“See the happy moron / He doesn’t have a care / His children and his problems are all for us to bear.” This quote originally appeared next to a picture of a patient with intellectual disabilities. The implication was that people with below-average cognitive abilities are an unwanted burden on society, that they are subhuman specimens who don’t deserve to have children or even be born at all. The message initially reads as something that might be found in Mein Kampf, a Chairman Mao speech, or maybe some other supremacist propaganda in another distant, twisted universe. In fact, this statement and its discriminatory intentions belong to Marion S. Olden, a Princeton local who founded the Princeton-based Sterilization League of New Jersey in 1963 after thirty years of pro-eugenics advocacy. Olden was a contemporary and friend of Margaret Sanger, the famous feminist and birth control activist, whose similar demographic-control motivations are often overlooked in light of her esteem among historic feminists.
Eugenics gained its foothold in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century with the founding of the American Breeders’ Association, funded by Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Harriman, in 1903. The Association preached the inferiority and criminal inclinations of “feebleminded” people, and laid the groundwork for New Jersey’s own sterilization law. In 1911, Governor Woodrow Wilson, the renowned former president of Princeton University, ratified New Jersey’s “act to authorize and provide for the sterilization of feeble-minded (including idiots, imbeciles and morons), epileptics, rapists and certain criminals and other defectives.” The law was overturned in 1913, but the sentiment of intellectual supremacy remained strong.
I learned about Marion Olden—and most of the history in this article—from my grandfather, who has done extensive research on the history of eugenics in New Jersey. His book, A Tale of Two “Villages”: Vineland and Skillman, NJ, examines the foundational role of New Jersey scientists, doctors, psychologists, and legislators in establishing involuntary sterilization of people with intellectual disabilities. Over 65,000 sterilizations were performed on unwilling Americans in the early 20th century, although none were in New Jersey. These sterilizations actually provided Nazi Germany with a defensive argument for their own sterilization and mass-murder practices. After all, if America decides who is and isn’t human, why shouldn’t other regimes?
Although Olden may be the sole pro-sterilization activist who phrased her beliefs in verse, many famous Princetonians adopted Woodrow Wilson’s eugenicist ideas. In 1923, a Princeton psychology professor named Carl Brigham published a book called A Study of American Intelligence. The book’s primary conclusion was that the “Nordic race” is far intellectually superior to blacks, Jews, Italians, or other ethnic groups. Later, Brigham disowned these views and went on to create the SAT, which ironically has proved consistently biased in favor of white test takers.
Dr. Alexis Carrel, a French surgeon with a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, was another influential Princetonian advocate for eugenics. Carrel was granted an honorary degree in science by the University despite his open endorsement of the Third Reich’s eugenics policies. A Tale of Two “Villages”: Vineland and Skillman, NJ quotes Carrel saying, “Society must identify and encourage those with greatest ability, while the dregs should be disposed of in small euthanistic institutions supplied with the proper gases…Why preserve useless and harmful beings?”
All things considered, the alum who arguably caused the most damage was Harry Laughlin (yes, it’s the same Laughlin who financed the gothic upperclassman dorm on west campus). Laughlin earned his Doctor of Science from Princeton in 1917. After leaving Princeton, Laughlin published a study called “Eugenical Sterilization in the United States (1922).” The study advocated for compulsory sterilization of people with mental illness and epilepsy, among other disabilities, and outlined a process by which society would repeatedly eliminate the lowest-functioning 10% of its members. Although the law was rejected by New Jersey, eighteen other states passed laws based on his model by the year 1924.
Of course, Princeton was neither the source nor the sole hub of pro-sterilization advocacy at this time. Politicians, medical professionals, and academics across the world were discussing eugenics, and still do. My focus on Princeton graduates is not meant to conflate Princeton with the eugenics movement. However, the perception of people with intellectual disabilities as “defective” is grounded in an intellectual superiority that finds its natural home among the academic elite. The ample cohort of Princeton eugenicists—which extends beyond Olden, Wilson, Brigham, Carrel and Laughlin—as well as the appalling numbers of forced sterilizations and killings, attest to the danger of intellectual “superiority.”
When allowed to assign worth to arbitrary human qualities such as race, nationality, or intellectual ability, people begin to justify disastrous cruelty. Only people who believe themselves smarter and more capable than other humans can logically justify the utilitarian approach—selective breeding and selective killing—advocated by the eugenics movement, which was explored and supported through the years at Princeton.