Molecular Babylon Series III — A Starr Rises in Indiana

Jordan Hall Greenhouse is a popular field trip destination for elementary age children. It’s doubtful that the teachers reveal the dark history of the man for whom the greenhouse is named.

(This essay is but one installment in the Molecular Babylon series. Part I may be found herePart II may be found here)


Bloomington, Indiana will always be one of my all-time favorite cities. As an avid high school vocalist, I spent summers there during the renowned Indiana University Music School Performers Clinic, and I vaguely recall walking past the gigantic plants on display in the greenhouse. I may have even commented upon them to friends as we headed toward the school bookstore to buy IU branded souvenirs—proof of our vocal triumphs in the shadow of IU’s operatic greats such as Eileen Farrell and Margaret Harshaw.

Many, many years after those naïve teenage years, I’d once again walk past those monstrous plants (grown even larger by then)—this time as a pre-med, biology student. In fact, I still dream about the many student trails that criss-crossed the Sciences section of IU’s sprawling campus. Inevitably, my dream walks take me past the familiar, Victorian style, glass building and the limestone hall behind it, both named for David Starr Jordan.

Imagine my shock then, when my current research into the early 20th century eugenics movement took me back to my Bloomington alma mater and back to Dr. Jordan, a man who epitomized the philosophy of the pseudoscientific movement that packaged racial and social bias within the pretty wrappings bettering humanity.

Eugenecist David Starr Jordan became Indiana University’s first non-cleric president and its youngest.

David Starr Jordan was born in 1851, growing up on a farm in upstate New York. In college, he studied botany but concentrated on becoming an ichthyologist. His early career in academia eventually brought him to Indiana University, where he joined the natural history faculty in 1879. His whirlwind climb up the academic ladder led him to the university presidency within a short six years, becoming the school’s youngest to serve in the distinguished office. He was also the first IU president not to be an ordained minister, which perhaps indicates the direction of public education away from traditional, faith-based curricula. The new science of Darwin was fast replacing the bedrock of a God-centered, God-created universe.

Jordan’s humanist doctrine mirrored that of many, modern scientists. According to the essay, “Meet President Jordan” (found at the Stanford University website)

At a time when American academies were governed largely by tradition-bound clerics and classicists, he was an enthusiastic disciple of Darwin.

During Jordan’s tenure as IU president (1884-1891), he lobbied for funds and presided over the expansion that moved the growing campus to Dunn’s Woods. The energetic leader left an indelible mark on the small town school, and many beloved landmarks bear his name to this day–including Jordan Hall, Jordan Avenue, and even the ‘Jordan River’ (a meandering creek that wanders across campus).

It is no secret that Jordan not only held a strong belief in the ‘blood of a nation’ but wrote about it at length, proselytizing for his errant church in parlors and meeting halls and in print. Indiana University’s own website acknowledges their former president’s philosophy at a page dedicated to the Eugenics Movement. There you will find this summary of one of Jordan’s publications:


An anti-war and pro- eugenics essay, Blood of the Nations was written by educator and eugenics supporter David Starr Jordan. The book contains 82 pages and was published in Boston by the American Unitarian Association. The work is divided into two parts, “Part I, In Peace,” and “Part II, In War.” The author proposes that the “blood of a nation determines its history “ and that the “history of a nation determines its blood.” The term blood was defined as heredity. A major theme suggests that “a race of men or a herd of cattle are governed by the same laws of selection”and proposes that when the fit, brave, and strong are sent to battle to die, the weak and “unfit” remain home and reproduce. It is the descendants of these individuals who, in turn, make up the future character of the nation. He argues that this factor was a cause of the decay of ancient Rome and Greece. The author contends that the British Anglo-Saxon “race” developed a “superior” civilization due to its primogenitor laws (the oldest son was the sole heir) which constantly integrated younger sons and daughters back into the masses. These individuals with ancestry from the nobility, in turn, colonized north American and brought democracy to the new world andBritain. The book, like other eugenics works of the day, decried the decrease in birth rate among the educated as as leading to race suicide. It was given favorable reviews in popular periodicals. [Emphasis in original, indicating a cross-reference]

Jordan helped establish the very first eugenics organization in the US, the Immigration Restriction League (IRL), which lobbied congress to establish a literacy test to weed out “inferior races”. As an ally of the American Breeders Association, the IRL created a Committee on Eugenics that Jordan chaired. Fellow members included Charles Davenport, Alexander Graham BellVernon KelloggLuther BurbankWilliam Earnest CastleAdolf MeyerH. J. Webber and Friedrich Woods. The IRL also formed the Eugenics Records Office that catalogued humans according to their pedigree. The ERO’s statement of purpose states that:

Society must protect itself; as it claims the right to deprive the murderer of his life so it may also annihilate the hideous serpent of hopelessly vicious protoplasm. Here is where appropriate legislation will aid in eugenics and creating a healthier, saner society in the future. [Emphasis Mine]

During these early years of the 20th century, a vague and destructive notion of ‘race suicide’ crept into parlor room chats, floating above loft conversations like so much cigar smoke. According to the Minnesota NPR website, this conversation reached even into the White House.

White Americans feared an “infertility crisis” in their neighborhoods. President Theodore Roosevelt warned in 1903 that immigrants and minorities were too fertile, and that Anglo-Saxons risked committing “race suicide” by using birth control and failing to keep up baby-for-baby.

In one speech, Roosevelt said: “The chief of blessings for any nation is that it shall leave its seed to inherit the land. The greatest of all curses is sterility, and the severest of all condemnations should be that visited upon willful sterility.”

Patriotism, it seems, included large families (for Anglo-Saxons, that is). In fact, the drive for Anglo-Saxon, and even Nordic bloodlines reached such a fervor that some within the movement recommended euthanasia for lesser races. In 1911, a Carnegie bankrolled a report with the chilling title: Preliminary Report of the Committee of the Eugenic Section of the American Breeders Association to Study and to Report on the Best Practical Means for Cutting Off the Defective Germ-Plasm in the Human Population  At the time of its publication, the American Breeders Association presidency was held by none other than James Wilson, Secretary of Agriculture and member of the US President’s cabinet! This horrifying document boasts of the formation of ten select committees to study the following ten Eugenics topics:

  • Feeblemindedness,
  • Insanity
  • Epilepsy
  • Criminality
  • Deafmutism
  • Eye Defects
  • Immigration
  • Sterilization and other means of Eliminating Defective Germ-plasm
  • Genealogy
  • Inheritance of Mental Traits
These committees sought answers to how society might slow and halt the ‘rapid increase’ of ‘defective classes’ and the ‘contamination’ of ‘normal strains’.  Such contamination derived from the following groups and as such were to be ‘eliminated from the human stock’:
  1. The Feebleminded
  2. The Pauper Class
  3. The Criminal Class
  4. The Epileptics
  5. The Insane
  6. The Constitutionally Weak
  7. Those Disposed to Specific Disease; or the Diathetic Class
  8. The Deformed
  9. Those having defective sense organs, as the blind or the deaf, or the kakaisthetic class

The means for this major undertaking to better humanity would include the following ten options:

  1. Life Segregation
  2. Sterilization
  3. Restrictive Marriage Laws and Customs
  4. Eugenic Education
  5. Systems of Matings to remove defective traits
  6. General environment betterment
  7. Polygamy
  8. Euthanasia
  9. Neo-Malthusian Doctrine (contraception)
  10. Lassez-faire (do nothing)
This appalling list might easily have been lifted from a Nazi handbook were it not for the publication date of 1912! The very hubris of these individuals staggers the mind and pricks the heart of anyone who loves his/her fellow humans. Certainly, our beloved Savior died for all–not just for those deemed genetically fit! 

The above list was not simply an academic one. Soon, eugenics entered into mainstream textbooks and into legislative debate. Indiana, in fact, became the first state to legalize enforced sterilization in 1907. By 1912, when this report was published, 8 states had put sterilization on their law books. It is perhaps not coincidental that the two states most connected to David Starr Jordan — Indiana and California (Jordan left IU to become first president at Stanford) — are listed in the report as being most compliant with respect to enforcing their sterilization laws. Indiana sterlized nearly 2500 persons between 1907 and 1974. Yes, you read that ending date correctly. During my high summers in Bloomington, my home state was still enforcing this barbaric and inhumane law. In point of fact, I can tell you that while I worked as a music and arts instructor at the Madison State Hospital in the early 1970s, one particular female resident became the subject of an ‘enforced sterilization’ discussion. Her ‘promiscuity’ (read that as meaning her diminished mental capacity coupled with her innate, teenage beauty made her an easy target) meant she should have a forced hysterectomy. Many of us urged the doctors to consider instruction over surgery, but our voices were outmatched by ‘expert’ opinions. Hers may have been one of the final names in the impersonal data of lost souls.

And what of option number eight? Euthanasia for terminally ill is a hot topic today, but in the turn-of-the-century pundit, euthanasia was considered a humane way of eliminating undesirables.

Both H. G. Wells and D.H. Lawrence favored euthanasia to eliminate undesirable, lesser humans. According to a pdf called “Envisioning the Lethal Gas Chanber’ available at UCPress, Lawrence in fact, wrote:

“…three cheers for the inventors of poison gas,” saying, “If I had
my way, I would build a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace,
with a military band playing softly, and a Cinematograph working
brightly, and then I’d go out in back streets and main streets and bring
them all in, all the sick . . . the maimed; I would lead them gently, and
they would smile me a weary thanks.” 

To anyone who has seen the film ‘Soylent Green’, the above described chamber eerily resembles that used to kill Edward G. Robinson’s character near the end of the picture.

Book Covers - War Against the Weak
Edwin Black’s book is a disturbing look at the American roots of the Nazi drive to create the superhuman.

Writer Edwin Black is considered by many to be the authority on the eugenics movement within the US, and his book, War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race is a must-read for any student of the movement. In an article published at Cutting Edge News in August, 2009, Black visits the reality of Option 8.

Eugenicists did not see euthanasia as a “merciful killing” of those in pain, but rather a “painless killing” of people deemed unworthy of life. The method most whispered about, and publicly denied, but never out of mind, was a “lethal chamber.”

The lethal chamber first emerged in Britain during the Victorian era as a humane means of killing stray dogs and cats. Dr. Benjamin Ward Richardson patented a “Lethal Chamber for the Painless Extinction of Lower Animal Life” in the 1880s. Richardson’s original blueprints showed a large wood- and glass-paneled chamber big enough for a Saint Bernard or several smaller dogs, serviced by a tall slender tank for carbonic acid gas, and a heating apparatus. In 1884 the Battersea Dogs Home in London became one of the first institutions to install the device, and used it continuously with “perfect success” according to a sales proposal at the time. By the turn of the century other charitable animal institutions in England and other European countries were also using the chamber.

Does it shock you that Americans first envisioned the elimination of entire social and racial groups within the confines of a gas chamber? Those who’ve studied history may already know this and more–that many of the same wealthy men who bankrolled the eugenics movement also underwrote the rise of a madman from Austria.


More next time, when we continue to examine the history of eugenics and the road to build the molecular equivalent of Babylon, The Ubermensch, when we visit Margaret Sanger and the illegitimate child of Maria Anna Schicklgruber.




1 Comment

  1. Author

    Thanks, Ann! I’ve fixed the links now!

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