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In Part Two, the family saga in Better for All the World turns to the beginning of the story, narrating the rise and fall of scientists who developed the theories of eugenics.  It begins with Francis Galton, the Victorian jack-of-all-trades who first proposed the theory of eugenics -- a word he coined to describe the science of better breeding.  Ironically, the smirking, gregarious man who first proclaimed that only the best and brightest should have children, and that those afflicted with disease or mental deficiencies should not, was himself beset with bouts of nervous breakdowns, and could not, in the end, have children of his own.

Francis Galton, 1860

The story continues with the life of Charles Davenport, the first influential eugenic thinker in America.  A direct descendant of the Reverend John Davenport, the man who founded the city of New Haven in 1638, Davenport was steeped in the traditions of his forefathers, men whose sermons and political discourses helped shape the American impulse to forge a city upon a hill.  But Davenport became a lover of natural science and a devotee of Francis Galton - a "modern" person wrestling with the Puritan vision of his deeply pious past.  Yet, while rejecting the faith of his fathers, he in many ways simply retranslated it into a secular and scientific form.

Charles Davenport, 1938

But Davenport, too, was beset by bouts of nervousness and family tragedy.  While proclaiming that disease took only the lives the genetically weak, his beloved son Charlie succumbed to polio, sending the great eugenicist and his wife into depressions requiring treatment in an asylum.  And his oldest daughter Millia moved to Greenwich Village, leading a debauched life in the city -- an urban lifestyle her father had railed against for decades.  Wanton women, Davenport believed, came from defective genetic families, or defective genetic races. His two daughters not only failed to live up to his moral expectations, they failed to have children and pass on the Davenport heritage.

The Davenport Family, c. 1916


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Better for All the World
By Harry Bruinius

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The Author

   Harry Bruinius   was born in Chicago and attended Yale University, where he studied theology, and Columbia University, where he studied journalism. He is a frequent contributor to The Christian Science Monitor, a professor of journalism at Hunter College, and the founder of The Village Quill. He lives in Manhattan.




Back Image

Burlesque dancer Sherry Britton reading a book on eugenics (Arthur Fellig Weegee, International Centre of Photography/Getty Images)

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"We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

- Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in the majority decision Buck v. Bell, 1927