Negative Eugenics in America: the case of "Mongolian imbeciles"

    The child shows Down Syndrome (Trisomy 21), the result of duplication of Chromosome 21 in the gamete from one of his parents. Because the characteristic epicanthic eye fold of Down Syndrome superficially resembles that seen in some Asian populations, Down Syndrome was for many years called 'Mongolism.' Some racialist scientists went so far as to suggest that the syndrome was a 'regression' to a more primitive [i.e., non-white] type. The illustration is from a 1912 book by Henry Goddard, a founder of modern psychology, who suggested that the condition was a hereditary characteristic of particular pedigrees. Incorporating Goddard's technical categories of 'imbecile' for an adult with a mental age of 7~12, or 'idiot' for a lower mental age, such persons were called 'Mongoloid imbeciles' or 'idiots.' Thus stigmatized, persons showing Down Syndrome were institutionalized and received little or no education or training, perpetuating the stereotype of mental deficiency. This derogatory term is seldom if ever heard nowadays.

    The chromosomal basis of Down Syndrome was not recognized until the 1960s. Down Syndrome is 'genetic,' because it results from a chromosome duplication in a parental gamete, but not 'hereditary,' because almost all persons showing Down Syndrome are functionally sterile and cannot pass on gametes with a duplicated chromosome to the next generation. Down Syndrome is therefore a 'sporadic' genetic condition that does not run in families, contrary to Goddard's assertion. With family support, social services, and appropriate education, persons with Down Syndrome are often able to function well in society.
See [http://www.dsrf.org/home/] for further information.

    [NB: Goddard's book is a classic of bad science. The "Kallikak" family was a multi-generational kindred, in which Goddard traced such traits as poverty, criminality, alcoholism, supposed low mental function, etc. over several generations, and concluded that they followed simple Mendelian patterns. Goddard was not troubled by "familiality", the tendency of members of a family to resemble each other (Bach's family are all highly musical), nor the persistent effects of low socio-economic status on behavior. Goddard went so far as to doctor his photographs: the eyes in the photo above have been crudely darkened so as to suggest depravity. Also in this instance, if the woman is the boy's mother, her apparent older age may be the principal factor contributing to Down Syndrome, where the probability of affected children rises sharply with advance maternal age. Goddard missed this.]

(c) Sheilagh

From a 2009 photographic exhibition of children with Down Syndrome and their families. The family resemblances are far more apparent than the syndrome.

Images from the Eugenics Archive, and © 2009 Sheilagh O'Leary; text material © 2009, 2018 by Steven M. Carr