In 'fitness' and in health: Eugenics, public health, and marriage in the United States
Kibbe, Tina M.
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My dissertation investigates the connections between the eugenics and public health movements in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century. From the inception of both movements, eugenics and public health shared much of the same overarching ideology that America's biological health could be contained and managed through scientific and medical advancements. Although the two movements were at times at odds on some matters, at least on the surface, more often than not they intersected at significant issues and had much more in common than has heretofore been examined. In the first three decades of the twentieth century, eugenicists and public health authorities advocated coercive eugenic measures such as sterilization, segregation, marriage restriction, and limits on immigration. In addition, it was during this same period that both movements collaborated in less coercive practices such as Better Baby and Fitter Family contests. However, by 1930s the eugenics movement faced being discredited as a legitimate science. It was at this time that eugenicists began to reevaluate the public image of the movement. And as the news of the horrific Nazi programs reached the United States, eugenicists adroitly attempted to rid the movement of overt racist overtones and to enthusiastically and publicly embrace public health's contribution to societal health. Public health advocates began to drop their overt emphasis on preventing the "inferior" from procreating as well. Although eugenicists continued to embrace an ideology which placed the greatest value on inherited characteristics, they also began to acknowledge the importance of nutrition, exercise, and environment in an individual's overall "fitness" level. Therefore, eugenics ideals of the public's health and welfare became almost indistinguishable from those of public health as both movements framed their goal of improving the nation's health and fitness in positive terms. The institution of marriage provided a perfect venue for these dovetailing interests. While restrictive measures attempted to prohibit society's "unfit" from entering wedlock, positive campaigns to improve marriage and family served as a conduit for channeling "fit" citizens to fulfill their duty to reproduce the nation's future generations.