Esther M. Zimmer Lederberg Memorial Website
Charles Benedict Davenport (June 1, 1866–February 18, 1944)
was a prominent United States eugenicist and biologist. He was one of the
leaders of the American eugenics movement, which was directly involved in
the compulsory sterilization of around 60,000 "unfit to live" Americans
and strongly influenced the Holocaust in Europe. 1
Davenport was born in Stamford, Connecticut, to Amzi Benedict Davenport,
an abolitionist of puritan stock, and his wife Jane Joralemon Dimon (of
English, Dutch and Italian ancestry). He attended Harvard University,
earning a Ph.D in biology in 1892 and married Gertrude Crotty, a
zoology graduate, in 1894.
Later on, Davenport became a professor of zoology at Harvard. He became
one of the most prominent American biologists of his time, pioneering
new quantitative standards of taxonomy. Davenport had a tremendous respect
for the biometrics approach to evolution pioneered by Francis Galton and
Karl Pearson, and was involved in Pearson's journal, Biometrika.
However, after the re-discovery of Gregor Mendel's laws of heredity, he
moved on to become a prominent supporter of Mendelism.
In 1898, Davenport became director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory,
2 where he founded the Eugenics
Record Office in 1910. He began to study human heredity, and much of
his effort was later turned to promoting eugenics.
Davenport founded the International Federation of Eugenics Organizations
(IFEO) in 1925, with Eugen Fischer as chairman of the Commission on
Bastardization and Miscegenation (1927). Davenport aspired to found a
World Institute for Miscegenations, and "was working on a 'world map'
of the 'mixed-race areas, 3
which he introduced for the first time at a meeting of the IFEO in Munich
in 1928." 4 Together with his
assistant Morris Steggerda, Davenport attempted to develop a
comprehensive quantitative approach to human miscegenation. The results
of their research was presented in the book Race Crossing in Jamaica
(1929), which attempted to provide statistical evidence for biological and
cultural degradation following interbreeding between white and black
populations. Today it is considered a work of scientific racism, and
was criticized in its time for drawing conclusions which stretched far beyond
(and sometimes counter to) the data it presented. 5
The entire eugenics movement was criticized for being supposedly based on
racism and classist assumptions set out to prove the unfitness of wide
sections of the American population which Davenport and his followers
considered "degenerate", using methods criticized even by British
eugenicists as unscientific. 6
After Adolf Hitler's rise to power in Germany, Davenport maintained
connections with various Nazi institutions and publications, both before and
during World War II. For example, Davenport held editorial positions at two
influential German journals, both of which were founded in 1935, and in 1939
he wrote a contribution to the Festschrift for Otto Reche, who became
an important figure in the plan to "remove" those populations considered
"inferior" in Wartheland (German Ost). 7
He died of pneumonia in 1944.
As quoted in the NAS Biographical Memoir of Charles Benedict Davenport
by Oscar Riddle, the Eugenics creed is as follows:
"I believe in striving to raise the human race to the highest plane
of social organization, of cooperative work and of effective endeavor."
"I believe that I am the trustee of the germ plasm that I carry; that
this has been passed on to me through thousands of generations before
me; and that I betray the trust if (that germ plasm being good) I so
act as to jeopardize it, with its excellent possibilities, or, from
motives of personal convenience, to unduly limit offspring."
"I believe that, having made our choice in marriage carefully, we,
the married pair, should seek to have 4 to 6 children in order that
our carefully selected germ plasm shall be reproduced in adequate
degree and that this preferred stock shall not be swamped by that
less carefully selected."
"I believe in such a selection of immigrants as shall not tend to
adulterate our national germ plasm with socially unfit traits."
"I believe in repressing my instincts when to follow them would
injure the next generation."
This selection of work done by or with Charles Davenport is representative
of his publications. It is believed that an examination of the titles is
sufficient to get an accurate idea of Davenport's views as well as the depth
of his scientific methodology.
1891-1900 Observations on Budding in Paludicella and Some Other Bryozoa (1891)
On Urnatella Gracilis (1896)
Experimental Morphology (1897–99)
Statistical Methods, with Special References to Biological Variation
(1899; second edition, 1904)
Introduction to Zoology, with Gertrude Crotty Davenport (1900)
1906 Inheritance in Poultry, Carnegie Institution Publication, No, 52
1907 Heredity of Eye-Color in Man, Science, 26:589-592.
(With Gertrude C. Davenport.)
1908 Heredity of Hair-Form in Man, Amer. Nat. 42:341-349.
(With Gertrude C. Davenport.) The American Breeders'
Association. Science, 27:-413-417.
Degeneration, Albinism and Inbreeding, Science, 28 :454-455.
1909 Inheritance of Characteristics in Domestic Fowl, Carnegie
Institution Publication, No. 121, (Washington)
Heredity of Hair Color in Man, Amer. Nat., 43:193-211.
(With Gertrude C. Davenport.)
Fit and Unfit Matings, Bull. Amer. Acad. Med., 11:657-67O.
1910 Eugenics—The Science of Human Improvement by Better Breeding,
Henry Holt & Co., N. Y. 35 pp.
1911 Heredity of Skin Pigment in Man, Amer. Nat., 44:641-731.
(With Gertrude C. Davenport.)
1912 The Origin and Control of Mental Defectiveness,
Pop. Sci. Mo., 80:87-90.
The Nams. The Feeble-Minded As Country Dwellers,
The Survey, 27:1844-1845.
The Inheritance of Physical and Mental Traits of Man and Their
Application to Eugenics, Chapter VIII in Heredity and Eugenics,
The University of Chicago Press, 269-288.
The Geography of Man in Relation to Eugenics, Chapter IX in
Heredity and Eugenics, The University of Chicago Press, 289-310.
The Hill Folk. Report on a Rural Community of Hereditary
Defectives, Eugenics Record Office Mem. No. I, 56 pp. 4
text figures, 3 charts. (With Florence H. Danielson.)
The Nam Family. A Study in Cacogenics, Eugenics Record
Office Mem. No. 2, 85 pp. 4 text figures, 4 charts. (With
Arthur H. Estabrook.)
How Did Feeble-Mindedness Originate in the First Instance?,
The Training School, 9:87-90.
Eugenics in Its Relation to Social Problems, The N. Y.
Assoc. for Improving the Condition of the Poor. Pub. No. 70, 7 pp.