Eugenics and “mental defectives” in New Zealand ca. 1925

14 08 2006

Project Gutenberg recently released an interesting (but horrifying) report from a New Zealand commission in 1925, which met to suggest solutions to the problem of the “feeble-minded” and sexual offenders. Basically, the question was apparently what to do with such folks, before their genes infected the better classes (and created a social disaster, according to the authors). The solution: create a “Eugenics Board” which would be charged with maintaining a “registry” of mental defectives, to keep them from marrying and (GASP!) reproducing. Here are some quotes for your consideration:

For a considerable time there has been a growing feeling of anxiety among the public owing to the number of mental defectives becoming a charge upon the State, and also the alarming increase in their numbers through the uncontrolled fecundity of this class. Furthermore, owing to the frequency of sexual offences, many of a most revolting character, there was a strong demand that some action should be taken to prevent further acts of this nature; it being suggested that the law should be altered to make it possible for surgical operations to be performed upon these offenders.

YIKES! One of the concluding paragraphs sounded frighteningly like something Hitler would come up with, and illustrates how he wasn’t too wacky in his time, after all (emphasis mine):

New Zealand is a young country already exhibiting some of the weaknesses of much older nations, but it is now at the stage where, if its people are wise, they may escape the worst evils of the Old World. It has rightly been decided that this should be not only a “white man’s country,” but as completely British as possible. We ought to make every effort to keep the stock sturdy and strong, as well as racially pure.

In the section titled “A Menace to Modern Civilization,” the committee had this gem of wisdom to offer:

The Committee are of opinion that the unrestricted multiplication of feeble-minded members of the community is a most serious menace to the future welfare and happiness of the Dominion, and it is of the utmost importance that some means of meeting the peril should be adopted without delay. The position is the more serious because, while the feeble-minded are extraordinarily prolific, there is a growing tendency among the more intellectual classes for the birth-rate to become restricted.

Regarding the feeble-minded, the important thing is to not let them reproduce (emphasis mine)…

It is, of course, most essential that they should not be allowed to reproduce their kind, thus further enfeebling and deteriorating the national stock, adding to the burden of the community and to the sum of human misery and degradation. “To produce but not to reproduce” sums up the best scheme of life for these unfortunates.

One of the main problems? Those pesky mentally defective girls!

There are many cases of mentally defective girls, liberated from institutions in New Zealand for the purpose of engaging in domestic service or other work, returning afterwards the mothers of illegitimate children, probably also mentally defective. Unless such are to be maintained for years as wards of the State in institutions, should they ever again be allowed their liberty unless they undergo the operation of sterilization?

[um, why put the onus on the girls? What about the men who impregnated these girls?]

Well, here’s one of those men (the evidence offered in the report is mostly case studies like this one):

Martin Kallikak was a youthful soldier in the Revolutionary War. At a tavern frequented by the militia he met a feeble-minded girl by whom he became the father of a feeble-minded son. In 1912 there were 480 known direct descendants of this temporary union. It is known that 36 of these were illegitimates; that 33 were sexually immoral; that 24 were confirmed alcoholics; and that 8 kept houses of ill-fame. The explanation of so much immorality will be obvious when it is stated that of the 480 descendants 143 were known to be feeble-minded, and that many of the others were of questionable mentality.

A few years after returning from the war this same Martin Kallikak married a respectable girl of good family. From this union 496 individuals have been traced in direct descent, and in this branch of the family there were no illegitimate children, no immoral women, and only one man who was sexually loose. There were no criminals, no keepers of houses of ill-fame, and only two confirmed alcoholics. Again the explanation is clear when it is stated that this branch of the family did not contain a single feeble-minded individual. It was made up of doctors, lawyers, judges, educators, traders, and landholders.

Aside from some case studies, the report cites some numbers from the USA in justifying sterilization of “mental defectives.” Geee… why didn’t I read about this in my American history books?

Up to the 1st January, 1921, the latest date dealt with by the most recently published work on the subject, there have been 124 State institutions legally authorized to perform operations for sterilization, of which thirty-one have made more or less use of their authority, while ninety-three have not. The total number of operations performed up to the date mentioned was 3,233, divided into classes as follows: Feeble-minded, 403; insane, 2,700; criminalistic, 130. Of this total of 3,233 operations the State of California contributed no less than 2,538, and in this State a single institution (the State Hospital for the Insane at Patton) is responsible for no fewer than 1,009 cases.

Notice how the Harvard graduates “reproduce,” while the Roumanians “breed” (emphasis mine):

The biologist Davenport calculated that at present rates of reproduction 1,000 Harvard graduates of to-day would have only fifty descendants two centuries hence, whereas 1,000 Roumanians to-day in Boston, at their present rate of breeding, would have 100,000 descendants in the same space of time.

Here’s the crux of social engineering:

… we must promote and encourage parenthood on the part of the best and stablest stocks, and do everything in our power to discourage, or in the extreme cases even to prevent, proliferation of unfit and degenerate strains.

Oh, and watch out for those depravedpicture-shows:”

As the Committee are called on to deal specially with the problem of increasing manifestations of sexual depravity they cannot pass by the fact that in the course of the last twenty years the younger members of the community have been spending a steadily increasing proportion of their time, during the most impressionable period of life, in what are liable to prove forcing-houses of sexual precocity and criminal tendencies. There is every reason for regarding the habit of “going to the pictures” without adequate restrictions as contributing seriously to precocious sexuality, and also to weakening the powers of inhibition and self-control in other directions–powers which are the distinctive attributes of the higher human being.

In its conclusions, the report makes a claim that seems not to have borne itself out: I have a hard time seeing the “dreadful consequences.” It provides a similar quote from MacDougall:

… unless the multiplication of the feeble-minded is to be allowed to go on in an ever-increasing ratio, with consequences dreadful to contemplate …

Professor William MacDougall, the noted psychologist of Harvard University, speaking at Toronto recently in reference to the disregard of eugenic methods in America in maintaining and improving the national stock, said: “As I watch the American people speeding daily with invincible optimism down the path that leads to destruction I seem to be watching one of the greatest tragedies of history.”

The conclusion: Let that Eugenics Board handle these degenerates! (emphasis mine)

This is the question: Can the propagation of mental defect by mental defectives and the debasing of the race thereby be greatly checked if not completely prevented? The answer is assuredly, Yes, by segregation and by sterilization.

The Committee recommends that both methods be placed in the hands of the Eugenic Board, with powers to discriminate as to which method is the more suitable for each individual case. The two methods are complementary, not antagonistic, and suitable safeguards for the liberty of the subject are provided.

In the opinion of the Committee it is of the utmost importance that mental defectives should be prevented from reproducing. No person who has been placed on the register should be allowed to marry until the Eugenic Board has given its consent by removing the name from the register.

Title: Mental Defectives and Sexual Offenders: Report of the Committee of Inquiry Appointed by the Hon. Sir Maui Pomare, K.B.E., C.M.G., Minister of Health
Author: W. H. Triggs, Donald McGavin, Frederick Truby King, J. Sands Elliot, Ada G. Patterson, C.E. Matthews and J. Beck
Release Date: July 29, 2006 [EBook #18932]

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2 responses to “Eugenics and “mental defectives” in New Zealand ca. 1925”

    19 08 2006
      Jonathan Ah Kit (04:48:30) :     

    Egads. I’m glad someone else picked up on this. I’m the one who scanned it and oversaw the proofreading (I didn’t OCR nor help format it) for Project Gutenberg.

    What’s most interesting on the authors is note the presence of Truby King on the committee. What makes it interesting is not only was he the person the Crown got to run Seacliff asylum in Dunedin (home at one stage to the writer Janet Frame), he also helped found the Royal NZ Plunket Society, aka the post-natal care charity. Read between the lines to guess why he set it up! Needless to say the modern organisation ( does do good works, but the original reason they were set up gets scary…

    I’ve written a lot over at my own diary, most recently at if you’re keen to look at other similar stuff. For example, the 1954 Mazengarb Report also from NZ still blames girls for sexual immorality! Shameful. Then it gets worse by suggesting that contraceptives shouldn’t be legally available to minors, which we all found out later (especially in the 1980s, but that’s another story) on was a bit of a disaster. The 1955 followup to that wasn’t much better either — has all the crazed books.


    21 08 2006
      Hilary Stace (03:27:10) :     

    Great that people are continually digging up NZ’s dark history of eugenics – which has never really gone away if you read commentators like Michael Laws. There have been several academic studies over the years. A scary aspect was its popularity with some liberals – some gave submissions to the 1925 enquiry. I wrote about NZ’s historical fascination with eugenics about10 years or so ago in an essay called Gene Dreaming which is on the Professional Historians’ Assn of NZ/Aoteora website

    Hilary Stace