Review: You Can’t Argue With Science

Once upon a time officialdom discovered a new branch of science nobody had ever heard of. Fresh and exciting, it was quickly embraced by the smartest professors, the most progressive thinkers, the wisest judges. It swept the nation. You can’t argue with science.

Only later did Canadians learn it wasn’t science at all but a hodgepodge of supposition and anecdotes perpetuated by hidden agendas. Of course by then much harm was done. There were lawsuits and unsatisfying half-apologies but the smart, wise, progressive people who foisted this fraud on the people were not known for their humility.

It was eugenics, the scientific claim that if dull people were prevented from having children by force if necessary, society as a whole would become sharper. Psychiatry And The Legacies Of Eugenics unravels this dark and startling story, the “devastating social movement of the first half of the twentieth century.”

The monstrosity of eugenics is well known. It formed a basis of Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws. Here authors go further in documenting the leading role played by Canadian scientists in claiming justification for coercive mutilation of humans.

Editor Dr. Erna Kurbegovic notes in Manitoba it was “pressure from the medical community” that prompted the legislature to introduce a 1933 Mental Deficiency Act. Only an outcry from Roman Catholics led MLAs to defeat the sterilization clause by a single vote, 21-20. “Eugenics was a powerful movement in the early twentieth century that captivated many medical professionals, social reformers and interest groups,” writes Kurbegovic.

Advocates included Emily Murphy, a suffragette whose statue today stands in front of the Senate, and Tommy Douglas, the New Democrat founder who wrote a 1933 Master’s thesis The Problems Of The Subnormal Family. Douglas lamented the burden to society of mental defectives, people with “moral standards below normal,” unwed mothers, alcoholics, prostitutes and those “so improvident as to be a public charge.”

Putting aside all sense of revulsion to the degree that’s possible, Professor Douglas Wahlsten of the University of Alberta in a devastating chapter points out the scientific claims of eugenics were gibberish. Intelligence is difficult to measure, and brains are not hereditary.

Wahlsten calculates even if Alberta fully enforced its 1928 Sexual Sterilization Act like a Nuremberg Law on all children who scored poorly on IQ tests, “every child below IQ 70 including those dearly loved, nurtured and sheltered by their parents,” the result would have been a temporary overall improvement of “about one third of an IQ point” in the entire province.

“An intelligence test is not a measure of some innate or biologically fixed entity,” writes Professor Wahlsten.

Professor Henderikus Stam of the University of Calgary, and psychologist Dr. Ashley Barlow of Edmonton, profile the most notorious Man Of Science in the eugenics crusade. He was John MacEachran, founder of the University of Alberta’s Department of Psychology.

MacEachran studied at the finest German universities. Wise and rational, he was chair of the Alberta Eugenics Board until his retirement at 88. “Like MacEachran himself, the Board was a model of bureaucratic efficiency,” write the authors. “With remarkably little oversight, and with the overt assistance of the medical profession, the Board operated out of the public eye.”

“We should endeavour to get away from a very costly form of sentiment and give more attention to raising and safeguarding the purity of the race,” MacEachran said in a 1932 speech. “We allow men and women of defective intelligence or those of these criminal tendencies to have children.”

Authors document a poignant letter to MacEachran from one woman sterilized by his order. She wanted children, she pleaded. Couldn’t the Doctor do something? “It was done for your own good,” replied MacEachran. “You would not want children who might have to come here and spend many years or perhaps their whole life in an institution.”

Psychiatry And The Legacies Of Eugenics is a shocking story, unbelievable if it were not true.

By Holly Doan

Psychiatry and the Legacies of Eugenics, edited by Frank W. Stahnisch and Erna Kurbegovic; Athabasca University Press; 412 pages; ISBN 9781-7719-92657; $37.99

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