In a basement at Caltech, 59 gray boxes contain thousands of documents that reveal in detail how an influential group of California men once hoped to help direct the fate of the human race.
Within the brittle files is the story of the state's long and largely forgotten effort to sterilize mental patients. Memos show how California civic leaders helped popularize eugenics around the world, including Nazi Germany. Case histories offer a glimpse of the more than 20,000 people who were, by law, sterilized in state hospitals from 1909 through the 1960s in anticipation of curing an array of social ills -- from poverty and promiscuity to overcrowded institutions.
"One of the giggling dangerous type -- a delinquent sexually, morally. Forged checks, remained away from home nights," reads the case file of a 16-year-old girl who was sent to the Sonoma State Home, sterilized and released.
The archives of the Human Betterment Foundation, a private, Pasadena-based think tank that promoted sterilization from 1926 to 1942, have been at Caltech for six decades. They were kept in a warehouse until 1968. Only since 1995 has most of the collection been open to researchers.
"California is an enormous story in the history of eugenics," said Paul Lombardo, a professor at the University of Virginia's Center for Biomedical Ethics. "What makes California special is the work of the Human Betterment Foundation, how it shaped public policy, and the links between major players in the private sector and state officials who carried out the work."
When Lombardo lectured in March to a state Senate committee on California's aggressive sterilization policy, lawmakers were stunned. Most had never heard of this. Within hours, Gov. Gray Davis issued an apology.
Today another hearing on the state's program is scheduled in Sacramento, at which a historian, directors of state departments and mental health advocates will probably raise the issue of whether the state should try to find and compensate survivors of sterilization.
"Many have cried a great deal," said Robert Edgerton, a psychiatric anthropologist and director of UCLA's Center for Culture and Health, who interviewed dozens of former mental patients in the early 1960s for a state-sponsored study of sterilization.
Some still do. They are among the 14 of his subjects who are still alive.
To illustrate the fact that no feebleminded girl is safe at large unsterilized ... one might cite the case of a Los Angeles girl 20 years old, with the mind of a three-year-old child. She was also humpbacked and so ugly that it was supposed that she would never be molested, so her parents ... used to leave her alone in the house sometimes. On one such occasion she was raped by the iceman, and gave birth to an illegitimate child. Following this she was sent to Sonoma to be sterilized ...
-- patient summary from the files of the Human Betterment Foundation
In 1909, California became the third state to legalize the sterilization of the feebleminded and insane. Eventually, more than 30 states with such laws would sterilize about 60,000 -- a third of them in California, which repealed its law in 1979. Working hand in hand with state officials, the Human Betterment Foundation served as spokesman and primary scorekeeper for the eugenics movement, collecting data on sterilizations nationwide.
Ezra S. Gosney, the Pasadena financier who started the foundation, was well-regarded for his work in philanthropy and education reform. In 1926, at the age of 71, he quietly began funding studies on how sterilization could combat problems caused by excessive breeding of the "unfit."
At the time, eugenic sterilization was in the mainstream of science and politics, soon to be upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court and embraced by many social progressives, from Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger to economist John Maynard Keynes. Many doctors at the time thought sterilization had a therapeutic effect on mental patients.
Gosney was about to become the movement's chief public relations agent.
"Any common man will tell you that a herd of common, long-horn Texas or Mexican cattle can be converted to a high-grade Hereford or white-faced herd in three or four generations," states a memo with Gosney's initials contained in the Caltech files. "Man falls under the same laws of heredity. The only difference is that we have mixed the breeds and failed to teach our children to ... select their mates."
The foundation's members included a who's who of California: David Starr Jordan, Stanford University's first president; Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler; Nobel Prize-winning physicist and Caltech head Robert A. Millikan; USC President Rufus B. von KleinSmid; and Lewis M. Terman, a Stanford psychologist who developed the IQ test.