Between 1909 and the 1960s, the state of California sterilized 20,000 mental patients and prison inmates. Most did not consent to sterilization. They were disproportionately Mexican and Mexican-American.
California’s sterilization program was part of an international movement, eugenics, which sought to breed stigmatized traits such as mental illness out of humanity. In Pasadena, in 1928 Ezra Gosney and Paul Popenoe founded the Human Betterment Foundation to research and advocate for eugenic sterilization. They argued California and other states should sterilize even more people, and influenced Nazi Germany’s eugenic sterilization law.
Among the Human Betterment Foundation’s roughly 30 members, several were also affiliated with Caltech: Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler, lawyer Henry Robinson, and businessman Albert Ruddock were Caltech trustees. Historian William Munro was a Caltech professor. And physicist Robert Millikan was Caltech’s leader as chair of its Executive Council. Caltech is evaluating the legacy of these men through its Committee on Naming and Recognition.
-University Archivist Peter Collopy
We hope that this guide will help provide a shared understanding of our past that we can use to inform a better future.
If you have questions or ideas about resources to add to this guide, please contact us.
Human Betterment Foundation Records, Caltech Archives and Special Collections
The records of the Human Betterment Foundation contain the Foundation’s business records, correspondence with others in the eugenics movement, pamphlets and other printed materials on eugenics from around the world, and survey data from the research which resulted in the publication of Sterilization and Human Betterment.
The collection has not been digitized; anyone interested may contact the Caltech Archives at firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange for access.
These texts include specific discussion of the Human Betterment Foundation, though most also cover other parts of the history of eugenics and genetics.
Human Betterment Foundation (1928–1942), Jill Briggs, Embryo Project Encyclopedia (2013).
This is a good, brief introduction to the work, organization, and context of the Human Betterment Foundation.
How Proponents of Forced Sterilization Convinced Everyday Californians to Support Their Cause, Rebecca Onion, Slate, May 6, 2015.
This post in Slate’s historical Vault column includes a very brief introduction to the HBF and a reproduction of their 1938 pamphlet Human Sterilization Today, an introduction to the Foundation’s work and mission in their own words.
Sterilization for Human Betterment: A Summary of Results of 6000 Operations in California, 1909–1929, E. S. Gosney and Paul Popenoe, New York: Macmillan, 1929.
Before Human Sterilization Today, Sterilization for Human Betterment was the HBF’s most visible and influential publication. It’s another, earlier, longer source for understanding them in their own words.
States of Eugenics: Institutions and the Practices of Compulsory Sterilization in California, Alex Wellerstein, in Reframing Rights: Bioconstitutionalism in the Genetic Age, edited by Sheila Jasanoff, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2011, 29–58.
In this chapter, Wellerstein examines “the institutional, organizational basis of sterilization in California, tracing how the power to sterilize—and the questions of who to sterilize, why, and perhaps why not—wended their way through legal, medical, and local frameworks,” concluding that “power ended up being disproportionately concentrated in the hands of individual hospital administrators, who were often intellectually and physically quite distant from the direct influence of eugenics” (30–31). The lobbying and research of the HBF was thus “disconnected from the actual practice of sterilization” (35).
Leading the Race: Eugenics in California, 1896–1945, Joseph W. Sokolik, MA thesis, Texas State University, 2013.
This thesis includes a chapter on the HBF that appears to be strongest on the Foundation’s publications.
Eugenic Science in California: The Papers of E. S. Gosney and the Human Betterment Foundation, David A. Valone, 1993.
Archivist and historian David Valone wrote a brief history of the HBF and of how its assets, including records, came to Caltech, as part of the collection guide referenced above.
Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America, second edition, Alexandra Minna Stern, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015.
The chapter “Instituting Eugenics in California” includes an account of the Human Betterment Foundations main activities lobbying for sterilization and researching its effects on Californians (82–83, 104–108). The following chapter, “‘I Like to Keep My Body Whole’: Reconsidering Eugenic Sterilization in California,” analyzes state sterilization records to determine the demographics of the Californians sterilized by the state—disproportionately Mexican and Mexican-American—and the nature of the consent process, in which, although the law allowed the state to sterilize people without their permission, administrators typically sought signatures of the patient’s family.
Bloodlines: Recovering Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws, from Patton’s Trophy to Public Memorial, Anthony M. Platt and Cecilia E. O’Leary, Boulder: Paradigm, 2006.
In this history of the Huntington Library’s ownership of the original text of the Nuremberg Laws signed by Adolf Hitler, Platt and O’Leary include an account of the eugenic goals of HBF trustees who also sat on the boards of the Huntington and Caltech (55–71). They also include a chapter on Robert Millikan’s political beliefs, emphasizing his private views, expressed in letters, regarding race and gender (121–131).
Building a ‘Better’ Human Race: The Human Betterment Foundation and Eugenic Sterilization in California, 1909–1942, Lillian Turner-Graham, MA thesis, California State University, Northridge, 2019.
From the abstract: “An analysis of primary sources, including HBF publications as well as unpublished documents from the E. S. Gosney and Human Betterment Foundation collection in the Caltech archives,” concludes Turner-Graham, “shows that the HBF’s work was more akin to lobbying or propaganda than detached analysis of the results of California’s eugenic sterilization program.”
The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism, and German National Socialism, Stefan Kühl, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
The Human Betterment Foundation was one of many American organizations which provided inspiration for Nazi Germany’s genocidal laws and institutions. Kühl briefly discusses the HBF’s influence (42–44, 57–58), and writes that the HBF’s book Sterilization for Human Betterment was “an essential basis for the development of the German sterilization law.”
This section consists of other works in the history of eugenic sterilization in California, all by members of the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab, which don’t deal with the HBF. The Lab is an interdisciplinary research team using methods from the social science, humanities, and public health to study the history of sterilization in the United States. Their research initially focused on California, and has now expanded to include Iowa, Michigan, and North Carolina.
Mexican Americans and Eugenic Sterilization: Resisting Reproductive Injustice in California, 1920–1950, Natalie Lira and Alexandra Minna Stern, Aztlán 39, no. 2 (Fall 2014): 9–34.
“Mexican-origin patients were pathologized as mentally defective and overly fecund in order to justify sterilization,” write Lira and Stern. “However, these patients and their families challenged California’s eugenic laws and forced sterilization, and their struggles for reproductive rights are an important facet of the pursuit of racial and reproductive justice by Chicaga/o communities.”
Disproportionate Sterilization of Latinos Under California’s Eugenic Sterilization Program, 1920–1945, Nicole L. Novak, Natalie Lira, Kate E. O’Connor, Siobán D. Harlow, Sharon L. R. Kardia, and Alexandra Minna Stern, American Journal of Public Health 108, no. 5 (May 2018): 611–613.
“We used data from 17,362 forms recommending institutionalized patients for sterilization between 1920 and 1945,” write the authors. “Eugenic sterilization laws were disproportionately applied to Latina/o patients, particularly Latina women and girls. Understanding historical injustices in public health can inform contemporary public health practice.”
California’s Sterilization Survivors: An Estimate and Call for Redress, Alexandra Minna Stern, Nicole L. Novak, Natalie Lira, Kate O’Connor, Siobán Harlow, and Sharon Kardia, American Journal of Public Health 107, no. 1 (January 2017): 50–54.
“From 1919 to 1952,” write the authors, “approximately 20,000 individuals were sterilized in California’s state institutions on the basis of eugenic laws that sought to control the reproductive capacity of people labeled unfit and defective. Using data from more than 19,000 sterilization recommendations processed by state institutions over this 33-year period, we provide the most accurate estimate of living sterilization survivors. As of 2016, we estimate that as many as 831 individuals, with an average age of 87.9 years, are alive. We suggest that California emulate North Carolina and Virginia, states that maintained similar sterilization programs and recently have approved monetary compensation for victims.”
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