“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Santayana)
The Santayana passage with which this article begins is a compelling reminder of the enormous importance of history. We forget societal developments of the past to our peril. What this article particularly invites you to remember is psychiatric and psychiatrically driven eugenics. What makes the Santayana quote particularly tricky when it comes to the subject of this article is that while most people are at least somewhat aware that psychiatry played a role in the sterilization and murder of people deemed unfit to live or to breed, this is generally not even close to the full extent of it. Moreover, in part because the psychiatric industry covers its tracks well, most are unaware that there were a great many more forms of psychiatric eugenics. Similarly, most are oblivious to the fact that psychiatric eugenics initiatives continued to exist—and beyond that, to flourish—long after the end of what is normally thought of as “the eugenics era” (roughly, late nineteen century to 1945).
The upshot? Sadly, in critical ways we are not learning from history what we direly need to learn. And we are now facing an upsurge in twenty-first century psychiatric eugenics, strangely unaware of what we are encountering—and as such, ill-equipped to counter it or even to know that we should be countering. Such is the reason for this blog.
In this article, I will be outlining major developments in the eugenic era, covering not only paradigmatic aspects of eugenics but also what tends currently not to be recognized as eugenic. I will proceed to what is likewise not well known—the enormous surge in psychiatric eugenics just following the second world war. From there, I will zero in on the massive and yet all-too-invisible psychiatric eugenic measures that we now face. And I will end by offering a few suggestions of what we might do about the situation.
To begin with the early days, with the definitional, and with the paradigmatic: As far back as the late nineteenth century, psychiatrists among others began adopting a theoretic position known as Social Darwinism—the belief that human groups were subject to the same Darwinian evolutionary principles as animals and plants; moreover, that the social or cultural was inherently biological and so was governed by the same biological laws. While there were other directions as well, Social Darwinists—and yes, they were at the center of the eugenics movement—were particularly concerned with the improvement of their stock. Besides wanting to “perfect” their stock, they were hell-bent on doing whatever was deemed necessary to prevent their stock from going backward in evolution, which they saw both as a real possibility and their number one priority.
Social Darwinism quickly came to be considered the epitome of good science—something to be furthered at all costs. By 1914, so accepted had this new “science” become that as Whitaker writes, in the US alone, “44 colleges had introduced eugenics into the curriculum” (Whitaker, 2002, p. 49).1
Who were the Social Darwinists? The average citizen. Legal theorists. Businessmen, with major players like the Carnegie Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation funding both eugenics conferences and eugenics research. Academics. Scientists of all types, though none more so than members of the psychiatric profession.
An example of a very early psychiatric Social Darwinist was nineteenth century psychiatrist Dr. Henry Maudsley. Maudsley was largely responsible for championing and achieving a professional consensus around the concept of hereditary madness. What he succeeded in convincing his colleagues and the world of is that the brain was the site from which lunacy came and that lunacy was hereditary. Correspondingly, he advised men to inspect prospective wives scrupulously for any physical signs that might indicate degeneration of the stock (for more details, see Burstow, 2015, Chapters 2 and 3).2
A huge percentage of the work of the Social Darwinists was aimed at protecting the average citizen and society at large from the dangers allegedly presented by people seen as having inferior genes. The point, as they saw it, was that their species or their race could evolve as it should or go backward in evolution depending on whether or not people of good stock guarded that stock against the contamination that could come from co-mingling with “undesirables” or even allowing the “undesirables” to procreate. The “undesirables” whose genes were seen as needing to be guarded against were those of specific “races” (e.g., Jews, Blacks, and Roma), anything not “Aryan,” the “mentally ill,” the “feeble-minded,” the disabled generally, and the “criminal element.” It goes without saying that to a person, Social Darwinists were racist, ableist, and classist in the extreme. Correspondingly, while they saw themselves as progressive and as following the dictates of modern science, what they were wrapping themselves in was a combination of hatred and pseudo-science for there was not a shred of credible evidence supporting their position.
Now right from the get-go, psychiatrists were utterly instrumental in spreading eugenic beliefs and implementing eugenics programs. Indeed, it was a psychiatrist, together with a legal theorist, who authored the single most seminal work underpinning the Holocaust in Nazi Germany: Die Friegabe der Vernichtung lebensunwerten lebens (translation: “The permission to destroy life unworthy of life,” Binding and Hoche, 1920).3 Correspondingly, psychiatrists actively championed the idea that “imbeciles” and people with mental challenges were an undue hardship on society.
A pivotal direction taken by eugenicists of this ilk included passing laws authorizing the sterilization of so-called “inferior stock” so as to stop them from reproducing. Sterilization programs abounded throughout the world, with the sterilization of the so-called mentally ill particularly emphasized. Other measures included passing laws prohibiting sexual relations between specific races. And then there were measures encouraging the procreation of citizens of “good stock” (known as “positive eugenics”).
The most horrific of the eugenic measures, of course, was the murder of the “undesirables”—something advocated by eugenicists by the beginning of the twentieth century. Society, it was argued, should not have to bear the burden having these people in their midst.
To be clear, Germany was hardly the only state that considered murdering the people deemed “useless eaters” or “incurables.” Several states, for example, passed laws making it legal to end the life of people seen as mentally challenged, including Indiana in the USA (for details, see Proctor, 1988, Lifton, 1986 and Lapon, 1986).4 5 6Lapon, L. (1986). Mass murderers in white coats. Psychiatric genocide in Nazi Germany and the United States. Psychiatric Genocide Research Institute. It was Nazi Germany, however, that initiated programs involving the systematic annihilation of whole groups.
Who did the Nazis systematically annihilate? Jews, Roma, the so-called “mentally ill” including those seen as “imbeciles,” queer people, and others deemed “degenerate.” And tellingly, who was the very first group to start being systematically annihilated? The disabled, including the “mentally ill.” And what is every bit as telling, who was front and center and indeed singularly instrumental in bringing about the mass murder? None other than psychiatrists.
To begin by zeroing in on the murder of the “mental patients,” besides advocating for it, psychiatrists actually directly murdered their own patients, paving the way for the subsequent murder of Jews. Moreover, psychiatrists were so committed to the job of murder that they continued murdering their own “mental patients” long after the Fuhrer order that permitted such atrocities was rescinded. In fact, hard though it may be to fathom this, they killed considerably more “patients” after it was no longer legal to do so than they had killed earlier (for details, see Proctor, 1988).
Psychiatrists likewise advocated for the murder of the other groups, providing bogus rationales for it. Moreover, going along with the proposition that what they were doing was medical, which included calling murder “treatment” and wearing white coats, they presided over mandatory “selections” to which Jews in particular were subjected; in each case, making the decision to “treat” or “not treat.” To be clear, though the examination in each case lasted seconds only, “selections” were observational/evaluation processes by which it was decided when “treatment” was in order. What is even more significant, it was not the “patient” but the Volk that was treated, with treatment involving nothing less than eradicating “the patient.” Consider in this regard, the following explanation:
“Of course, I am a doctor,” explained one of the medical people, by way of justification, “and as a doctor … out of respect for life, I would remove a gangrenous appendage from a diseased body. The Jew is the gangrenous appendage on the body of mankind (quoted from Lifton, 1986, p. 16).
That said, without question the Holocaust was the most horrific of the developments during the eugenics era. And for very good reason, the fact of it happening has solidly lodged itself in our collective memory. Nonetheless, the role of psychiatry in the Holocaust is typically minimized when in reality, it was absolutely pivotal. What is more important still: what I have outlined here is not even close to the totality of what was done under the name of psychiatric eugenics during this era. Other types of psychiatric eugenics initiatives which were widespread during this period include research into “schizophrenia”—a diagnosis that largely came into its own during this era (particularly in Nazi Germany), despite the utter lack of evidence that what they were calling schizophrenia had any medical basis. Correspondingly, there were several other psychiatric “treatments” both introduced and spearheaded during the eugenics era, likewise on the basis of no credible evidence—treatments, that is, that were consider eugenic although a) they were not tied to gene theory, and b) for the most part, they involved “treatment” of individuals. Key examples of these are lobotomies and the various shock therapies, including electroshock (invented in fascist Italy)—all of which, not coincidentally, went under the all-too-suggestive name “brain-damaging therapeutics” (for details, see Burstow, 2015).
To be clear, there is no question but that the research and experimental work identified above were considered part and parcel of eugenics. In fact, most of it qualified for the special funds made available for eugenics research by the business world (for details, see Whitaker, 2002). How so, you may be wondering, when most of them had nothing to do with genes and most were focused on individuals?
To understand the connection, it might be helpful to touch base with what theorist Nathaniel Comfort (2012) calls the “eugenics impulse.”7 The eugenics impulse, as identified by Comfort, is the impulse to render the human being perfect. Science is used for this (though we might better call it pseudo-science) and violence is acceptable—all in the name of human improvement. To spell out the connection here, just as killing the Jews was seen as rendering the Volk perfect, lobotomy was seen as rendering the defective human being perfect. By the same token, so was subjecting the human being to any one of the various shock or convulsive therapies, all of which, significantly, came into being during this period. In the process, individual rights, respect for difference, an understanding of what it actually means to be a human being and decency itself went “out the window.”
To give you a sense of the violence not only involved but downright extolled, I would turn as an example to an account of two of the convulsive therapies given by Ladislaus von Meduna—the inventor of cardizol convulsive therapy: “We act with both methods as with dynamite endeavoring to blow asunder the pathological sequences and restore the diseased organism to normal functioning,” states Meduna unapologetically. “We are undertaking a violent onslaught with either method we choose, but … nothing less than a violent assault to the organism is enough to break the chain of noxious processes that lead to schizophrenia” (Meduna, 1938, p. 49).8
Again, was there any credible proof that this obviously violent approach was beneficial? No, there was not.
A quick observation here: Whether or not there is such a thing as what Comfort is calling “a eugenics impulse,” I am not prepared to say. What is clear, however, is that we as a species do seem to have an instinct to “perfect”—something which can either function as an asset (say, in the “polishing” of a poem) or can lead to unspeakable atrocity. When this impulse is united with a bogus medicine, bogus disease processes, and when it is applied to human existence and to the social world—all of which is the case with psychiatry—unlike with “perfecting” a poem, the result cannot be anything other than horrific. Hence the horror that is eugenics. And hence the horror that is psychiatry.
Now the eugenic era more or less came to a close by the end of the second world war. Correspondingly, come the Nuremburg trials, people were so horrified by the atrocities that were part and parcel of the Holocaust that eugenics quickly fell into disrepute. The point is, however, that psychiatry was “let off the hook” with respect to the pivotal role that it played. What is even more significant (and what is not unrelated) is that only the most dramatic of the eugenic measures fell into disrepute. While the word “eugenics” was no longer used, for eugenics was now seen as verboten, lobotomy, the shock therapies, and research into schizophrenia continued on unabated with almost no one noticing that this too was eugenics. Eugenics, in other words, continued, although officially, the eugenics era was over.
With the 50s came two other major developments of a eugenics nature that it is important to touch on. By far, the most important of these is the widespread proliferation and use of psychiatric drugs—something which, like electroshock, is a violent assault on the brain. In this regard, please note, by way of example, that use of the very first class of major drugs—the antipsychotics or “neuroleptics” (which tellingly, translates as “seize the nerves”)—was originally referred to as a “chemical lobotomy” by its inventor, who was only too well aware of what it was doing to the brain. What is also apropos here is that while the various psychiatric drugs are predicated on theories of chemical imbalances, these theories not only are unsupported by evidence but over time have been thoroughly contradicted by evidence (see Burstow, 2015). In other words, utterly accepted though these drugs have become, despite the official line on them, it is hardly a stretch calling the proliferation of the psychiatric drugs a new and modern day eugenics push—arguably, the biggest push of them all.
That said, I cannot leave the post-war period without commenting on the work of psychiatrist Dr. Ewen Cameron at the Allan Memorial Institute (AMI) in Montreal, Canada.
Albeit a prestigious psychiatrist who was at various times head of the Canadian Psychiatric Association, head of the American Psychiatric Association, and head of the World Psychiatric Institution—moreover, a respected professional ethicist who sat on the Nuremberg medical tribunal—the truth is that Cameron was profoundly influenced by eugenics. While not seeing Jews as a problem, significantly, Cameron very much saw the German people as a threat to humanity, moreover he saw the threat in question as genetically based. Correspondingly, he made this explicit in a book he penned (Cameron, 1948) wherein he explained “the problem” and suggested “solutions.”9
What is far more important still, at the Allan Memorial throughout the 1950s and up until the mid 1960s, Cameron introduced and spearheaded an extensive and highly damaging regimen for people seen as “mentally ill”—one so extreme that most psychiatric eugenics measures pale by comparison. In stage one, known as “depatterning,” he subjected his patients to a combination of sleep therapy, sensory deprivation, LSD, and ECT several times daily with the stated intent to wipe the mind clean. In stage two, in what was called “psychic driving,” while the patient slept, he implanted new thoughts into their heads, via a tape which played over and over again and which contained concrete messages such as “you are a bad mother; you are a bad wife” (and yes, the sexism was that explicit). Needless to say, people were invariably injured for life by this so-called state-of-the art and progressive “treatment” (for details, see Burstow, 2015).
Now the world eventually learned of what happened at the AMI, this as a result of CIA funding for Cameron’s research being revealed. And when this happened, the public was duly flabbergasted, which in essence opened the door to lawsuits and settlements. Unfortunately, however, people assumed that the Allan Memorial experiments were primarily connected with the cold war and the aspirations of the military. To this day, that, indeed, is the dominant discourse when it comes to the AMI. What belies this assumption and this discourse, however, is that the military were minor players; the vast majority of the funding for Cameron’s research over the years came from Health and Welfare Canada (see Burstow, 2015, Chapter Three, also Weitz, 1986: “A Psychiatric Holocaust”).
The point here, and it needs to be understood, is that the AMI atrocity was not an offshoot of the cold war—not something initiated by the military, not something that happened because the military had a vested interest in brainwashing experiments. What unfolded, rather, was nothing less than a blatant continuation of psychiatric eugenics. Moreover, it was far from hidden. Cameron wrote and published about his theories and experiments extensively and it was on the basis of these publications that Health and Welfare Canada kept awarding Cameron grant after grant to continue his research. Nor was Cameron’s work simply an outlier, for it was connected with other psy initiatives in Canada. In other words, what we have here once again is an inherently psychiatric eugenics initiative, applauded by the “mental health” industry and on a continuum with other experiments being conducted, with psychiatry once again “let off the hook” when it started to be looked upon unfavorably.
Fast forward several decades.
In the period that followed, bogus medical theories continued to proliferate. Bogus diagnoses became standardized in manuals such as the DSM—all of this clearly in line with eugenics principles. Eugenics directions and priorities can likewise be seen at work in the differences between how people from different groupings are treated. Note in this regard the widespread proliferation of psychiatric drugs on Indigenous reserves (see Burstow, 2019).10 Note also, by way of example, the various anti-violence initiatives in the US—all of it transparently targeting people of color (see Burstow, 2015).
Which, willy-nilly, brings us to current times.
I have already provided some clarification on where I am suggesting psychiatric eugenics exists today. To provide a more substantial, albeit incomplete list, each of the following may be seen as a current psychiatric eugenics initiative and/or a tell-tale signs of psychiatric eugenics:
- the emphasis on schizophrenia
- every single one of the diagnoses in the DSM and in related manuals
- the invention of imaginary diseases and imaginary causes for them
- every single use of medical accoutrements for what is transparently not medical—whether it be the employment of medical-sounding diagnoses, the wearing of “white coats” or doctors’ uninforms, the very fact that what is happening is lodged in a facility called a “hospital”
- the blatant targeting of Blacks as schizophrenic
- the singling out of Blacks for lobotomies
- the disproportionate drugging of Blacks and other people of color
- the alarming inroads that psychiatric drugs have made into Indigenous communities
- the vast production of “fudged” research fraudulently claiming to establish chemical imbalances for alleged “mental illnesses”
- the continuing research on gene abnormalities as the cause of some “mental illness” or other
- the existence of laws that authorize doctors to isolate and to incarcerate people who have committed no crime and have no communicable disease
- the very use of the concept of “mental illness”
- the belief in hereditary madness and the ongoing activation of that belief (e.g., phrases like “runs in the family” that are typically sprinkled liberally throughout case files)
- the return of lobotomies
- the constant rise in the use of electroshock
- the very existence of electroshock
- the massive and ever more extensive drugging of the population
- the pretense that psychiatric drugs are tailored to address specific illnesses
- the use of restraints and of sensory deprivation
- “heroic” measures generally
- the ever-increasing growth in the number of official psychiatric diagnoses and in the numbers of people saddled with these diagnoses
- the massive and unparalleled attack on children.
As you can see, some of these are blatantly racist in nature, whereas others are not. Some, though not others, transparently smack of Social Darwinism. What they all have in common is that in all cases the social and the cultural is hopelessly confused with the biological; they are all based on unsubstantiated scientific claims; all are ultimately violent in nature; and all have perfection as a goal—for the most part the “perfection” of the individual. What stands out about some of them, additionally, is that they take the psychiatric eugenics threat to a whole new level.
What makes the rampant growth in the number of and the use of psychiatric diagnoses a particularly dire eugenic threat is that so many people are affected that what we are essentially seeing is tantamount to a redefinition of what it means to be human, with more or less everyone slated for correction. In other words, the threat is no longer just to the person. It is, on a very real level, to the species. This could spell disaster and as such, is highly worrisome. For similar reasons, equally worrisome is the attack on children.
Once upon a time, we accepted that children were different than adults and we saw this difference as both unproblematic and necessary. We expected children, for example, to rebel. We expected them to squirm, to daydream, and to have a comparatively short attention span. Now, however, if they rebel, they may be diagnosed with and “treated” for “oppositional defiant disorder.” And now if their attention wavers, they stand a very strong chance of being labelled ADHD and placed on brain-injuring stimulants (for an article which not only spells out the violence and damage involved but which also demonstrates that the damage is precisely what is called “improvement,” see “Psychiatric Drugging of Children and Youth as a Form of Child Abuse: Not a Radical Proposition”). What is every bit as important as the fact of the damage and violence per se, I would add that once on these drugs, it is no longer possible, for example, for the child’s mind to wander—for their brain, as it were, is in a straitjacket.
What exactly has happened here?
Let me suggest that psychiatry, albeit without anyone in the psychiatric profession being explicit about it or even necessarily being aware of what they are doing, has for all intents and purposes redefined human childhood itself as a disease. To put this another way, psychiatry is “perfecting” the human race precisely by eradicating childhood. And yes, that is eugenic. And yes, it is a “perfection” that we as a society and a species can ill afford.
Creepy though the general direction is, I would just note in passing, what is happening starts looking a whole lot creepier when you factor in legislation of the ilk passed in the US recently. As Tenney showed in her article “Warning: A Psychiatric tsuNAMI is Upon U.S.,” while not in effect yet, recently passed US legislation mandates psychiatric assessment for all children of school age. At this point, does not childhood as we know it start looking like it is in danger of becoming a phenomenon of the past? Correspondingly, while there are clearly profound differences between what is happening here and what happened to the Jews under the Nazis, as a Jew who is an authority on the Holocaust, permit me to point out that once again psychiatrists are slated to be performing mandatory evaluations of a huge proportion of the population just as happened with “Selection” during the Holocaust. Speaking of history repeating itself!
Which bring me to the question: What can we do about any of this?
A detailed answer to that question is beyond the scope of this article. To provide a few suggestions, though, a good beginning is educating people on the history of eugenics, outlining its various facets, while placing particular emphasis on psychiatric eugenics—on all those aspects of eugenics that we long ago stopped recognizing as eugenic.
Individual communities that are especially under attack might also consider starting to mobilize from within their communities. What if Indigenous communities, for instance, started objecting to the eugenic nature of current mainstream approaches to Indigenous “suicide” and began insisting that money now being used for this instead be reallocated directly to their communities? (For a strong antipsychiatry and anti-eugenics take on Indigenous “suicide” by a stellar Indigenous scholar, see Chrisjohn and MacKay, 2017).11
Correspondingly, what if all communities who been substantially invaded by psychiatric eugenics began demanding public apologies for the injury thereby done to them?
Given the massive assault on children and childhood and the imminent danger that it poses, it goes without saying that it is critical to help the general public recognize this specific assault as both eugenic in nature and as the enormous threat that it is. Correspondingly: strategically, we would do well to devote energy to mobilizing parents to stand up for their children and for childhood. Parents, note, are credible to the average member of society in the way that professionals are not, and as such, if helped to become savvy activists, parents could become key players in the struggle ahead.
Before ending, to touch briefly on a question that I know will be on some readers’ minds: Am I suggesting that we should be restricting ourselves to addressing the connection between psychiatry and eugenics? No. As an antipsychiatry theorist and activist, I am committed to the total abolition of this bogus “medical” discipline, irrespective of whether or not a connection with eugenics can be demonstrated with regard to any specific aspect. That said, I see focusing on eugenics as giving us an important new toe-hold with the public. Indeed, a eugenics perspective could help the public do an about-turn. Moreover, it could waken the populace to how very critical the current situation is.
What is more fundamental still, with the eugenics connection being as revealing a window as any onto psychiatry, it could help the average person cut through the professional rhetoric and begin to see psychiatry for what it truly is.
In ending, two final questions:
Given the enormity of the current threat, as activists, is it not time for us to be doubling our efforts to put a stop to psychiatric intrusion, using every means at our disposal? And with the historic and current eugenics record only too clear, as everyday members of society, is it not time that individually and collectively, we stopped “letting psychiatry off the hook”—before we have still more to regret?
- Whitaker, R. (2002). Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill. New York: Perseus Books. ↩
- Burstow, B. (2015). Psychiatry and the business of madness. New York: Palgrave. ↩
- Binding, K. and Hoche, A. (1920). Die Friegabe der Vernichtung lebensunwerten lebens. Leipzig: F. Meiner. ↩
- Proctor, R. (1988). Racial hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis. Harvard: Harvard University Press. ↩
- Lifton, R. (1986). The Nazi doctors. New York: HarperCollins. ↩
- Comfort, N. (2012). The science of human perfection. New Haven: Yale University Press. ↩
- Meduna, L. (1938). General discussions of cardizol therapy, American Journal of Psychiatry, 94, supplement, 41-50. ↩
- Cameron, E. (1948). Life is for living. New York: Macmillan. ↩
- Burstow, B. (2019). The revolt against psychiatry. New York: Palgrave ↩
- Chrisjohn, R. and MacKay, S. (2017). Dying to please you: Indigenous suicide in contemporary Canada. Penticton: Theyton. ↩
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.