Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

“‘Stigmata of Degeneration’: Science and Social Control in the Progressive Era,” By Dennis Durst

“Doctor Spurzheim in his consulting room measuring the head o Wellcome V0011106” by Wellcome Library, London –

Arthur Macdonald (1856‒1936), a prominent criminologist in the Progressive Era, gave testimony before the US Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Crime and Reformation on March 6, 1908. Document 532, published by the Government Printing Office on May 21 of that same year, illustrates the reach of degeneration theory into the realm of social policy in the early twentieth century. The rhetoric of the document indicates the fear of those elites bent on the social control of the “lower” echelon of the populace. In the Progressive Era, few received more vitriolic treatment than those who seemed regressive, or resistant to social control, and thus deemed defective. The wording of the opening paragraph of the bill mirrors a widespread tendency to lump together with criminals those who were poor or struggled with intellectual disabilities:

A BILL to establish a laboratory for the study of the criminal, pauper, and defective classes. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That there shall be established at Washington, in the District of Columbia, a laboratory for the study of the abnormal classes, and the work shall include not only laboratory investigations, but also the collection of sociological and pathological data, especially such as may be found in institutions for the criminal, pauper, and defective classes. . . . [emphasis added]

This essay investigates MacDonald’s use of “stigmata of degeneration” as a quasi-scientific term of identification applied to numerous American citizens who, with hindsight, were largely undeserving of policies aimed at controlling intimate details of their lives. This source illustrates how one generation’s science-based social policy looks, to posterity, like prejudicial governmental overreach. Science as pretext for government overreach into the lives of its citizens remains an issue for concern and debate.

Arthur MacDonald and Criminology

MacDonald was the author of at least twenty-five books in the fields of sociology and criminology between 1893 and 1918.[1] A student of famed educational psychologist G. Stanley Hall at Johns Hopkins in the 1880s, MacDonald likely interacted with Italian father of criminology Cesare Lombroso, among other European scholars in that nascent field. According to Bremner and Barnard, this effort to establish a scientific lab for the study of young delinquents did not meet with success.[2] According to a leading historian of criminology, Macdonald’s 1893 tome Criminology was the first US-published book-length text on the causation of criminality, though his thought was largely derivative, scientifically naïve, and built on scientific racist assumptions.[3] Clearly he had connections among the powerful in Washington, DC, as more than one of his laborious works was published by the Government Printing Office. This was not enough leverage, however, to bring to fruition his dream of a publically funded laboratory dedicated to the study of defective delinquents.

Science and Social Control

In his opening remarks before the Senate subcommittee, Macdonald stated that for many years he had been laboring to produce legislation, both in the United States and globally, “for founding laboratories to find the best methods of preventing crime, pauperism, and defectiveness, the most constant, most costly, and greatest enemies of all government.”[4]

Here American citizens, due to problems rooted in a mixture of congenital, environmental, and behavioral factors, were described forthrightly by MacDonald as “the greatest enemies” of their government. While a case might be made for the legitimacy of such rhetoric toward those who truly committed crimes against the state, were tried by a jury of their peers, and convicted via due process, here Macdonald conflated the poor and the mentally handicapped with such criminals. Such conflation was routine in social reform literature of the Progressive Era. A kind of rhetorical distancing of elites with governmental power from many who were ordinary citizens not guilty of any substantive wrongdoing helped to legitimate draconian social policies aimed at profound restrictions on the freedoms of said citizens. The social authority of science was used in this expansion of social control, as I illustrate below.

This was not MacDonald’s first attempt at persuading the Senate to open a laboratory. His testimony two years earlier to the Fifty-Eighth Congress on the same themes had previously been published (1893) as Man and Abnormal Man. Through the work of criminologists such as MacDonald, the political pressure had been building for well over a decade for such a bill. MacDonald asserted “some ninety learned bodies in science, medicine, law, and religion for the last six or seven years have been asking Congress for the enactment of this or some similar bill into a law.” He provided names of many prominent organizations favoring the legislation, including The American Medical Association, The American Bar Association, and Protestant denominations ranging from Presbyterian to Baptist to Congregational to Unitarian.[5]

In the ensuing marshalling of studies and statistics to validate the need for such laboratories, MacDonald assured the subcommittee that “hopeless cases are very few,” and thus reform work had a chance of success. Still, he noted that some children “are born with feeble moral tendencies to such a degree that reformation is impossible . . . .” Further, he emphasized that “these are frequently cases of moral degeneracy with strong hereditary taint. In some instances it would be as difficult to reform their characters as to change the shape of their heads.”[6] This allusion introduces the connections of degeneration theory to an earlier science important to the opening decades of criminology: phrenology, or the studying of crania to determine mental or criminal tendencies.[7] The term “phrenology” was falling out of favor by the early twentieth century, but the concept of seeing visible signs of underlying disability on the faces or skulls of institutionalized persons remained commonplace in the Progressive Era. The moniker for this reading of defect in the bodies of the underclass, widespread in eugenics literature, was “stigmata of degeneration.” This theme, forming the subtitle of MacDonald’s published testimony, received intensive focus for thirty pages of fine print.

MacDonald’s use of the phrase was not idiosyncratic. For instance, Martin Barr, whose 1904 book Mental Defectives became influential among mental health experts in the early twentieth century, wrote:

Feeble-mindedness, including idiocy and imbecility, is defect either mental or moral or both, usually associated with certain physical stigmata of degeneration. Although incurable, its lesser forms may be susceptible of amelioration and of modification, just in proportion as they have been superinduced by causes congenital or accidental. (Martin W. Barr, Mental Defectives: Their History, Treatment and Training [Philadelphia: P. Blakiston’s Sons, 1904], 23)

Barr, superintendent of the Pennsylvania State Training School, would author the 1905 legislative language aimed to persuade Pennsylvania legislators to legalize involuntary sterilization for those “idiots” deemed incapable of improvement and whom physicians declared unfit to procreate. The governor vetoed the bill, and Pennsylvania never went on to legalize the procedure.[8] However, by 1940 some thirty states had legalized involuntarily sterilization, a fact for which, in the early years of the twenty-first century, many states are now officially apologizing. For a brief time those favoring segregation opposed those who favored sterilization as the preferred method for reining in the procreation of the feebleminded. Within a decade, the sterilization method carried the day.[9]

Stigmata of Degeneration Proliferating

In Arthur MacDonald’s testimony on the stigmata of degeneration we find many adumbrations of the fear of going backward, or reversion, commonly dreaded among the Progressives. That fear took scientific form in terms of atavism, or the “throw-back” that appeared not merely in science but in the fiction of the era as well. Popular novels of the period, such as The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Lewis Stevenson, The Monster by Stephen Crane, and the series of Tarzan books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, illustrate varied literary expressions of this foreboding.[10] MacDonald defined degeneration as “an essence, aptitude or tendency which hinders development (mental, moral or physical) favorable to the species and tends toward diseases, which lead to the dissolution of the species or offspring.”[11]

Under the heading “Physical Stigmata of Degeneration,” MacDonald surveyed the scientific literature in physiology. With paragraphs on cranial, ear, eye, nose, mouth, palate, tongue, teeth, trunk, hands, and genitals, MacDonald sought to leave no physical evidence of degeneration unexplored.[12] So-called “Functional Stigmata” also received their due, broadly including anomalies of speech, movement, genital function, and anomalies of sensory and vasomotor systems.[13]

Under the heading “Mental Stigmata of Degeneration” MacDonald noted debates over the causes and classifications of the insane. He acknowledged both hereditary insanity and accidental insanity (i.e., mental disease) in an otherwise “normal” person. He offered many qualifications that tacitly undermined the usefulness or probity of degeneration theory. For example, in a subsection treating of “those predisposed with degeneracy,” MacDonald tried to distinguish between those who are predisposed to degeneracy but do not manifest it from those predisposed to degeneracy that does in fact become manifest. Thus a bifurcation of potential and actual degeneracy was introduced. Still, even for those who merely had it potentially, MacDonald averred that anomalies may take mental form such as “sentiment, intelligence, instincts or inclinations,” or may take physical form, and these are added to “the concomitant mental anomalies.” Thus MacDonald lumped physical and mental features together. “All these stigmata are permanent,” MacDonald declared, “and born with the individual, and continue until death.” MacDonald admitted the environmental factors at work in degeneration, such as “bad mental, physical, moral, or social surroundings” that “can easily develop this degenerative trait.” Rather chauvinistically, he urged that “even physiological moments, such as puberty, menopause, menstruation, and pregnancy may make degenerative taint manifest.” Without a sense of irony or cognitive dissonance, MacDonald even made the following claim: “Some of these degenerates may have brilliant minds, but they are without equilibrium; they may be eccentric, bizarre, peculiar, and original. They are superior degenerates.”[14] Well, one must allow for all sorts of degenerates, it seems, when testifying before the US Senate, even in 1908.

Under “Moral Stigmata of Degeneration” MacDonald offers a stunning laundry-list of sins, and one has to wonder if the Senators themselves squirmed in their seats when hearing the list. They certainly would in the early twenty-first century:

Any act is a moral stigma of degeneration in which there is a permanent tendency or inclination: To indulge in any form of vice, dissoluteness, depravity, profligacy, vileness, or loathsomeness; to use any form of deception, as lying, fraud, trickery, imposture, etc.; to any kind of meanness, villainy, baseness, etc.; to extreme selfishness, self-love, egotism, stinginess, covetousness, etc.; to cowardice, poltroonery, extreme distrust or suspiciousness, etc.; to any form of cruelty, brutality, inhumanity, etc.; to any form of vulgarity, coarseness, etc.; to any form of malice, hatefulness, ill-will, revenge, etc.; to laziness, indolence, listlessness, dilatoriness, etc.; to ostentation, display, pomposity, vanity, or arrogance; to frivolity, silliness, giddiness, etc.; to run into debt, insolvency, etc.; to wastefulness, extravagance, etc.; to uncleanliness, filthiness, etc. (MacDonald, Juvenile Crime and Reformation, 290‒91)

This list may read like the bio of Frank Underwood on House of Cards, but more substantively, it represents the sheer scope of moral intrusiveness of the governing vision represented by MacDonald and Progressive Era social reformers. I try not to utilize postmodern lingo very often, but if ever there was a modernist totalizing discourse, it is surely represented in such a tableau. Virtually every human being is by these terms a “degenerate” and bears “the stigmata of degeneration.” Elites, however, often see flaws only in the other, not in themselves.


What about today? Is science used to promote progressive ingression into every facet of our lives and to make pathologies out of rather normal human experiences of the American citizenry? Senator Tom Coburn (retired) of Oklahoma has routinely pointed out wasteful government spending projects, many of which are justified by their boosters as scientific.[15] While much science spending supported by the government is laudable and useful to the populace,[16] much is not and only fosters a mentality that the federal government knows best how to control our lives.[17] Progressive use of “science says” to trump the freedoms of the citizens is an issue worthy of open debate in a society that puts a lot of taxpayer dollars into the scientific establishment.[18] If this was the case in the Progressive Era, it is more strongly the case in our own era of defective governance.


Dennis L. Durst, M.Div., Ph.D., teaches at Kentucky Christian University.



[1] See “Arthur MacDonald,” The Online Books Page,

[2] Robert H. Bremner and John Barnard, Children and Youth in America: A Documentary History, vol. 2, 1866‒1932 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), 562‒63.

[3] Nicole H. Rafter, Origins of Criminology: A Reader (New York: Routledge-Cavendish, 2009), 188.

[4] Arthur MacDonald, Juvenile Crime and Reformation Including Stigmata of Degeneration: Being a Hearing on the Bill (H. R. 16733) to Establish a Laboratory for the Study of the Criminal, Pauper, and Defective Classes (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1908), 7.

[5] Ibid., 8‒9.

[6] Ibid., 15.

[7] See Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, rev. ed. (New York: Norton, 1996), 151‒72; cf. Rafter, 190, for evidence of MacDonald’s obsession with cranial and facial features.

[8] Mark A. Largent, Breeding Contempt: The History of Coerced Sterilization in the United States (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2008), 69‒70. Largent’s survey of the early years of coerced sterilization legislation is detailed. As seen in his analysis, many pieces of the prosterilization literature built up prior to such legislative efforts made prominent usage of the language of degeneration theory, cf. 11, 68, 86.

[9] Ian Robert Dowbiggin, Keeping America Sane: Psychiatry and Eugenics in the United States and Canada, 1880‒1940, Cornell Studies in the History of Psychiatry (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997), viii.

[10] Numerous other examples may be discerned from Justin D. Edwards, Gothic Passages: Racial Ambiguity and the American Gothic (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2003), 81‒87; and Dana Seitler, Atavistic Tendencies: The Culture of Science in American Modernity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 1‒30.

[11] MacDonald, 270.

[12] Ibid., 271‒80.

[13] Ibid., 282‒83.

[14] Ibid., 284‒85.

[15] For some egregious examples see Curtis Kalin, “Top 20 Worst Ways the Government Wasted Your Tax Dollars,”, October 23, 2014,

[16] See Fred Block and Matthew R. Keller, “Where Do Innovations Come From? Transformations in the US Economy, 1970‒2006,” Socio-Economic Review 7, no. 3 (2009):459‒83,; and Allen M. Spiegel and Elizabeth G. Nabel, “NIH Research on Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes: Providing the Scientific Evidence Base for Actions to Improve Health,” Nature Medicine 12 (2006): 67‒69,

[17] The recent flap over Mrs. Obama’s childhood school nutrition initiative is one example; see Mary Clare Jalonick, “GOP Supports Break from Healthy School Meal Standards,” Huffington Post, December 8, 2014,

[18] See Jeffrey Mervis, “US Science Agencies Get Some Relief in 2014 Budget,” Science, January 14, 2014,

3 Responses to ““‘Stigmata of Degeneration’: Science and Social Control in the Progressive Era,” By Dennis Durst”

  1. gabe

    Good piece!
    here is a thought – interesting that the Progressives or “knowledge elites” began their attack on the *common* (used as a pejorative by the Progressives) man at the same time that the voting franchise was being extend to greater numbers of these *common* people.
    It was also at this time that these same elites advanced the justification of a “scientific” approach to government to justify the beginnings (and growth) of the Administrative State – which if it does anything, removes popular consent and representation from the *common* people.
    Da ya think there may be a connection?

    • Dennis Durst

      Fantastic comment! Yes, I think there is a connection, and many possible bridges here. The rise of the social sciences, whereby science is rather positivistically applied to human societies and social problems must surely be part of the discussion. So in this article, criminology is the nexus, but other areas could be adduced as well (see my earlier nomocracy articles on prohibition, or on the “wedding” of science and religion in a theological context). Gabe, look me up on Facebook and maybe we can discuss further there! -DD

      • gabe


        I would be interested in doing so. However, I do not do Facebook as I can not stand the bugger who runs it.
        However, if you ask Peter for my e-mail, perhaps, we can communicate in that fashion.

        Peter: it is Ok to give the info to Dennis.

        take care

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