The Eugenics Record Office (ERO), located in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, United States, was a research institute that gathered biological and social information about the American population, serving as a center for eugenics and human heredity research from 1910 to 1939. It was established by the Carnegie Institution of Washington's Station for Experimental Evolution, and subsequently administered by its Department of Genetics.
Both its founder, Charles Benedict Davenport, and its director, Harry H. Laughlin, were major contributors to the field of eugenics in the United States. Its mission was to collect substantial information on the ancestry of the American population, to produce propaganda that was made to fuel the eugenics movement, and to promote of the idea of race-betterment.
The eugenics movement was popular and viewed as progressive in the early-twentieth-century United States. Charles Davenport was one of the leaders of this campaign and avidly believed that it was necessary to apply Mendelian Genetics principles to humans. Davenport's wife, Gertrude Davenport, was also an important figure in this movement and the establishment of the ERO. Gertrude Davenport was an embryologist and a geneticist who wrote papers with her husband supporting the idea that Mendelian genetics theories applied to humans.
Supported by the argument that the eugenics office would collect information for human genetics research, Davenport convinced the Carnegie Institute to establish the ERO. He was well connected to wealthy people during the time and he lobbied them to finance his vision of the ERO. The ERO was financed primarily by Mary Harriman (widow of railroad baron E. H. Harriman), the Rockefeller family, and then the Carnegie Institution until 1939. In 1935 the Carnegie Institution sent a team to review the ERO's work, and as a result the ERO was ordered to stop all work. In 1939 the Carnegie Institution's new President, Vannevar Bush, forced Laughlin's retirement and withdrew funding for the ERO entirely, leading to its closure at the end of that year.
Superintendent Harry H. Laughlin, formerly a school superintendent in Iowa, held a position akin to that of an assistant director of the ERO. Charles Davenport appointed Laughlin as a head of the ERO due to Laughlin's extensive knowledge about breeding and the implementation of this knowledge in humans. Under the direction of Laughlin, the ERO advocated laws that led to the forced sterilization of many Americans it categorized as 'socially inadequate'.
The endeavors of the Eugenics Record Office were facilitated by the work of various committees. The Committee on Inheritance of Mental Traits included among its members Robert M. Yerkes and Edward L. Thorndike. The Committee on Heredity of Deafmutism included Alexander Graham Bell. Harry H. Laughlin was on the Committee on Sterilization, and the Committee on the Heredity of the Feeble Minded included, among others, Henry Herbert Goddard. Other prominent board members included scientists like Irving Fisher, William E. Castle, and Adolf Meyer.
In the 1920s, the ERO merged with the Station for Experimental Evolution and adopted the name of the Department of Genetics of the Carnegie Institute.
Eventually, the ERO closed on December 1939 in part due to the disapproval it received. The information that had been collected by the ERO was distributed amongst other genetic research based organizations and collections services.
The ERO's reports, articles, charts, and pedigrees were considered scientific facts in their day, but have since been discredited. In 1944 its records were transferred to the Charles Fremont Dight Institute for the Promotion of Human Genetics at the University of Minnesota. When the Dight Institute closed in 1991, the genealogical material was filmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah and given to the Center for Human Genetics. The non-genealogical material was not filmed and was given to the American Philosophical Society Library. The American Philosophical Society has a copy of the microfilm as well. Today, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory maintains the full historical records, communications and artifacts of the ERO for historical, teaching and research purposes. The documents are housed in a campus archived and can be accessed online and in a series of multimedia websites.
The ERO collected research mostly through questionnaires. These questionnaires asked questions which described the characteristics of individual people and their families. These characteristics ranged from physical to temperamental properties. Many of these questionnaires were collected by field workers, usually educated women (who had few other jobs open to them), who would go door-to-door asking people to fill out this information. Many of these women had bachelor's degrees in biology, and graduate school degrees were not uncommon. Additionally, the ERO had other methods of collecting these questionnaires such as sending them through the mail, and promoting them as methods for families to learn about their genetic lineage and family history.
The research collected by these field workers provided much of the information which facilitated the passage of several laws during the 1920s.
The ERO disseminated its information and its message via a variety of outlets. These included a journal called Eugenical News, posters with propaganda full messages about intelligent breeding, and pamphlets with information on the movement.
Eugenics was and continues to be a controversial issue due to the pressure radical eugenicists put on the government to pass legislation that would restrict the liberties of the people who had traits that could be considered undesirable. Specifically, the ERO dedicated its resources to the restriction of immigrants and the forced sterilization of individuals with undesirable characteristics. They promoted their ideas through the distribution of propaganda that came in the form of images and information packets.
Something else that caused tension within and surrounding the ERO was Harry H. Laughlin's radical policy suggestions. He was known for presenting fraudulent evidence to support policies of forced sterilization and was known for dogmatism.
Furthermore, the rise of Nazism in the 1930s and their use of and belief in eugenics led to large criticism and the ultimate closing of the ERO and their practices.