CHID270, Fall 2009
History of Eugenics


CHID 270B History of Eugenics
Fall 2009
M & W 3:30-5:20 in SAV 155

Course website:

Online discussion board (Catalyst GoPost):

Instructor: Joanne Woiak

Office hours: by appointment

Course description: The eugenics movement of the first half of the 20th century proposed and implemented a variety of social policies to "improve the human race by better breeding." These ranged from educational efforts such as "fitter family" contests to oppressive measures such as immigration restriction and compulsory sterilization of those deemed genetically unfit. Eugenics was popular among scientists and physicians, social reformers and policy-makers, and the general public in many countries and across the political spectrum. The history of eugenics is an important case study of the interactions between scientific research and social values and interests, especially the ways that biological science has been used to construct and legitimize human inequalities based on race, gender, class, and disability. Comparative history shows that eugenic ideas and policies were not monolithic or consistent. Yet what all eugenicists had in common was their belief that social problems could best be addressed by using biological and medical science to control, fix, or eliminate certain kinds of people.

This course will examine the science and professionals involved in the eugenics movement in the United States, the legislation, practices, and rhetoric of "race betterment," the place of eugenics in popular culture, and the intersections between categories of people labeled "socially undesirable." We will address the persistence of eugenic ideas and activities after WWII in many guises, including continuities and discontinuities with current-day genomic medicine and social justice concerns. Washington State passed the world's second sterilization law in 1909, and so we will focus especially on researching primary and secondary sources that reveal this hidden history and its far-reaching significance for public policy, science, and health care. How is eugenics remembered and forgotten?

  • 30% Participation in class and online
  • 20% Essay #1 due M Oct. 26 at the start of class (4 pages) (TBA)
  • 20% Essay #2 due M Nov. 16 (4 pages)
  • 30% Research project: oral report and online portfolio due last week of class

Learning objectives

  • Analyze the history of eugenics as a science and social reform movement, using the science studies approach which investigates the political and social contexts in which knowledge claims are developed and applied.
  • Introduce the key concepts of disability studies, a framework for analyzing disability as a social phenomena and rights issue.
  • Understand and compare the heterogeneous scientific ideas, public policies, and aims of the eugenics movement especially in the US.
  • Explore the intersections between class, race, gender, and disability in the history of eugenics.
  • Consider eugenics as a case study in the relationship between medical-scientific expertise and the values and needs of democratic societies.
  • Debate bioethical, legal, and social issues concerning human genetics, and address the ongoing political and scientific attention to this history.
  • Conduct original research on topics in the local history of eugenics, and present the findings to the class and on a website.



Readings: The required readings are posted on the course website as pdf and html files, accessible with your UW ID. You must visit the website regularly in order to download the readings and assignments, and to check for updates to the course content (

You are expected to do all of the day's required reading before the start of class and to be prepared with questions and opinions to talk about. Instruction will include lectures (also posted on the website), documentary and fiction films, and discussions. This course is designed to sharpen your practical skills in critical textual analysis, written and oral communication, and the synthesis of knowledge gained from the fields of history, science studies, disability studies, and bioethics. You will also read and critically analyze primary documents from the time periods we'll be exploring.

Participation in class and online (value 30%):

            Your participation grade will be based on evidence of preparedness and the quality and consistency of your contributions to in-class discussion, as well as completion of in-class writing and small-group exercises. Missing classes will prevent your involvement in activities and adversely affect your grade. Participation involves expressing your own reasoned arguments, as well as constructively responding to your classmates. My aim is to create a respectful and open atmosphere where people should feel comfortable sharing ideas and speaking their opinions.

            The other component of participation for this course will be online. As part of your grade you are required to make regular contributions to the GoPost discussion board, consisting of your responses to the readings and lectures and to comments made by fellow students and the instructor. The minimal number of postings is three (3) per week. The board for this course is at the Catalyst GoPost site ( You are encouraged to contribute to the online discussion on an ongoing basis, to continue exchanging ideas about any issues that arise during class, and to develop your interpretations in dialogue with other participants. Substantial postings beyond the minimum per week will improve your grade. Keep in mind that your work will be judged according to quality, not just quantity. The postings should be carefully thought out and composed; each comment you make must deal with the course texts(s) and topics in depth. I will let you know if a comment is not substantial enough to count towards your grade. As in the classroom, please be respectful of other participants and their opinions, and be aware of your language choices.

Assignments: You will complete several types of written and oral assignments, which are designed to help you learn and engage critically with the concepts from the readings, lectures, and your own research. Detailed guidelines will be provided in separate handouts.


         Essay #1 due Oct. 26 (value 20%, 4 pages) asks you to compare and contrast two scholarly articles that interpret the history of forced sterilization in the United States. You will be provided with copies of these articles and you must choose which to write about. No additional research is expected.

            Essay #2 due Nov. 16 (value 20%, 4 pages) gives a choice of key topics and asks you to make an argument about the history of eugenics using both secondary sources from the readings (i.e. historians' writings) and primary sources from a list of supplementary materials (i.e. writings by people who lived during the time period of the eugenics movement and experienced it first-hand). You may wish to research and use different primary sources available in the library or on the web.

            Research project due in the last week of class (value 30%) is designed to give you the opportunity to investigate one specific topic in the history of eugenics, preferably dealing with the local history of Washington State or elsewhere in the North American West. A choice of narrowly focused topics will be provided, along with some suggestions for resources you might consult. If you have a different research topic in mind, get it approved by the instructor before proceeding with the project. Each of you will give a brief oral report of your findings to the class, and you will design and publish an online portfolio that presents your findings and interpretations in a concise and visually-appealing format.


Students with disabilities need not disclose. The instructor can work in conjunction with Disability Resources for Students (448 Schmitz, 543-8924) to provide accommodations of any sort due to disability. Please feel free to talk with me about any aspect of accommodation.

All requirements and policies of this course are outlined in this syllabus. Any changes to the syllabus, announcements, and handouts will be posted on the course website, and it is your responsibility to check the website for updates. The best way to contact the instructor is via email, and you are always welcome to come to office hours.

Submitting and returning work:
It is your responsibility to keep careful track of requirements and due dates, and be sure to check the website regularly for any changes to the schedule. Late submissions will receive grade penalties of 5% per day. No extra credit or paper re-writes will be permitted. Keep copies of all submitted work for your protection. Papers will be returned with comments as quickly as possible. You are encouraged to consult with the instructor about your ideas and questions regarding the assignments.

Documentation of sources and academic integrity:
When writing an essay, all direct quotations, paraphrases, information, interpretations, and opinions taken from another person's work must be identified. Every essay submitted for this course must have a bibliography listing all sources consulted and copious citations (either footnotes or in-text) to indicate where facts or ideas have been borrowed. All work submitted for course credit must be an original effort. Plagiarism means presenting the words or ideas of another person as if they were your own, for example by turning in someone else's work or failing to document material you have quoted or borrowed. Any evidence of cheating or plagiarism, whether intentional or accidental, will result in a grade of zero for that assignment. Additional sanctions may also be imposed by the University administration under the provisions of the Student Conduct Code. You are responsible for understanding all aspects of University regulations regarding academic integrity.

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Last modified: 9/30/2009 2:38 PM