Eugenics Record Office Collection
Scope and Content
The Eugenics Record Office Collection was established in 1910 at the Carnegie Institute of Washington (Cold Spring Harbor, NY) and closed in 1939. succeeded by the Department of Genetics. The collection contains administrative papers, photographs, publications and supporting materials, family pedigree charts, and requests for information, as well as materials related to and accrued by superintendent Harry H. Laughlin. Prior to joining the Eugenics Record Office, Laughlin was highly knowledgeable about breeding experiments, especially the breeding of thoroughbred horses. In addition to some of his materials related to thoroughbred horses, the collection also contains one of the few remaining copies in the world of H. Laughlin’s 1939 book on the Eugenics Records Office and a collection of photographs of ERO Field Workers’ Training Classes.
These are only a small portion of the original Eugenics Record Office materials. In 1948, the bulk of the records were donated to the University of Minnesota for use by the Dight Institute of Human Genetics. When the Dight Institute closed in 1991, the material was dispersed between the Genealogical Society of Utah, the Center for Human Genetics, and the American Philosophical Society. The Eugenics Record Office Collection is what remained at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.
The collection is organized into two record groups:
Record Group I: Harry H. Laughlin, 1907-1970
- Biographical Files, 1943-1970
- Correspondence, 1907-1938
- Publications, 1912-1940
- Thoroughbred Horse Studies, 1908-1950
Record Group II: Eugenics Record Office, 1908-1999
- Administrative Files, 1908-1973
- Forms & Pedigree Charts, 1908-1940
- Information Requests, 1935-1977
- Eugenics Research Association, 1919-1937
- Publications, Other Sources, 1909-1953
- Images, 1910-1999
- International Congresses, 1912-1932
- Creation: 1902-2003
Language of Materials
Some restrictions apply, see Archivist for details. Access is given only by appointment, 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., Monday through Friday.
Some material from the Eugenics Record Office has been digitized as is viewable courtesy of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory DNA Learning Center's Eugenics Image Archive
The Eugenics Image Archive is a conglomerate of digital items from the following institutions: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory; American Philosophical Society; Truman State University; Rockefeller Archive Center/Rockefeller University; University of Albany, State University of New York; National Park Service, Statue of Liberty National Monument; University College, London; International Center of Photography; Archiv zur Geschichte der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, Berlin-Dahlem; and Special Collections, University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Please contact the institution listed under “Source” in the image viewer to request image permissions/rights.
Archival materials must remain in the archival reading area. Item duplication is to be done by archivists. Fees are applied to copies made. Digital photography is permitted by users. Due to the very fragile nature of some materials in this collection, some are available through photocopies; others must be used under the supervision of an archivist.
The Legacy of Eugenics: A Note on Harmful Content
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Library and Archives strives to provide access to primary material on the history of life sciences and medical research in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. As a result, collections and finding aids contain some content that may be harmful or difficult to view. Much of the early materials on eugenics uses terminology and phrasing that is harmful, offensive, or contains otherwise outdated language.
When such language is supplied by the creator of original archival materials to describe or name them, it is recognized as best practice to retain such information so as not to censor or alter the historical record and to maintain an understanding of the context of creation. CSHL Library and Archives is committed to updating language that is in our control to edit. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org to report offensive material and/or description.
Rooted in racial and disability bias and discredited as a legitimate science, the Eugenics Record Office (1910-1939) collected information on physical, mental, and temperamental traits for the purpose of improving the genetic quality of the human population through the exclusion of people and groups assumed to be 'inferior' by no other metric than extreme prejudice. Eugenicists channeled ideals of rational thought, social progress, statistics, and state management towards the pursuit of 'race betterment' and the defense of Anglo-American racial purity.
The study of eugenics attempted to quantify physical and mental characteristics based not on true scientific principles, but by using correlation studies in conjunction with prejudiced societal definitions of desirable and undesirable traits. In addition to promoting harmful beliefs and legislation, this pseudoscience attempted to attribute societal and cultural conditions, such as poverty or the vaguely defined 'criminality,' to inheritable genetic traits. Anthropologist Franz Boas of Columbia University declared that eugenics was racism disguised as science. Thomas Hunt Morgan, also at Columbia, pointed out that where traits were clearly influenced by social conditions, it was impossible to make any claims for a specific genetic influence.
Under Harry H. Laughlin's direction, the Eugenics Record Office advocated for laws that led to restrictive immigration laws and the forced sterilization of Americans it deemed 'socially inadequate.' Over 35 states passed and used eugenic sterilization laws, and by the 1960s, when these laws were beginning to be repealed, more than 60,000 people who had been judged 'genetically defective' had been forcibly sterilized without consent.
American eugenicists' work had worldwide ramifications: in Germany, the National Socialists used Laughlin's model as one of the bases of their sweeping sterilization law of 1933, which ultimately led to the sterilization of over 400,000 people.
The legacy of eugenicists such as Harry H. Laughlin, Charles B. Davenport, and Francis Galton, in tandem with the political and social influence of the Eugenics Record Office, raise the importance of studying the history of eugenics in the twentieth century. To study the history of eugenics is to confront how scientific racism set the groundwork for modern politics and conversations about race, immigration, intelligence, societal norms, and belonging in America. In 2014, the Center for Genetics and Society reflected:
“Many educational institutions still avoid discussing the history of eugenics, and many are reluctant to confront their own complicity in the abuses it facilitated. But studying eugenics in the twentieth century is important not just as a matter of learning history, but as part of what we need to know in order to thoughtfully consider the responsible uses of genetic technologies today.”
Harry H. Laughlin: Biography
Born March 11, 1880 in Oskaloosa, Iowa, Harry Hamilton Laughlin graduated from the First District Normal School--now Truman State University--in Kirksville, Missouri and earned a Doctor of Science from Princeton University in cytology. He married Pansy Laughlin in 1902.
Prior to his work as a eugenicist, Laughlin worked as a high school superintendent in Kirksville, Iowa. An expert in animal husbandry and breeding experiments, particularly of thoroughbred horses, Laughlin's growing interest in eugenics led to his correspondence with Charles B. Davenport. Their correspondence shows a mutual support for ideas about the implementation of eugenic breeding in humans. In 1910, Davenport asked Laughlin to serve as the superintendent of the newly established Eugenics Record Office in Cold Spring Harbor, New York. Laughlin accepted and served as superintendent from 1910 to 1939.
During his tenure at the ERO, Laughlin also served as the eugenics expert to the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, testifying in support of immigration restriction laws based on data from the ERO, data which would later be condemned as unscientific and faulty. Laughlin also used this data to support his model forced sterilization laws, which were subsequently adopted by more than 30 states and were used as the model for Germany’s 1933 sterilization laws. Laughlin's endorsement resulted in over 60,000 forced sterilizations in the United States alone.
In 1927, Laughlin gave a deposition in the Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell, endorsing the suitability of Virginian Carrie Buck for sterilization, calling the family members "the shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South." He had never meet Buck, and she was forcibly sterilized five months after the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the laws that Laughlin had helped to write.
In Germany, after the passing of the Law for the Preservation of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring in 1933, over 350,000 people were forcibly sterilized without consent. Reports of the extensive use of forced sterilization appeared in US newspapers, and by the end of the decade, eugenics had become fully associated with Nazism and poor science. Carnegie Institute forced the Eugenics Record Office to close in 1939.
Laughlin was a founding member of the Pioneer Fund, a non-profit organization established in 1937. The Pioneer Fund, classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, is described as racist and white supremacist in nature. One of its first projects was to fund the distribution of Erbkrank, a Nazi propaganda film depicting the 'success' of eugenics programs in Germany. Laughlin served as the Pioneer Fund's first president from 1937 to 1941.
Forced into retirement after both the closure of the Eugenics Record Office and a series of severe seizures, the Laughlins returned to Kirksville, Missouri. Harry H. Laughlin died January 26, 1943.
16 linear feet (24 Boxes)
The Eugenics Record Office Collection was established in 1910 at the Carnegie Institute of Washington (Cold Spring Harbor, NY) and closed in 1939. succeeded by the Department of Genetics. The collection contains administrative papers, photographs, publications and supporting materials, family pedigree charts, and requests for information, as well as materials related to and accrued by superintendent Harry H. Laughlin.
This material was processed to series level and arranged chronologically. Oversized material has been housed separately. Materials for this collection were generally unorganized and the boxes were largely unlabeled. Like material was grouped into series by the processing archivist to assist researchers. Where folders were clearly identifiable as belonging to another institution (as determined by date, person, or subject), the processing archivist removed the folders for refiling in the relevant collections. It is recommended that this collection be researched in conjunction with related collections (see note).
The records were arranged into two record groups. Record Group I contains materials associated with Eugenics Record Office Superintendent Harry H. Laughlin. Record Group II contains administrative files, images, and publications associated with the Eugenics Record Office itself. With the exception of the ledgers, all materials in these series were arranged alphabetically. The ledgers were arranged chronologically.
After the closure of the Eugenics Record Office in 1939, its materials were put into storage. In 1948, the majority of materials were donated to the University of Minnesota for use by the Dight Institute of Human Genetics. Records indicate a total of 23,030 pounds of material were shipped: approximately 43,500 family trait folders, over 10,000 pounds of 3x5 and 4x6 index cards, and 8,714 pounds of empty file cabinets.
When the Dight Institute closed in 1991, the genealogical material was filmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah and given to the Center for Human Genetics. The non-genealogical material was not filmed and was given to the American Philosophical Society Library. The American Philosophical Society has a copy of the microfilm as well.
In 1903 the Carnegie Institution of Washington (CIW), the privately-funded scientific research organization founded by Andrew Carnegie in 1902, approved a plan to establish a biological experiment station to study evolution. The Station for Experimental Evolution (SEE) formally opened on June 11, 1904 in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, to study heredity and evolution through breeding experiments with plants and animals. SEE was established on a nine acre tract of land leased for 50 years from the Wawepex Society.
Mary Williamson Averell (Mrs. E.H. Harriman), widow of railroad magnate Edward Henry Harriman, provided the funding for the purchase of a nearby 80 acre farm, and an office building was erected to establish the Eugenics Record Office (ERO). Dr. Charles Davenport appointed Harry H. Laughlin to direct the new office.
In 1918, Averell transferred the farm and building to CIW along with an endowment for its maintenance. In the same year, the Eugenics Record Office formally came under the aegis of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Both the SEE and the ERO were combined into the CIW Department of Genetics with Charles Davenport as the Director in 1921.
After Charles Davenport retired in 1934, Dr. Albert Blakeslee served as Director of the CIW Department of Genetics until 1941 when Milislav Demerec was named Director.
The ERO closed in December 1939. Materials--including forms containing hereditary and genealogical information--were put into storage. The name of the ERO was changed to Genetics Record Office. In 1948, the bulk of the records were donated to the University of Minnesota for use by the Dight Institute of Human Genetics. When the Dight Institute closed in 1991, the material was dispersed between the Genealogical Society of Utah, the Center for Human Genetics, and the American Philosophical Society.
The Eugenics Record Office Collection is what remained at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.
This collection was processed with funding provided by the New York State Archives’ Documentary Heritage Program.
- Blakeslee, Albert Francis, 1874-1954 (Person)
- Bush, Vannevar, 1890-1974 (Person)
- Cross, Wilbur L. (Wilbur Lucius), 1862-1948 (Person)
- Davenport, Charles Benedict, 1866-1944 (Person)
- Demerec, M. (Milislav), 1895-1966 (Person)
- Fisher, Agnes (Person)
- Laughlin, Harry Hamilton, 1880-1943 (Person)
- Salmon, Walter J. (Person)
- Tolstoy, Counts (Person)
- Williams, Timothy S. (Person)
- Carnegie Institution of Washington Eugenics Records Office (Organization)
- National Academy of Sciences (U.S.) (Organization)
- University of Minnesota (Organization)
- University of Minnesota. Dight Institute for Human Genetics (Organization)
Genre / Form
- Administrative Records
- Film transparencies
- Pamphlets, monographs
- Eugenics Record Office Collection
- Finding Aid Prepared by E.D.Pessala. Finding Aid Updated by Em Longan, June 2022.
- July 2012.
- Language of description
- Script of description
- Language of description note
- Finding aid written in English.
- April 2022: Removed dead link from ERO Administrative Series page. Updated finding aid language notes. Removed 'Carnegie Institute of Washington' from finding aid title.
- June 2022: Consolidated and edited all notes. Added harmful content note. Restructured collection organization to reflect physical organization.