Suggested Research Topics - Eugenics in Michigan: Improving Human Welfare through Better Breeding (or, Get Those Idiots out of My Gene Pool)

Eugenics, the genetic engineering of the early twentieth century, rolled like a wave out of Great Britain on the strength of the work of Galton, Davenport, and Love. It found a ready audience among the educated and the elite in America (who feared the loss of American exceptionalism under "the rising tide of color"). Eugenics was the result of the scientific application of Mendellian genetics (the notion that discrete traits are heritable across generations) to human populations. It received further impetus from Progressive era drives for social engineering. More than a generation of eugenicists worked toward perfecting the race before they realized the folly of conflating simple traits like the roundness of peas and more complex human characteristics. Michigan figured prominently in popularizing eugenics as John Kellogg hosted Race Betterment Conferences in 1914, 1915, and 1928. The ideas shaping eugenics reached orthodox academia as UM's president C.C. Little publicly favored birth control as a eugenic device.

What informed the eugenics drive? Progressive perfectionism? Darwinian biology? Who makes the call on procreation? Who set themselves up as experts? What are the social implications of allowing these experts free rein? What can be discerned about the confluence of science, social status, and power in the application of eugenic ideals? Where are the bounds drawn in Michigan? How much impact do these ideas have?

Examples of Primary Source Collections and Other Resources:

Published primary sources

Archival and other primary sources

Secondary sources


This is an intriguing topic as it deals with the highest ideals of science (how to improve the future world), but eugenics retains the taint of bad science (Hitler's final solution was a logical extension of eugenics). I think this topic is quite manageable for an undergraduate seminar, but the final product hinges on the individual's ability to assess disparate sources. This calls for a discriminating researcher, especially in light of the possible inaccessibility of Eugenics Records Office materials.

In an effort to encourage creative thinking about possible research topics for students unfamiliar with archives and their inevitable complexities, archivists and student employees of the Bentley Historical Library have authored "suggested research topics ." The purpose of these is not to define a topic but rather to stimulate thinking about a topic where the holdings of the Bentley Library are particularly strong.