In Spring 2015, artists were invited to produce and perform new work in conversation with the A/P/A Institute at NYU exhibition Haunted Files: The Eugenics Record Office, an immersive recreation of the Long Island epicenter of the American eugenics movement.

Drawing from the exhibition’s reproduced materials, which included eugenics lecture notes, hand-drawn pedigree charts, and endless “human trait” files, these creative works engage with the history of scientific racism in the US and its enduring legacy on how we talk about and understand race, immigration, intelligence, and belonging.

Unheard Voices: Haunted Files, written by Judy Tate and Michael Slade and performed by Antu Yacob and Stina Nielsen

A Poet’s Psalm for the Mismeasured, Cara Page

[Tell me what killed you], Paul Tran

Public Programs

Past Public Programs

America & Its “Unfit” – Eugenics & Now
Friday, September 25 and Saturday, September 26

Disoriented by the “unwashed” immigrants arriving everyday, New Yorker Madison Grant screed The Passing of the Great Race (1916) sounded the alarm for genteel AngloAmerican Protestants. The Eugenics Record Office emerged in the breech of this Gilded Age moment of great extremes — immense wealth and immense urban and rural poverty. “Slum clearance” was framed in a social darwinist language of progress. Forced sterilization was justified in the name of “social efficiency.” Closing the gates was their survival defense.

Today, how have we pushed back these top-down exclusionary policies? How have times changed? How does this past still impact us?

Join us for two days of brainstorming and problem-posing, poets, musicians, scholars, performers, and writers will come together to explore we what we need to do now to make changes.

Haunted Files Closing Party
Friday, March 6, 2015

Through a series of installations, public programs, and online resources, Haunted Files has sought to unpack the legacy of this disappeared “master archive” of eugenics, scientific racism, and Progressivism and its continued influence on the top-down, exclusionary policies of our own moment.

The Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU hosted a closing reception for Haunted Files: The Eugenics Record Office. Stina Nielsen, Michael Oatman, Tommy Pico, Michael Slade, Judy Tate, Paul Tran, and Antu Yacob presented performances and short talks inspired by the project’s installations, convenings, and discoveries.

FOOTAGE [Pending]

Return of the Unfit: A Gathering To Locate, Challenge, & Exorcise Our Eugenic Ghosts
Thursday, November 20, 2014, 7-9PM


A Haunted Walking Tour: Sponsored by the NYU Center for Multicultural Education and Programs
Thursday, November 6, 2014, 6-8PM

Opening Reception for “The Normal”: Images from the Haunted Files of Eugenics
Thursday, October 30, 2014, 6-7:30PM

Opening Reception for Haunted Files: The Eugenics Record Office
Thursday, October 2, 2014, 7-9PM


This timeline gives an overview of scientific racism throughout the world, placing the Eugenics Record Office within a broader historical framework extending from Enlightenment-Era Europe to present-day social thought.

Botanist Carl Linnaeus publishes the 10th edition of Systema Naturae, which is the first to fully describe the four races of man.
Dutch naturalist Petrus Camper begins developing his “facial angle” formula, basing his ideal angle on Grecian statues.
Anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach names the five races of man.
Early 1800s:
Franz Joseph Gall develops “cranioscopy,” which is later renamed phrenology by his disciple Johann Spurzheim.
John Caspar Lavater publishes the foundational text Essays on Physiognomy.
George Combe publishes The Constitution of Man Considered in Relation to External Objects, linking phrenology and racial comparison.
Orson Fowler opens his Phrenological Cabinet in the heart of downtown Manhattan.
Johann Gaspar Spurzheim invigorates the American phrenology movement with his series of lectures in Boston.
Samuel George Morton introduces his theory of craniometry in Crania Americana.
Scottish publisher Robert Chambers releases his Vestiges of the Natural History of Mankind, the most popular work of natural history prior to Darwin’s Origin of Species. Chambers argues that each race represents a different stage of human evolution with whites being the most evolved.
American physician James W. Redfield writes Comparative Physiognomy, which equates each type of people with a specific animal.
French thinker Arthur Comte Gobineau publishes An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Race, arguing for the primacy of the Aryan race.
Charles Darwin release the first edition of On the Origin of Species.
Herbert Spencer coins the phrase “survival of the fittest” in developing his theories of social Darwinism.
French anthropologist Paul Broca develops his “table chromatique” for classifying skin color.
Physician John Downs defines “Mongolian idiocy” which he argues is a regression to the “Oriental stage” of human development.
Francis Galton publishes Hereditary Genius, outlining his theories or human breeding.
Italian psychiatrist Cesare Lombroso releases Criminal Man, which outlines his theory of criminal anthropology.
Richard Dugdale publishes The Jukes, which links crime and heredity.
The Chinese Exclusion Act is passed, excluding Chinese laborers from immigration for ten years.
Galton coins the term eugenics.
Chief of the New York City Detective Bureau Thomas F. Byrnes publishes Professional Criminals of America in which he collects the mug shots of notable criminals.
The Chinese Exclusion Act is renewed for ten more years under the Geary Act.
The World’s Columbian Exposition opens in Chicago with country pavilions organized according to scientific theories of race.
Andrew Carnegie pens “The Gospel of Wealth,” justifying the extreme wealth of the robber barrons.
Gregor Mendel’s theories of inheritance are “rediscovered.”
The Chinese Exclusion Act is made permanent.
Curator of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian Institute Ales Hrdlicka publishes Broca’s “table chromatique” in the U.S.
The German Society for Racial Hygiene is founded.
Alfred Binet invents the IQ test for measuring intelligence.
The Eugenics Education Society is founded in Britain.
The first American compulsory sterilization law goes into effect in 1907 in Indiana with dozens of states following suit.
Zoologist Charles Davenport founds the Eugenics Record Office at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory with a grant from Mrs. E.H. Harriman.
The Joint-Congressional Dillingham Commission recommends reading and writing tests to slow “undesirable” immigration.
Franz Boas publishes The Mind of Primitive Man arguing for the role of environmental factors in the apparent differences between races.
The First International Conference of Eugenics is held in London, presided over by Charles Darwin’s son Leonard.
Eugenicist Henry Goddard introduces the IQ test at Ellis Island.
Madison Grant publishes The Passing of the Great Race, splitting Europe into three racial groups: Nordics, Alpines, and Mediterraneans.
The Immigration Act of 1917 includes the Asiatic Barred Zone, which excludes nearly all immigrants from Asia.
Lothrop Stoddard writes The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy.
The Emergency Quota Act is signed into law, heavily restricting immigration from Eastern & Southern Europe.
The Second International Congress of Eugenics is held at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
Carl Bringham publishes A Study of American Intelligence, which uses the IQ testing done by Robert Yerkes to support differences in intelligence between races.
The Immigration Act of 1924 becomes law imposing a quota system that favored Northern & Western Europe and excluding immigration from all of Asia.
U.S. Congressman from New York Emanuel Celler gives his first major speech on the House floor against the Immigration Act of 1924.
The Supreme Court upholds compulsory sterilization in Buck v. Bell.
The Third International Eugenics Conference is held at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. ERO Director Charles B. Davenport presides.
The Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences is released with many of the anthropology articles written by Boasians, not Grantians.
The Third Reich enacts the first German compulsory sterilization law.
The Carnegie Institution of Washington orders an external scientific review of the ERO, and finds its records “unsatisfactory for the scientific study of human genetics.”
Madison Grant dies.
The Pioneer Fund is founded by Wickliffe Draper to support racial research. ERO superintendent Harry Laughlin serves as its first president.
The Eugenics Record Office shuts down.
Chinese Exclusion is repealed and a quota is given of 105 immigrants per year.
The McCarran-Walter bill is passed, revising but not eliminating the quota system of immigration.
The Hart-Celler Act repeals the immigration quota system and establishes a new system based on skills and family relation.
Richard J. Hernstein and Charles Murray release The Bell Curve which argues for racial difference in IQ.
The American Anthropological Association issues a statement on race, concluding that contemporary science makes clear that human populations are not “unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups.”
North Carolina finally repeals its compulsory sterilization law.
New York Times journalist Nicholas Wade argues for race-based science in A Troublesome Inheritance.

Outside Links

Eugenics Archive
Explore the most comprehensive digital archive of the American eugenics movement, compiled under an initiative led by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories.

Eugenics: Compulsory Sterilization in 50 American States
Lutz Kaelber at the University of Vermont has compiled a set of statistics and resources related to the history compulsory eugenic sterilization in every American state, tracing the legal battles of sterilization laws that would lead to the sterilization of over 60,000 individuals.

The Lynchburg Story: Eugenic Sterilization in America
This documentary tells the story of The Lynchburg Colony for the Epileptic and Feebleminded in Virginia, where 8,000 children and teens were forcibly sterilized between 1927 and 1972. Here, Carrie Buck was sterilized after the Supreme Court ruled eugenic sterilization constitutional in the 1927 Buck v. Bell case.

Malaga Island: A Story Best Left Untold
A chilling documentary explores the 1912 eviction of a mixed-race community living on an island off the coast of Maine. Motivated by racism, eugenics, and political retribution, the state of Maine erased the Malaga community, sending eight islanders to a Maine institution for the “feebleminded,” and leaving the rest to survive on the mainland.

Medicine After the Holocaust
The Center for Medicine After the Holocaust works to challenge doctors, nurses, and bioscientists to personally confront the medical ethics of the Holocaust and apply that knowledge to contemporary practice and research, and to tell the often obscured history of American compliance and support for German eugenics on the part of countless American eugenicists, physicians, philanthropists, and politicians in the 1920s and 1930s.

No Más Bebés (No More Babies)
This forthcoming documentary, directed by Renee Tajima-Peña, explores the stories of immigrant mothers who sued county doctors, the state, and the U.S. government after they were coerced into sterilizations while giving birth at the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center during the 1960s and 70s. Led by an intrepid, 26-year-old Chicana lawyer and armed with hospital records secretly gathered by a whistle-blowing young doctor, the mothers faced public exposure and stood up to powerful institutions in the name of justice.

Perfecting Mankind: Eugenics and Photography

An extended brochure from the 2001 International Center of Photography exhibit explores how photography – as in Galton’s development of composite portraiture – was used as “evidence” for eugenic ideas of hereditary and racial superiority.

The Quinacrine Report: Sterilization, Modern Day Eugenics, and the Anti-Immigrant Movement
A report from the Center for New Community uncovers the disturbing links between modern day far-right interest groups and the leaders of the pre-WWII American eugenics movement.

Race and Membership in American History: The Eugenics Movement
A fantastic curricular resource for teachers looking to incorporate critical perspectives on eugenics history into the classroom. A project of Facing History and Ourselves.
The Social Welfare History Project is a wonderful resource collecting information about the history of American social welfare as it relates to disability, poverty, immigration, and beyond. Take a look in particular at their historical resources on individuals with intellectual disabilities, which includes materials illustrating how American psychologists, social workers, and the general population understood “idiots” and the “feebleminded” during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Faculty and students at University College London reckon with the legacy of Francis Galton, UCL professor and founder of eugenics in this incredible video piece.

Vermont Eugenics: A Documentary History
A comprehensive, critical history of Vermont’s role in the American eugenics movement.

Archival Collections and Initiatives

American Eugenics Society Papers, Charles Benedict Davenport Papers, and the Eugenics Record Office Records, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia.

Carnegie Institution of Washington Eugenics Record Office Collection, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives, Cold Spring Harbor, NY.

Harry H. Laughlin Papers, Pickler Memorial Library at Truman State University, Kirksville, MO.

Margaret Sanger Papers Project, Division of Libraries, New York University.

Recommended Texts

Allen, Garland E. “The Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, 1910–1940: An Essay in Institutional History.” Osiris, 2nd Series, Vol. 2, 1986.

Bashford, Alison and Levine, Philippa. The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Burke, Chloe S and Castaneda, Christopher J. The Public and Private History of Eugenics [Special issue]. The Public Historian, 29:3 (2007).

Browne, Simone. Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. Duke University Press, 2015.

Carey, Allison C. “The Feebleminded versus the Nation.” In On the Margins of Citizenship: Intellectual Disability and Civil Rights in Twentieth-Century America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009.

Duster, Troy. Backdoor to Eugenics. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Goldsmith, Meredith. “White Skin, White Mask: Passing, Posing, and Performing in The Great Gatsby.” Modern Fiction Studies, Fall 2003.

Gonzales, Angela, Kertész, Judy, and Tayac, Gabrielle. “Eugenics as Indian Removal: Sociohistorical Processes and the De(con)struction of American Indians in the Southeast.” The Public Historian 29 (2007): 53-67.

Gould, Stephen Jay. Mismeasure of Man (second edition). W.W. Norton & Company, 1996.

Hansen, Randall and Desmond King. “Welfare, African Americans, and Coerced Sterilization.” In Sterilized by the State: Eugenics, Race, and the Population Scare in Twentieth-Century North America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013

Leonard, Thomas C. Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era.

Lombardo, Paul A., ed. A Century of Eugenics in America: From the Indiana Experiment to the Human Genome Era. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2011.

Murdoch, Stephen. IQ: A Smart History of a Failed Idea. Wiley, 2007. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016.

Nelkin, Dorothy. “The Revival of Eugenics in American Popular Culture.” Journal of the American Women’s Association 52 (1997): 45.

O’Brien, Gerald V. Framing the Moron: The Social Construction of Feeble-Mindedness in the American Eugenic Era. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2013.

Ordover, N. American Eugenics: Race, Queer Anatomy, and the Science of Nationalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

Rafter, Nicole Hahn. Creating Born Criminals. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

Roberts, Dorothy. Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first Century. New York: The New Press, 2011.

Sekula, Allan. “The Body and the Archive.” October 39 (1986): 3–64.

Spiro, Jonathan Peter. Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant. Burlington, VT: University of Vermont Press, 2009.

Torpy, Sally J. “Native American Women and Coerced Sterilization: On the Trail of Tears in the 1970s.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 24:2 (2000): 1-22.

Turda, Marius. Modernism and Eugenics. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.