What History Hides

Across the River from Roosevelt Island: Dark History at Rockefeller University

Updated 30 weeks ago David Stone
Logo from the Second Annual Eugenics Conference, 1921
Logo from the Second Annual Eugenics Conference, 1921
Photo Credit: Wikipedia / Creative Commons License

We know the history we're taught can be what results from determined myth-making, evolving stories erase the unpleasant and uplift the positive. We like our heroes clean and uncomplicated. But raw truth manages to leak through.

Excited at the chance to tour Rockefeller University's York Avenue campus, my wife and I rode the Tram over on Saturday morning to be among the first. From Roosevelt Island, we'd watched new construction spread for three blocks above FDR Drive and were eager to take a look into the future as well.

Rockefeller is not, in the traditional sense, a university. Founded as Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research by John D. Rockefeller in 1901, its name was changed in 1965 to acknowledge post graduate students joining research teams in the labs - or so the official story goes.

Research suggests the name change may have as much or more to do with unlinking the institution from some unsavory relations.

The landscaped grounds and campus architecture are designed for a less urban, open environment tucked in the corner of a busy city. You stroll along leafy walkways connecting buildings where teams are situated in a style that encourages interaction.

My absorption in the pleasing environment was unsettled when we entered a building housing a small museum of historic research instruments along with the school's main auditorium.

Just inside, our tour guide paused at a wall of fame, pictures of Rockefeller University's more than two dozen Nobel Prize winners, starting with Alexis Carrel in 1912 and ending with Yoshinori Ohsumi, who won this year. It's an impressive group whose contributions to science, especially medical science, improved and extended millions of lives. 

But there was something else about it, something awkwardly outdated.

That is, all the winners were men, almost all Caucasian, none African. Some apology ought to mix with the pride. It didn't.

Standing there, waiting for the cluster of our group to move on, I thought about our history of racism and sexism and how much genius we discarded through systemic bigotry.

Something else hit me too, an unexpected coincidence. I'd been reading Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Gene: An Intimate History, the chapter on how discoveries about evolution led to eugenics, a science blossoming in the United States that was exported to incubate the worst Nazi atrocities.

One of the godfathers of eugenics whose foundation financed the earliest Nazi research in genetic cleansing was the same John D. Rockefeller who founded the Institute for Medical Research. His Rockefeller Foundation, which funded early Nazi experiments enjoyed a sibling relationship with what is now the university. 

I wondered, was there a connection? I found out there was but also a studied effort to erase it. The trail of eugenics went straight through the campus across the East River from Roosevelt Island, carrying the ideas that fertilized Nazi Germany's atrocities.

You won't read anything about it in Rockefeller University's official story, not much on the unofficial record either.

Erasing an Ugly Heritage

According to the university's website and repeated nearly word for word by our tour guide...

The origins of the university lie, in part, in personal tragedy. After John D. Rockefeller Sr.'s grandson died from scarlet fever in January 1901, the capitalist and philanthropist formalized plans to establish the research center.

It makes a nicer story, and the Rockefeller family has a long history of charitable giving. But as the website continues, Rockefeller Sr. had already been discussing such a school, devoted to understanding and finding cures for infectious disease, for three years.

(There's a sort of narrative slip here, setting a precise three year time frame, which comes off as a structural device, and referring to the institute as "a school," which it never was.)

Research began in earnest. The number of lives saved by work accomplished at Rockefeller is uncountable. Facilities of this kind didn't exist in the U.S. before. The positive impact was immediate.

And that story gets told proudly, as it should, but because of what appears to be a determined rinsing out of other history, a second, darker aspect gets pushed back into a hard to reach corner.

You will have a hard time finding documentation of eugenics research at Rockefeller University's predecessor Institute for Medical Research, but connecting the dots makes it almost inevitable.

First of all, John D. Rockefeller was a strong believer in eugenics as a tool for the betterment of mankind. After all, eugenics was mainstream science of its time, the modern day effort to palm it off as "pseudoscience" notwithstanding.

The first director of the RIMR was a true believer, Simon Flexner, and it was Flexner who recruited Rockefeller's first Nobel Prize winner, Alexis Carrel, a brilliant researcher who, as a eugenics proselytizer, advocated widespread euthanasia as a preferred method of purging the world of inferior human beings. 

About Eugenics in America, Exported to Germany

As science grew in stature in the Nineteenth Century, solutions to world problems based on theory and research generated passion among American and European leaders.

Eugenics was widely accepted by scientists and those who funded them because it saw genetics, of which our knowledge was growing quickly, as the key to improve mankind by managing life and death. The finest people would be encouraged to have more children, and those deemed less worthy of having their inheritance continued should be and, in tens of thousands of cases, were sterilized.

After all, selective breeding worked for plants and animals, didn't it?

The culture of the day helps explain why eugenics caught on within the circles of power. Go back to that wall of Nobel Prize winners, all men, almost all white. Eugenics most passionate advocates believed that Northern Europeans carried superior blood that should be protected from contamination by restricting sexual contact with lesser humans: Southern and Eastern Europeans; Africans, of course; and Asians were at the bottom of the list, according the unfitness of their genetic inheritance.

It was bigotry, institutionalized and widely accepted in America. It made sense in the mindset of the times.

Eugenicists were certain that inferior humans, that is, everyone from babies born with birth defects to adults living in poverty earned their life situations from their inferior genetic inheritance. More important, since the sorry specimens could not improve themselves, their blood needed to be systematically flushed out of the general population.

After the horrors of Nazi Germany, initially fueled as well as funded by American eugenicists, history was deeply cleansed by the children of its pioneers.

But the story line is clear. John D. Rockefeller recruited as his first Director at the Institute for Medical Research Simon Flexner who soon hired Alexis Carrel, its first Nobel Prize winner in 1912. All three men were believers in the promise of eugenics to improve mankind through biological cleansing.

Even so, you will search in vain for notes or references to eugenics work at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. Did the leading scientists of their generation suddenly abandon a core philosophy? Of course, not.

We may never know the fullest details, but what we do know that, in 1913, John D. Rockefeller launched the Rockefeller Foundation, a charity that continues today. This sibling of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research funded eugenics research in Nazi Germany, which was at the time many years behind the United States.

As Hitler's programs moved quickly from euthanizing children with birth defects to killing cripples and clearing out homes for the elderly, American eugenicists marveled that Germany was so much more effective at achieving results than we were. They caught up fast and moved on.

The Rockefeller Foundation paid for the construction of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Brain Research where the scientific seeds of the Holocaust were planted.

Alexis Carrel? Rockefeller University's first Nobel Prize winner died in 1944, awaiting trial as a Nazi collaborator in Vichy France. But before that and just as the Nazi engines started to roar in 1935 and while still affiliated with RIMR, Carrel published Man, the Unknown, an international bestseller that carried forward the eugenicists' basic claim that mankind was "degenerating" through uncontrolled breeding and offered solutions.

Here's a quote from his book:

Those who have murdered, robbed while armed with automatic pistol or machine gun, kidnapped children, despoiled the poor of their savings, misled the public in important matters, should be humanely and economically disposed of in small euthanasic institutions supplied with proper gasses. A similar treatment could be advantageously applied to the insane, guilty of criminal acts.

Capital punishment on steroids.

Conclusion

It's no surprise that the Rockefeller family and the institutions to which they contributed should want to erase connections to eugenics and Nazi atrocities they never saw coming. That they are enabled to do so is another story.

The road to Nazi Germany was cut straight through the grounds of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, and Alexis Carrel must have glanced many times across the East River to Roosevelt Island. Pretending it never happened, as Rockefeller University and the founding family do, deprives us of the right to learn from one of the most horrific mistakes in history.

The science of eugenics was improperly used to promote elitist goals for justifying the elimination of others not like them. We ought to be talking about it, not promoting ignorance to protect a single family's overwhelming pride. 

 

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