When Racism Was a Science
An old stucco house stands atop a grassy hill overlooking the Long Island Sound. Less than a mile down the road, the renowned Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory bustles with more than 600 researchers and technicians, regularly producing breakthroughs in genetics, cancer and neuroscience.
But that old house, now a private residence on the outskirts of town, once held a facility whose very name evokes dark memories: the Eugenics Record Office.
In its heyday, the office was the premier scientific enterprise at Cold Spring Harbor. There, bigoted scientists applied rudimentary genetics to singling out supposedly superior races and degrading minorities. By the mid-1920s, the office had become the center of the eugenics movement in America.
Today, all that remains of it are files and photographs — reams of discredited research that once shaped anti-immigration laws, spurred forced-sterilization campaigns and barred refugees from entering Ellis Island. Now, historians and artists at New York University are bringing the eugenics office back into the public eye.
“Haunted Files: The Eugenics Record Office,” a new exhibit at the university’s Asian/Pacific/American Institute, transports visitors to 1924, the height of the eugenics movement in the United States. Inside a dimly lit room, the sounds of an old typewriter click and clack, a teakettle whistles and papers shuffle. The office’s original file cabinets loom over reproduced desks and period knickknacks. Creaky cabinets slide open, and visitors are encouraged to thumb through copies of pseudoscientific papers...