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Whose Utopia? How Science Used The Bodies Of People Deemed 'Less Than'

The only surviving photo of Vivian Buck, here with her adoptive mother in 1924. This is the moment Vivian is determined by a eugenics researcher to be "feeble-minded" for not looking at a coin held in front of her face.
M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives, University at Albany, SUNY
The only surviving photo of Vivian Buck, here with her adoptive mother in 1924. This is the moment Vivian is determined by a eugenics researcher to be "feeble-minded" for not looking at a coin held in front of her face.

Throughout history, people have sought to create utopias. Perfect societies free of defects.

Of course, not everyone shares the same vision for a utopia. Different people have different priorities. But the wishes of those with power and prestige almost always take precedence.

On this episode of the Hidden Brain radio show, we tell the story of overzealous American scientists who believed creating a utopia for some would eventually lead to utopia for all. This is a story of people who believed they were doing the enlightened thing, even if it traumatized others.

We begin with the history of eugenics in the United States. More than 60,000 people were forcibly sterilized in the 20th century. Historian Paul Lombardo, author of Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court and Buck v. Bell, says the Supreme Court enabled eugenicists.

"It's better for all the world if, instead of waiting for degenerate offspring to die from starvation or for criminals to be executed for their crimes, that we stop this line before it goes on - better that those people not be born at all," said Lombardo, paraphrasing Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

There is a long legacy of leaders endorsing experimentation on the bodies of vulnerable people. In the latter portion of the program, we remember Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey. The experimental surgeries conducted on these enslaved women in the late 1840s led to significant advancements in gynecology.

"There was a belief at the time that black people did not feel pain in the same way. They were not vulnerable to pain, especially black women," said Vanessa Northington Gamble, a physician and historian of medicine at the George Washington University.

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Jennifer Schmidt, Parth Shah, Rhaina Cohen, Laura Kwerel and Thomas Lu. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
Parth Shah is a producer and reporter in the Programming department at NPR. He came to NPR in 2016 as a Kroc Fellow.
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.
Jennifer Schmidt is a senior producer for Hidden Brain. She is responsible for crafting the complex stories that are told on the show. She researches, writes, gathers field tape, and develops story structures. Some highlights of her work on Hidden Brain include episodes about the causes of the #MeToo movement, how diversity drives creativity, and the complex psychology of addiction.
Thomas Lu (he/him) is a producer for NPR's science podcast, Short Wave. The podcast is a perfect equation of curiosity, nerdiness and everyday discoveries.