Institutionalized Heredity: Statistics, Defectives, and the Rise of Human Genetics

Theodore Porter
UC Los Angeles

The role of asylums and schools in collecting hereditary data during the eugenic era from about 1900 to 1940 is well known to historians. What we have failed to appreciate is the intense effort by such institutions in the later nineteenth century not only to compile records of heredity, but to track diseases and defects in families and in this way to comprehend scientifically the processes of hereditary transmission. Such investigations were first of all statistical, involving a close alliance of scientific and bureaucratic reporting. Indeed, this work grew up and flourished as the scale of mental hospitals and asylums for “idiots and imbeciles” expanded massively. The eugenic turn reflected disillusionment with their capacity to cure and a growing preoccupation of the rising welfare state with the cultivation of healthy, productive citizens. The data-driven science of heredity, with its percentages of damaged heredity, its unwieldy numerical tables, and its vast archives of pedigrees, was not overturned by the genetics or mathematical statistics, but perpetuated in a new form. Institutional numbers remained fundamental to human genetics through the interwar and postwar periods and into the genomic era.