Eugenics on the Farm: Ray Lyman Wilbur

Opinion by Ben Maldonado
Nov. 18, 2019, 1:16 a.m.

On Jan. 22, 1916, Ray Lyman Wilbur became the third president of Stanford University. In his inaugural speech, Wilbur promised that Stanford would aim for “control of those unnecessary diseases that devour the very marrow of the [human] race” and would “lead in the fight against oppression, evil, ignorance, filth.” These words would have perhaps been less ominous if Wilbur was not a eugenicist.

Between 1916 and 1929 and between 1933 and 1943, Ray Lyman Wilbur served as Stanford’s president, leading the same university where he received his bachelors and masters degrees. A physician by training, Wilbur was influential in the development of Stanford’s School of Medicine, first as dean then as university president. Wilbur’s key academic focus was public health: studying the health of America and methods of bettering it. This interest showed clearly in both his work at Stanford and in the Hoover Administration, where he served as Secretary of the Interior. 

Wilbur’s interest in public health, however, also inspired his support of eugenics, the science of human improvement through selective breeding. As historian Martin S. Pernick has argued, public health and eugenics often historically went hand-in-hand — what better way could there be of creating an ideal population than controlling who could reproduce and who could be born? Besides being a member of many health associations, Wilbur was also a prominent figure in eugenic organizations, such as the American Eugenics Society and the Eugenics Research Association, and often combined these two pursuits. As he put it in his 1937 article on the health of Black people, “a pair of healthy grandfathers and of healthy grandmothers is the greatest personal asset a human being can have.” In the name of public health, eugenic policies were therefore a necessity to Wilbur: “We would not dream of treating a strain of race horses,” he argued before Stanford alumni in 1935, “the way we treat ourselves.” 

This emphasis on eugenics as a form of public health advocacy manifested in Wilbur’s work in the Hoover Administration as well. As historian Wendy Klein recounts, Wilbur served as conference chair at the 1930 White House Conference on Child Health and Protection, a massive convention attended by thousands of experts on child health, development and education. In his opening speech, Wilbur used eugenic language to emphasize the importance of fit “future citizenry,” encouraging the United States to become “a fitter country in which to bring up children.” Wilbur was not just supporting the health of children; he was supporting the goal of breeding eugenically fit children. As he put it in a 1913 speech, Wilbur believed that the “products of the marriage of the weak and the unfit, of the criminal, of the syphilis and of the alcohol that fill many of our most splendid governmental buildings must largely disappear.” 

One of Wilbur’s greatest contributions to Stanford University as president was the development of the Stanford University School of Medicine, turning it into an organization at the forefront of medical education — as well as eugenic education. Wilbur believed that all medical students should be taught the science of eugenics. He encouraged medical universities to study both the health and economic impact of “the physically and mentally handicapped,” promoting extensive research on eugenics. He presented before the Medical Society of the State of California in 1922, and argued that physicians must be educated to understand the importance of eugenically fit genetic material, “for if it deteriorates a family or a race soon dies out.” This genetic material must therefore be protected through eugenic means such as the sterilization or segregation of the unfit. With his development of the medical school, Wilbur aimed to emphasize the necessity of racial health in the name of eugenics. 

Wilbur was also deeply concerned with race relations and the role of the United States in international affairs. In a 1926 speech, he expressed fear that white women were degenerating and becoming incapable of producing breast milk due to a reliance on dairy milk when nursing. For Wilbur, this was exceptionally frightening as the Chinese, who were immigrating to the American West (to the displeasure of many eugenicists) continued to use breast milk with their babies. Wilbur saw this as a eugenic threat to white dominance. If dairy production were to be halted, Chinese populations would overtake white populations — a eugenicist’s nightmare. 

Wilbur’s concerns with Chinese immigration led him to chair a 1923 survey looking into the potential dangers of Asian immigration into the American West. This Survey of Race Relations, as it was called, was led by many Stanford affiliates, and its findings were presented at a conference on Stanford’s campus. Looking at both Chinese and Japanese immigration, this study chaired by Wilbur sought to “objectively” determine the value of allowing Asian immigrants to travel, stay, and reproduce in the United States. In the end, the survey concluded that Asian immigration was, for the time being, acceptable due to the cheap labor immigrants provided, but interracial marriages and reproduction were deeply discouraged. These attempts to “objectively” determine the value of immigrants to society was emblematic of a larger eugenic trend to quantify the value of human existence. 

Wilbur’s belief in public health and the “objective” research of racial health inspired his promotion of eugenic thought. His legacy shows clearly the interconnections of medicine, public health and eugenic thought, and how many projects in the name of human health with noble intent were shaped by racist and ableist assumptions. Though he was less explicitly racist than some of his peers at Stanford, Wilbur still promoted the sterilization of unwanted people and still studied the potential dangers of non-white immigration. Today, Wilbur Hall bears his name, honoring his presidency and contributions to the University. I cannot help but wonder how many residents of that hall would be deemed unwelcome by its namesake. 

Contact Ben Maldonado at bmaldona ‘at’

Ben Maldonado studies history. His column "Eugenics on the Farm" will be appearing every odd week of winter quarter.

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