California Eugenics Movement: "Reduce Biological Illiteracy"

Sir Francis Galton first defined the term eugenics in 1883, eventually describing it as the "the science which deals with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race" as well as those that "develop them to the utmost advantage." The goal of eugenics was to give "more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable." In the early twentieth century, eugenics movements thrived across the globe, in dozens of countries as diverse as Argentina, Japan, India, and Germany. Although the scope of eugenics differed from place to place, its proponents shared the belief that directing reproduction and biological selection could better, even perfect, society.

Eugenics flourished in California from 1900 into the 1940s. During this period the Golden State was home to a dynamic eugenics movement composed of an influential web of individuals and groups that endorsed, financed and directed eugenic projects, such as sterilization of the “unfit,” immigration restriction, and intelligence-testing. Eugenics organizations active during this period included the Pasadena-based Human Betterment Foundation (founded by the citrus magnate Ezra S. Gosney), the American Institute of Family Relations (AIFR) under the direction of Paul Poponoe in central Los Angeles, and the California Division of the American Eugenics Society.

The eugenic goals advanced by these organizations were written into law and administered by the state Department of Institutions. This state agency implemented exclusionary racial policies such as deportation, as well as the widespread use of intelligence testing and sterilization of the state’s institutionalized populations. In 1909, California passed the third sterilization bill in the nation. This law (expanded in 1913 and 1917) empowered the state to order the sterilization of individuals deemed insane, feebleminded, or otherwise unfit. By 1979, when the sterilization law was overturned, California was credited with performing one third, of the 60,000 sterilizations carried out nationwide under the aegis of state governments.

By the 1920s, through generous financial support, organizational membership and the founding of new eugenics groups, C. M. Goethe established himself as a magnet of the eugenics movement. He corresponded with influential California eugenicists, including Chancellor David Starr Jordan, president of Stanford University, Paul Popenoe and Ezra Gosney, and Professor Lewis S. Terman, as well as Charles Davenport, director of the Eugenics Committee of the American Breeders’ Association. In the early 1920s, Goethe campaigned for the implementation of a restrictive quota system to reduce the immigration of Mexicans to California. In 1924, Goethe and UC Berkeley professor Samuel J. Holmes founded the Eugenics Section of the Commonwealth Club of California. Goethe also strove to put his eugenic beliefs into practice through his real estate business by “instruct[ing his] brokers to make no more sales” to Mexicans.

The California eugenics movement provided national leadership following World War II. Beginning in the 1940s, Paul Popenoe helped to reorient eugenics away from legislative interventions toward the domain of domesticity and the family. As public concern over population control, and marriage counseling and family planning grew, eugenicists found new arenas to continue promoting the proliferation of the “fit.”

Grand Aim of Eugenics
“It seemed wise to reduce gradually, and with due caution, the number of congenitally unfit, such as criminals, sex-perverts, the insane, the blind. HOWEVER, THE GRAND AIM MUST BE TO INCREASE THE PROPORTION OF THE TALENTED.”

C.M. Goethe, Sierran Cabin…from Skyscraper, p. 16

“Biological Illiteracy”

“One continually is amazed at the appalling and tragic ignorance of the average American in matters biological. Have we not a responsibility to end biological illiteracy? If once we raise a generation trained in biology, we will have different kind of law-making.”

Charles M. Goethe, Seeking to Serve, p. 28

“We-2 Dedicated Lives to Lessen ‘Biological Illiteracy.’”
The American Nature Study Society, November 1963.
pp. 1, 3. From the J. Harold Severaid papers

“We-2 Dedicated Lives to Lessen ‘Biological Illiteracy’”

The author of the article states that “in keeping with the idea of assisting youth in their quest for knowledge, he [C. M. Goethe] has contributed to many Junior Academies of Science and to other organizations including ANSS…. His purpose in life has been to encourage every effort that lessens ‘biological illiteracy.’”

“Those trained in biology tended to vote far more intelligently than those biologically illiterate.”

Charles M. Goethe, Seeking to Serve, p. 32

Letter from Charles M. Goethe to Warner L. Marsh, March 31, 1961

Letter from Charles M. Goethe to Warner L. Marsh

Charles M. Goethe wrote to Warner L. Marsh saying, "Again, may I express very deep appreciation of what you'all [the C. M. Goethe Arboretum Society] are doing thusly toward REDUCING U.S.A'S BIOLOGICAL ILLITERACY. Again and again there come evidences of men in high places, making wrong decisions, even tho having good intellects, because they lacked early in life insight into the miracles of the out-of-doors."

Goethe, C. M. War Profits…and Better Babies.
Sacramento: Keystone Press, 1946. cover, p. 94

War Profits and Better Babies

In War Profits and Better Babies, Charles M. Goethe writes about Papa Dachert, who accumulated vast war profits during World War I and expanded his profits to build a eugenical garden-city in Strassburg, France in the 1920s. The experiment consisted of 120 houses available only to “young married couples in good health.”

The Symbolic Egret

The egret was the mascot for the Eugenics Society of Northern California. The plight of the egret symbolized the possibility of the “near-extinct’s comeback.” He said that “extinction stories about fauna and flora are valuable because they show a parallel to trends of certain human groups toward extinction.” (War Profits and Better Babies, p. 96) Extinction of the desirable human groups, such as the Anglo-Saxons, would be detrimental to the human race and the quality of life.

C. M. Goethe. The Elfin Forest. Sacramento: Keystone Press, 1953. p. 74

Elfin Forest and "American Know-How"

C. M. Goethe wrote about the Elfin Forest and how the Elfin Forest compares to eugenics. On page 74, Goethe said that the "'Growth of American Know How' can be gauged by increasing membership in the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It's membership statistics show 'since its organization in 1848 its membership has increased more than 45-fold, from 461 to more than 21,000. In the same interval, the population of the United States increased only 6-fold."  

“American Know How”

“This ‘American Know How’ did not just happen. It is the product of 10 years of history’s fiercest SELECTION. Those coming to James River in 1606, to Plymouth Rock in 1620, courageously faced annual mortality rates as high as 50%. This meant that, 2 people last New Year’s knew that, before next New Year’s, one might be dead. Peopling Saxon America required said 10 pioneering generations. On the Frontier, the weakling, physically or mentally, just died. He did not live long enough to father many children.”

Charles M. Goethe, The Elfin Forest, p. 78


Charles M. and Mary Goethe in Japan, circa 1911


Charles M. and Mary Goethe in Japan

Charles M. and Mary Goethe traveling by Kago in Japan, circa 1911. He often used this photograph in his books and eugenic pamphlets to show how some countries have not reached the same technological advances as the United States. C. M. and Mary visited many countries in support of public playgrounds from 1911 to 1912.

“C. M. Goethe Back from Abroad,
Studied Playgrounds in Many Lands.”
Sacramento Union, May 17, 1912,
from the Playgrounds Scrapbook

Studied Playgrounds Abroad

Charles M. and Mary Glide Goethe embarked on a multi-city tour through Asia, Africa, and Europe to “study the possibilities of expanding and developing the betterment work carried on by the Playground Association of America, of which Mr. Goethe is an enthusiastic member…there are many other movements, such as the nature study and walking club that I gained points on while abroad….” Goethe was interested in how space and environment could serve the aim of human betterment.

Passport for Charles M. Goethe
and Mary Glide Goethe, 1924

Passport for Charles M. and Mary Goethe, 1924

Charles M. and Mary Goethe traveled extensively throughout the United States and around the world from 1903 to 1946. After Mary’s death in 1946, Charles became a recluse.

White Pioneer Stock

Charles M. Goethe, like his contemporaries, promoted a mythological vision of California as a Garden of Eden and as the crucible for the creation of, according to Luther Burbank, “a magnificent race, far superior to any preceding it.” Central to the fulfillment of California’s Arcadian promise was the preservation and perpetuation of the state’s frontier “race,” specifically the “white pioneer stock.” To this end, Goethe elevated a particular rendition of history, emphasizing in his voluminous writings the settlement of California by “those blue-eyed, blonde empire-building Nordics.” Goethe promoted the preservation of Gold Rush towns such as Whiskeytown, One-Horse Town and Flea Valley, as a primary means of protecting and celebrating California’s vibrant pioneer past.

For Goethe, Jedediah Smith was the quintessential white pioneer. To honor “this great pathfinder and explorer,” Goethe paid for the creation of the Jedediah Smith Grove in Mill Creek State Redwoods Park in Del Norte County through the Save-the-Redwoods League. Goethe later had a commemorative plaque placed at the memorial grove, which continues to perpetuate his vision of California’s white pioneer history: “To Jedediah Smith, referred to as ‘Bible-Toter,’ first white man to cross from the Mississippi to the Pacific, thus starting the train of events which made California the 31st star in our flag.”

“An American of pioneer stock does not have adequate sized families when he knows he cannot properly feed, clothe, educate them in competition with immigrants from lands where wages for a whole month hardly equal his earnings for an hour.”

Charles M. Goethe, Sierran Cabin…from Skyscraper, p. 24

“Eugenics Pamphlets.” Eugenics Society
of Northern California. Sacramento, undated. No. 63

“Eugenics Pamphlets” and the Eugenics Society of Northern California

Charles M. Goethe and Eugene H. Pitts founded the Eugenics Society of Northern California (ESNC) in 1933. The ESNC became an important catalyst for eugenics in California. Pitts served as the first president and Goethe’s office at the Capital National Bank in Sacramento served as headquarters. Goethe personally funded and published the Eugenics Pamphlets under the ESNC. In the Eugenics Pamphlets, he shared his eugenic vision by encouraging people with “desirable traits” to have more children. The eugenics publications were sent to influential people, major libraries, and universities across the United States.

"Eugenics Pamphlets." Eugenics Society of Northern California. Sacramento, undated. No. 39. pp. 12-13

Eugenics Pamphlets, no. 39

Eugenics Pamphlets, no. 39 by the Eugenics Society of Northern California discussed various subjects: Mjoen and U.S.A.'s Immigration Quota Acts, Mjoen and U.S.A.'s 1950 Census, The Hague's Eugenics Program, and Select the Best. Dr. Mjoen supported the United State's Johnson Acts, because "they severely limited immigration from nations furnishing U.S.A. a high percentage of lowpowers, and admitting those sending us an acceptable proportion of the Talented as shown by our World War I Army Tests." 


Immigration Study Commission

Charles M. Goethe founded the Immigration Study Commission in the early 1920s to investigate the influx of “low-powers” to California, especially Mexicans and Southern Europeans, whom he alleged were endangering the state’s pioneer heritage. Alarmed by the apparent “over-breeding” of “Mexican peons” (who “multiply like rabbits”) and the “under-breeding” of “old American-Nordic” families, Goethe (using a term coined by Theodore Roosevelt) publicly railed against the dangers of “race suicide.”

In addition to the problem of “differential fecundity,” Mexican immigrants, according to David Starr Jordan, brought “with them bubonic plague, small pox, and typhus fever,” and place a heavy burden on California’s economy. To address these perceived problems, Goethe with UC Berkeley professor Samuel J. Holmes and other notable Californians, pressed for implementation of strict immigration caps against Mexicans. Throughout the twentieth century, most recently in the approval of Proposition 187 in 1994, Californians have repeatedly advocated legislation based in similar xenophobic perspectives.

Franklin Hichborn. “Red Morals.” California Liberals Committee, 1920

Clarence J. Gamble. “The Prevention of Mental Deficiency by Sterilization, 1949.” Reprinted from The American Journal of Mental Deficiency. vol. 56, July 1951, p. 192

Eugenic Pamphlets

“Red Morals” and “The Prevention of Mental Deficiency by Sterilization” are two of the eugenic pamphlets that remain in the Goethe Papers.

IQ and Votes

“In a democracy, discussing current events with any voter educates one. One sometimes wonders whether, eugenically, the moron should have the same number of votes as one with an I.Q. [Intelligence Quotient] of, say, 140. One recalls the old Greek concept of Government-by-the-Best.”

Charles M. Goethe, Seeking to Serve, p. 42

Letter from Strom Thurmond to C. M. Goethe, March 11, 1957

Letter from Robert F. Kennedy to C. M. Goethe, July 23, 1965

Letters from Congressmen

In the 1950s, Charles M. Goethe wrote to select Congressmen, including Robert F. Kennedy and Strom Thurmond, urging that the Walter-McCarran Act and related immigration bills retain national origins quotas. Kennedy answered Goethe’s questions regarding immigration stating that, “The aims of the immigration bill now before Congress are not to increase immigration sharply but to allocate existing quota numbers fairly—on the basis of individual merit and on the basis of individual merit and relationship to the United States citizens and residents, rather than on the outmoded standards of an immigrant’s place of birth.” In his reply, Strom Thurmond concurred with Goethe: “I am also opposed to opening up our immigration flood gates.”


In a Report of the Board of Directors of the Human Betterment Foundation in 1935, an excerpt of a letter from C. M. Goethe to E. S. Gosney was reprinted praising Gosney on his influence with German Eugenics:

“You will be interested to know that your work has played a powerful part in shaping the opinions of the group of intellectuals who are behind Hitler in this epoch-making program. Everywhere I sensed that their opinions have been tremendously stimulated by American thought, and particularly by the work of the Human Betterment Foundation. I want you, my dear friend, to carry this thought with you for the rest of your life, that you have really jolted into action a great government of 60 million people.”