THE History of Eugenics at Puget Sound and Beyond
In May 2023 the University of Puget Sound’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously to remove the name “Slater” from the Slater Museum of Natural History. In his announcement of this decision to the Puget Sound community, President Isiaah Crawford noted that historical research (especially the work of Biology, Bioethics, and African American Studies student Grace Eberhardt ’20) demonstrated that Professor Slater “taught a eugenics course and was a proponent of involuntary sterilization, race-based hierarchies, and other views rooted in ableist, racist, and xenophobic attitudes—beliefs that are in direct contradiction to our commitment to diversity.”
During the opening decades of the twentieth century, colleges across the United States taught courses on eugenics. At the University of Puget Sound (then known as the College of Puget Sound, or CPS), and as a member of the Biology Department, professor James R. Slater taught a course on eugenics from 1920 to 1951. Driven by a range of anxieties and the belief that science was an important tool for social reform, eugenics inevitably entailed people making value judgements about individuals and groups. Policy makers, physicians, biologists, legislators, and others drew upon eugenic ideas to justify anti-immigration, involuntary sterilization, and anti-miscegenation laws.
The decision by the Board of Trustees follows several years of work by various committees tasked with wrestling with complex questions about who the university should commemorate and why. What, for example, is the threshold for renaming science buildings and institutions as values and assumptions about the relationship between science and society change? Most importantly, how we can understand, assess and learn from the university’s past?
As a means of understanding the history of eugenics at Puget Sound, students and faculty compiled this website’s Archive Exhibit and a set of Talks by expert scholars on the history of eugenics, in order to address the following questions:
What were the social, political, and cultural contexts within which eugenics became so pervasive?
How did eugenics influence biology curricula and courses? What did Slater teach in the eugenics course and how do we know?
What are the legacies of the eugenics movement in the Pacific Northwest (including disability rights, criminal justice, attitudes toward marginalized individuals and groups, etc.)?
How, as an institution and as individuals, can we best wrestle with and learn from this history?
This Website was created after a symposium on “The History of Eugenics at Puget Sound and Beyond” scheduled for March 28, 2020 had to be cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. The following contributed funds and support to the symposium, and then this website. Thank you!
THE COLLIER COMMITTEE
A grant from the NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION