. Yerkes Papers. Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University.

Matthew Baum 09, Intellectuals and Eugenics

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Applied Eugenics manifested itself in sterilization, marriage limitation, and immigration laws aimed to curb the propagation of the “unfit.” The first sterilization law was passed in Indiana in 1907. Like others soon to follow, this law permitted the forceful sterilization of criminals, epileptics, and the feebleminded. In 1927, the Supreme Court unambiguously supported these laws in the case of Buck v. Bell. Justice Holmes concluded by saying, “It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.”

In order for society to act on Justice Holmes’s recommendation, however, it would need a way to identify the unfit. This task fell to experts like the psychologist on Ellis Island mentioned here. Unfortunately, the “disinterested” results of the mental testing on immigrants and army recruits performed respectively by Henry Goddard, the author of this letter, and by Yerkes reinforced national and racial stereotypes. With the passage of the 1924 National Origins Act, this supposedly objective data supported the restricting of the immigration of members of “feebleminded ethnicities.”