The Slippery Slope of Social Engineering: The Case of Paul B. Popenoe, 1915-1930

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

With the phenomenal advances in scientific endeavor in the first three decades of the 20th century, there were profound and revolutionary advances in physics, astronomy, medicine, agriculture, and in so many other aspects of life.  Of course, the discoveries and innovations of science also sometimes had darker and destructive consequences, intended or not, such as the development of more powerful weapons of war or the rise of so-called “Social Darwinism,” which led directly to the concept of eugenics.

Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the science of improving a human population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics,” eugenics became very popular and tremendously influential among many, including some of the best educated people in America.  Yet, the views and actions of the proponents of eugenics, including the sterilization of the mentally ill and developmentally disabled and those incarcerated in prison, raise serious ethical and moral questions.

Popenoe LA Sunday Times ad Times 23Jun11
Los Angeles Times, 23 June 1911.  His article was on a member of the Batz family, which raised sheep on the Rancho Rosa de Castilla near today’s California State University, Los Angeles.

While he is not at all well known today, Dr. Paul B. Popenoe, a long-time resident of the San Gabriel Valley, was among the most prominent eugenicists of his time, though he also had other phases of his career, including as a biologist with a particular interest in dates (the fruit, that is) and then later as a widely regarded expert on family and marriage.

Tonight’s highlighted object from the Homestead’s collection is a press photograph of Popenoe on this date in 1930, shortly after he became the head of the Institute of Family Relations, based in Los Angeles.

Born in 1888 in Topeka, Kansas, where his father, Fred, was a well-known banker, Popenoe came to California with his family in 1905, among the many thousands who flocked to greater Los Angeles from the Midwest in that era.  Popenoe’s father founded the West India Nursery on Woodbury Road near Garfield Avenue in Altadena and inculcated an interest in exotic plans and edible fruits.

Popenoe photo Africa date The_Los_Angeles_Times_Sun__Jun_9__1912_
Popenoe in North Africa researching date palms for his father, Times, 9 June 1912.

Popenoe attended Occidental College and then Stanford University, while he maintained his avid interest in agricultural engineering, he became a journalist for the Los Angeles Times after graduation and also was news editor for the Pasadena Star.  He continued to keep his association with his father’s nursery and traveled to north Africa and the Middle East searching for date palms to be grown in greater Los Angeles.  In time, the Coachella Valley proved to be the ideal place, so the origins of the date industry in the Indio area dates (!) back to the work of the Popenoes over a century ago.

By the mid-1910s, Popenoe branched out from dates to eugenics, though he continued to work in agricultural genetics, and he gave a lecture on “Natural Selection in Man,” an obvious extension of Darwinian evolutionary thought, at the National Conference on Race Betterment in San Francisco.  The conclave was described in the San Francisco Examiner as focused on “race decadence from a scientific point of view.”

Popenoe eugenics talk The_San_Francisco_Examiner_Sun__Aug_8__1915_
San Francisco Examiner, 8 August 1915.

One authority, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, operator of the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan and brother of the famed cereal magnate Will K. Kellogg (later owner of a horse breeding ranch that is now Cal Poly Pomona, proclaiming “we are over-civilized and we need to get back to the simple life—to simpler eating, more hours of sleep, less health-breaking pursuit of the dollar.  We must learn to live more biologically.”

While Kellogg’s statement sounded reasonable as the pace of life in the rapidly industrializing America accelerated greatly, an Examiner article from the following day covering Popenoe’s talk blared: “REGULATION OF BIRTHS URGED BY EUGENIST.”  To achieve “race perfection,” he averred that the goal:

is to adopt some means by which fewer weaklings will be born in each generation.  The only hope for permanent race betterment under social control is to substitute a selective birth rate for nature’s selective death rate.  That means—eugenics.

Popenoe continued that 60 of 100 babies born at the time were fated to die prematurely.  Therefore, “the straight way to race betterment is to prevent the most defective of these sixty from ever being born.”  While he admitted that much of these fatalities were because of little or no prenatal care, he claimed that “a careful investigation will show them [the remainder] to be due to a defect in the parental stock.”


Popenoe WWI registration
Popenoe’s World War I draft registration card, 5 June 1917.

Citing the prevalence of tuberculosis, Popenoe lamented “the ghastly spectacle of natural selection on a large scale” and opined that heredity was far more significant than environment, adding “I do not mean to say that hygiene and sanitary conditions are not of importance,” merely that they paled in comparison with genetic factors.

After one doctor protested that eugenics would cause loveless marriages and that love between couples raises the standards of the human race, Popenoe, among others like Kellogg (who proposed a eugenic registry), chose the cold logic of his variation of scientific natural selection, propounding the idea that “the only way to improve the race is to exercise care in selection and to permit only healthy people to marry.”

Sterilization Surveyed The_Los_Angeles_Times_Wed__May_4__1927_
Times, 4 May 1927.

When he registered for the draft after America’s entry in World War I, he identified his work as in agricultural engineering and was editor of the Journal of Heredity and wrote a book called Applied Eugenics. Popenoe joined the Army and worked as an assistant surgeon and in maintaining military order at camps in the Southwest through the end of the war.  After mustering out, he moved to New York City, where, as the Roaring Twenties dawned, he worked as a “social hygiene biologist” and married Betty Stankovitch, with whom he had four sons.

After his marriage, Popenoe returned to the Coachella Valley and the propagation of date palm growing and continued his interest in the subject after returning to live in Altadena once his eldest child was born.  He continued, however, to write extensively in a variety of magazines and newspapers, sometimes with observations of the habits of people in other parts of the world, such as India and Costa Rica, in terms that are indirect, but seem related to his concerns of race betterment and hygiene.  The onset of America’s first immigration laws in 1924 came during this time and one wonders how Popenoe’s theories and view tied int to the rising nationalism, conservatism and anti-immigration attitudes prevalent in the period.

Human Betterment Foundatio incorporation The_Los_Angeles_Times_Wed__Apr_17__1929_
Times, 17 April 1929.

Perhaps because of his marriage and the arrival of his children, Popenoe made another shift in his career by the end of the Twenties.  He published Problems of Reproduction in 1927, in which he analyzed the question of gender in births and noted there was a much higher proportion of males than females at conception and a smaller such prevalence at birth.  One doctor writing in a Fresno newspaper summarized by saying “Dr. Paul Popenoe thinks the male is the weaker sex.”

Eugenics, however, was still a preoccupation for Popenoe and, in a speech to the Pasadena Rotary Club late in 1927, he talked about the success of the sexual sterilization of 6,000 persons housed in California institutions for the “feeble-minded.”  As paraphrased by the Los Angeles Times, Popenoe asserted

Not only do the majority of asylum authorities and eugenists agree that the practice deserves to be continued, but six out of seven of the patients who underwent the operation and were later discharged as mentally sound likewise indorse [sic] it . . .  These patients who have been returned to normal life have no desire to bring unfit children into the world.

An associate of Popenoe, Ezra S. Gosney, a Pasadena citrus grower and philanthropist who funded the doctor’s research into forced sterilization, established the Human Betterment Foundation to further advocate and pursue the practice among the “mentally defective.”

Sterilization for Human Bettermen review The_Pasadena_Post_Sat__Sep_14__1929_
A strange pairing of book reviews in the Pasadena Post, 14 September 1929.

The Times article noted that the advocacy of sterilization “is based on Gosney’s contention that morons and unfit members of society are more prolific [in reproduction] than the more intelligent human families.”  The sole means for preventing this travesty, claimed Gosney, “is to see that actual lunatics do not propagate their kind.”

When the Human Betterment Foundation was incorporated in spring 1929, the Times headline read “SUPER-RACE FIXED AS GOAL” and to demonstrate that the idea of forced sterilization of the unfit was not just a project of certain scientists and a few laypersons, the paper listed trustees and incorporators.

Popenoe 1930 censu Altadena
The enumeration of Popenoe and his family in the 1930 federal census at their Altadena home near Mountain View Cemetery and his former residence at his father’s West India Nursery.

Among them were prominent Los Angeles banker Henry M. Robinson; Stanford University Chancellor David Starr Jordan; the dean of the U.S.C. college of law and other professors at Stanford, CalTech, and the University of California; the publisher of the Pasadena Star-News; two Protestant pastors in prominent Pasadena churches; a physiologist in the federal Department of Agriculture; and a former Pasadena mayor.

It was added that studies conducted by Gosney and Popenoe indicated that 6,255 persons were sterilized in California since a law was passed in 1909 allowing the practice, and that this “eliminated the reproduction of more than 6000 children who would have been so ill born that they would have become charges of the State,” a condition now resonating with current immigration policy debates.

Marriage institute The_Whittier_News_Thu__Feb_6__1930_
The formation of his American Institute of Family Relations as covered by the Whittier News, 6 February 1930.

In early February 1930, Popenoe launched his American Institute of Family Relations in Los Angeles, for which the highlighted photograph here was taken and used in press promotion.  While that year marks the end of the Homestead’s interpretive era, Popenoe’s career continued for many years, though the use of the term “Super-Race” in the above Times headline took on a sinister and stunning turn with the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis just a few years later.

The horrors of the Nazi regime’s treatment of homosexuals, gypsies, the mentally ill and others, along with the mass slaughter of millions of Jews deemed “subhuman” by Hitler and his ilk obviously proved to largely be the catalyst for the further denigration of eugenics as fundamentally inhumane, despite its advocacy by so many Americans, including many prominent figures in education, business and science.

A Newspaper Enterprise Association press photograph from the museum’s holdings and date stamped 27 February 1930 showing Popenoe.

Still, Popenoe’s work with marriage and families morphed into something that seemed far more benign, what became generally known as “marriage and family counseling.”  He continued in this realm until for decades, including a popular column called “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” in Ladies Home Journal and a 1960 book of that name, frequent appearances on Art Linkletter’s widely viewed television show, and a greater focus on working with religious figures in “pastoral psychotherapy.”

Not long after his death in 1979, a short notice in a Santa Cruz newspaper noted that a film series called “Focus on the Family” was being shown.  Its creator, psychologist Dr. James C. Dobson, wasn’t all that well-known at the time, but his Focus on the Family organization, formed a few years earlier grew by leaps and bounds, especially among conservatives.  Notably, the article stated that Dobson’s series “has been widely acclaimed by sociologists including Paul Popenoe, founder and president of the American Institute of Family Relations.”  It turned out that Dobson was an assistant to Popenoe in his institute, which folded in the 1980s.

Popenoe Dobson Focus on the Family Santa_Cruz_Sentinel_Fri__Jan_18__1980_
Santa Cruz Sentinel, 18 January 1980.

So, while Popenoe may generally be forgotten, his legacy lives on in the controversial but also widely followed work of Dobson and Focus on the Family.




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