Sunday, June 2, 2019
Stillman Drake Lecture, 2019
The inheritance of mental illness surfaced as a quantitative problem beginning as early as 1789. It was made possible as a focus of investigation in consequence of the subsequent internment of so many persons in large public institutions under the watch of doctors and psychologists. This talk documents some basic continuities between nineteenth-century statistical records of what was presumed to be inherited mental illness and the programs of data work on human heredity that took off about 1900. The new mathematical statistics did not eclipse these institutional statistical traditions, but perpetuated them. The sudden celebrity of Gregor Mendel's pea hybrids encouraged the false impression of a basic science of genetics that might then be applied, legitimately or not, to humans. Eugenics had been going on all along, though without the name. It was the stimulant and in many ways the source rather than a consequence or byproduct of emerging genetic science. Right up to the 1930s and beyond, in Britain and the United States as well as in German lands, institutional data on inheritance of mental illness and "feeblemindedness" provided the principal basis for genetic investigation on humans.
- Ted Porter, Professor of History, University of California Los Angeles