Study of eugenics has long history at U.Va.

Pseudoscience studied academically in early part of 20th century

nseugenicscourtesyofuniversityofvirginia

Teaching and researching eugenics at a major institution like the University was not uncommon, Lombardo said.

A darker moment in University history is the institution’s early support for eugenics, a pseudoscience that claims the human race can be improved through controlled breeding. The University brought the movement’s leaders to Grounds throughout 20th century.

Key players in researching and teaching eugenics at the University were Ivey Lewis, who also served as Dean of the College, Harvey Jordan and Robert Bennett Bean.

Lewis taught eugenics at the University from 1915 until 1953, and both Jordan and Bean were nationally renowned as leaders of the eugenics movement, former Law and Medical Prof. Paul Lombardo said. Jordan and Bean were active during approximately the same period.

“Part of the reason eugenics became a big deal at U.Va. is that President Alderman was trying to hire people that would do scientific work, and at that time one of the hot areas in science was studying heredity and studying eugenics,” Lombardo said.

Alderman corresponded with Lewis for over a decade — between 1914 and 1928 — a correspondence which revealed Lewis’s pride in his own genetic heritage. Alderman also corresponded with Bean in 1928.

While several people advocated for and taught eugenics at the University during the latter half of the 20th century, Lombardo said this was not uncommon.

“U.Va. would reasonably be described as a kind of hotbed of eugenics teaching,” Lombardo said. “The thing to keep in mind is that didn’t make U.Va. all that unusual.”

Third-year College student Perrin Arnold, a biology and archaeology double major, said he wasn’t aware of the massive role the University played in the development of eugenics.

“I did know that U.Va. had some sort of history associated with eugenics, but not the extent,” Arnold said.

Although the University’s promotion of eugenics has long been abandoned, several reminders of this period remain. Jordan Hall, which opened in 1972 and houses the Medical School, still stands in memory of Harvey Jordan. Similarly, the Robert Bennett Bean Award, which began in 1968, is one of the most prestigious honors at the Medical School.

A monument on Preston Avenue memorializes Buck v. Bell, a U.S. Supreme Court decision which legalized the forced sterilization of those termed “unfit,” including the mentally disabled.

The existence of such markers on Grounds and in Charlottesville today raises the issue of whether or not their historical value outweighs their potential to gloss over a harmful past. Lombardo said these reminders are not inherently bad, but people should be aware of the ideas behind them.

“[These were] very accomplished people doing very useful things in some cases, becoming deans and presidents...but at the same time holding a set of ideas that today we think are pretty creepy,” Lombardo said. “I think that the best way to teach history is not to say, ‘We’ll just take the names off the buildings,’ but rather to say, ‘We need to know exactly what all the person whose name is on the building stood for.’”

Arnold said he thinks it is important for University students to be aware of the University’s former involvement in eugenics studies.

"It needs to be known how involved we were in eugenics, since knowing this history will prevent us from doing something equally as terrible or worse in the future," Arnold said.

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