In 1927 Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote a landmark opinion upholding a Virginia law authorizing forced sterilization of the mentally feeble “for the protection and health of the state.” Holmes’ decision caused the sterilization of an 18-year-old woman, Carrie Buck, who had scored a mental age of 9 on the Stanford-Binet intelligence test. Holmes noted that Buck’s 52-year-old mother had a mental age of 7 as he penned his infamous words, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
Following Holmes’ ruling, more than 7,500 Virginians were involuntarily deprived of their reproductive rights.
The foundation of Holmes’ ruling rests on a notion called “eugenics,” which holds that the human race could be improved by increasing the fraction of the breeding population with desirable characteristics and restricting the fraction of “deplorables.”
Eugenics “scientifically’’ justified the racism and anti-Semitism that dominated American culture during the first half of the 20th century.
Eugenics “scientifically’’ justified the racism and anti-Semitism that dominated American culture during the first half of the 20th century. Prominent scientists became strong advocates of eugenic principles including University of Southern California President Rufus von KlienSmid, and Caltech’s first president, Robert Millikan. Both men were prominent leaders of the Human Betterment Foundation, a leading eugenic advocacy organization.
Recently, USC addressed its past. It removed Von KleinSmid’s name and bust from a central building on its Los Angeles campus.
Millikan, a world-renowned physicist, experimentally demonstrated that the charge of an electron was quantized — a foundational premise of quantum mechanics. Following his Nobel Prize in 1923, his celebrity status elevated Caltech to the top of American research institutions. Millikan iconography floods Caltech. The tallest building on campus is the nine-story Millikan library overlooking the Millikan reflecting pond, adjoined by Millikan’s bust. His association with eugenics is barely mentioned in the Caltech community.
Millikan’s dark background emerged into full sunlight a few weeks ago. A group of Caltech family members released a petition from more than 1,000 Caltech employees and students asking Caltech to, “rename all buildings, spaces, and programs named after Robert A. Millikan, including the Robert A. Millikan Memorial Building, Millikan Library, Millikan Pond, and the Athenaeum’s Millikan Suite.” It also calls for removing the Millikan bust.
A week later, Caltech President Thomas Rosenbaum named a special task force to “explore naming and recognition policies at Caltech.” It will “consider and make recommendations for general policies related to space naming and other forms of recognition, as well as consideration of specific building names on campus.”
Following the end of apartheid in South Africa, the country remained racially polarized. Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu argued that healing might accelerate if authorities were to openly address their past behavior, then, reconciliation could replace retribution in finding justice. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation commissions helped heal a badly wounded nation. Could Caltech emulate this history?
A tangible response might be to re-name some of the Millikan icons at Caltech in honor of the victims of eugenic torture. Could Caltech be so bold as to re-name its library after Carrie Buck and place a monument in the reflecting pond explaining the fate suffered by thousands of Carrie Bucks at the hands of American science as defined by Von KleinSmid and Millikan?
Can Caltech experience truth and reconciliation?
Robert M. Nelson
Republished with the author's permission.