Tracking Chromosomes, Castrating Dwarves

This is the title of a new paper by distinguished historian of eugenics, Paul Lombardo, available for download via SSRN here that recently appeared in the journal Ethics and Medicine. The paper focuses on Charles Davenport, who became the Director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in 1910 and immediate set up the Eugenics Records Office there later that year. It was to become a major institutional force in the development of North American eugenics. While the paper concerns a small episode in the history of eugenics from 1929, what it says about consent, medical intervention, and disability will ring bells for regular readers of this blog. The abstract of the paper reads:

In 1929 Charles B. Davenport, a prominent biologist and leader in the American eugenics movement, carried out an experimental castration of a “Mongoloid dwarf” at a New York State mental institution. His goal was to retrieve tissue for chromosomal analysis in an attempt to understand the basis of syndromal mental retardation. Davenport was assisted in the research by cytologist T.S. Painter, who later achieved scientific celebrity for his work in counting human chromosomes. Davenport also invited George Washington Corner, who eventually contributed to the discovery of progesterone, to participate in the experiment. Davenport planned and carried out the surgery using the questionable promise of therapeutic benefit to elicit consent from a parent with limited mental capacity on behalf of an even more seriously impaired institutional resident. Archival evidence demonstrates that even at that date scientists like Davenport and the physicians he collaborated with were sensitive to ethical issues such as the necessity for consent and questions of decisional capacity, as well as the potential for negative publicity for mistreatment of “research subjects.”

Males with Down Syndrome, or Trisomy 21, are sterile. If anyone knows when this discovery was made, I’d be curious in knowing as well. It was fairly widely known by 1950 or so–one thing that made the practice of castration for putative medical gain  in some Down Syndrome men and boys in Alberta at that time especially horrendous. But what was the state of knowledge here in 1929, when Davenport was castrating them?

Lombardo’s main point is that Davenport and those co-participating in this human experimentation knew full well that consent was required, and that this surgical intervention put them on questionable ethical ground. Still, they just opportunistically did it. For anyone who has followed the Ashley case, this will sound familiar. But that’s 2004, not 1929. How far have we come?

h/t to Daniel Goldberg at Medical Humanities.


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