The best books on how eugenics came to Canada

Why am I passionate about this?

I'm a lapsed lawyer who decided as an empty-nest project to take a few history of medicine courses just for fun. One thing led to another and I found myself with a PhD and a book about eugenics and law to my name. I love the history of medicine. It connects us right back to the cavemen who worried about the same things we worry about today – illness, injury, our bodies, reproduction, death, dying. The history of eugenics is really a part of that history and it is filled with laws – coerced reproductive sterilization, marriage restrictions based on so-called “fitness,” etc. So it's a perfect union of my background and my newfound love. 


I wrote...

In the Public Good: Eugenics and Law in Ontario

By C. Elizabeth Koester,

Book cover of In the Public Good: Eugenics and Law in Ontario

What is my book about?

In the early twentieth century, the eugenics movement won many supporters with its promise that social ills such as venereal disease, alcoholism, and so-called feeble-mindedness, along with many other conditions, could be eliminated by selective human breeding and other measures. The provinces of Alberta and British Columbia passed legislation requiring that certain “unfit” individuals undergo reproductive sterilization. Ontario, being home to many leading proponents of eugenics, came close to doing the same.

In the Public Good examines three legal processes that were used to advance eugenic ideas in Ontario between 1910 and 1938: legislative bills, provincial royal commissions, and the criminal trial of a young woman accused of distributing birth control information.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Facing Eugenics: Reproduction, Sterilization, and the Politics of Choice

C. Elizabeth Koester Why did I love this book?

This is the most important book to read if you want to understand (a) eugenics generally and (b) how it played out in Alberta, the part of Canada where these ideas got the most traction. Dyck is a great historian, but even better, she does not forget that history is about real people. Her history is detailed and thorough, but it is not dry. She uses all kinds of interesting sources including courtroom evidence and personal records to bring the issues to life. She also moves the story forward by writing about abortion in the 1970s and 1980s and shows us in a very thought-provoking way the connections between eugenic “fitness” and our notions of “disability” today.

By Erika Dyck,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Facing Eugenics as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Facing Eugenics is a social history of sexual sterilization operations in twentieth-century Canada. Looking at real-life experiences of men and women who, either coercively or voluntarily, participated in the largest legal eugenics program in Canada, it considers the impact of successive legal policies and medical practices on shaping our understanding of contemporary reproductive rights. The book also provides deep insights into the broader implications of medical experimentation, institutionalization, and health care in North America. Erika Dyck uses a range of historical evidence, including medical files, court testimony, and personal records to place mental health and intelligence at the centre of…


Book cover of Growing a Race: Nellie L. McClung and the Fiction of Eugenic Feminism

C. Elizabeth Koester Why did I love this book?

Nellie McClung, one of the “famous five,” is a well-known name in Canadian history for her role in fighting for the vote for women. But it turns out she was also a eugenicist. This book does a great job of knitting those two elements together and explaining not just why so many early feminists also believed in eugenic principles but how those principles were part of the same thinking. One of the challenges in understanding eugenics is answering the question of how it was that ideas, which we find repugnant today, had such power a hundred years ago. Devereux’s Introduction is one of the best things I have read to help grapple with that question.

By Cecily Devereux,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Growing a Race as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A controversial study of the alleged racism in the fiction of Nellie McClung


Book cover of Keeping America Sane: Psychiatry and Eugenics in the United States and Canada, 1880 1940

C. Elizabeth Koester Why did I love this book?

It is important when trying to understand eugenics in Canada to compare how it played out in this country to its trajectory elsewhere. This helps us understand what the commonalities were in the ideas and also to see how and where specific environments resulted in local incarnations of these ideas. Dowbiggin does this for us with great insight by writing comparatively about psychiatry and eugenics in Canada and the U.S. I knew that psychiatrists had enthusiastically taken up the eugenic cause but this book explains really well how and why this happened on both sides of the border, showing us that the profession’s general support for eugenics was not necessarily (or only) because of the ideas themselves, but for professional and status-building reasons.

By Ian Robert Dowbiggin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Keeping America Sane as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

What would bring a physician to conclude that sterilization is appropriate treatment for the mentally ill and mentally handicapped? Using archival sources, Ian Robert Dowbiggin documents the involvement of both American and Canadian psychiatrists in the eugenics movement of the early twentieth century. He explains why professional men and women committed to helping those less fortunate than themselves arrived at such morally and intellectually dubious conclusions.

Psychiatrists at the end of the nineteenth century felt professionally vulnerable, Dowbiggin explains, because they were under intense pressure from state and provincial governments and from other physicians to reform their specialty. Eugenic ideas,…


Book cover of The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of Defective Babies in American Medicine and Motion Pictures Since 1915

C. Elizabeth Koester Why did I love this book?

This is a book about how eugenic ideas were popularized in early movies. It focuses on one particular movie called The Black Stork which tells the true – and shocking – story of Harry Haiselden, a Chicago physician who was accused of allowing the deaths of so-called “defective” babies in the late 1910s. The book also includes fascinating background about the movie industry at the time, as well as about Pernick’s hunt for a copy of this old film. While it is not about Canada, it nevertheless really helps us understand the way eugenic ideas came before the public and their important relationship to pop culture. It is also a very engaging read which introduced me to the fun of learning about old movies.

By Martin S. Pernick,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Black Stork as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the late 1910s Dr. Harry J. Haiselden, a prominent Chicago surgeon, electrified the nation by allowing the deaths of at least six infants he diagnosed as "defectives". Seeking to publicize his efforts to eliminate the "unfit", he displayed the dying infants to journalists, wrote about them for the Hearst newspapers, and starred in a feature film about his crusade. Prominent Americans from Clarence Darrow to Helen Keller rallied to his support.
The Black Stork tells this startling story, based on newly-rediscovered sources and long-lost motion pictures, in order to illuminate many broader controversies. The books shows how efforts to…


Book cover of The Persons Case: The Origins and Legacy of the Fight for Legal Personhood

C. Elizabeth Koester Why did I love this book?

This book should be made into a movie! Yes, it is written by two legal historians and yes, it is about a court case, but it reads like a thriller. Great characters, twists and turns in the plot, prime ministers, feisty ladies, the whole nine yards. It is the story of how a British court decided that women were “persons” and thus could be appointed to the Canadian Senate. At the time, only certain “persons” were eligible and only men were considered “persons.” It is not about eugenics, but the events take place around 1929 and the authors do a great job of explaining what Canadian society was like then. This helps us appreciate why the ground was so fertile for eugenic ideas and why women like the “persons” involved in the story were also eugenicists.

By Robert J. Sharpe, Patricia I. McMahon,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Persons Case as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On 18 October 1929, John Sankey, England's reform-minded Lord Chancellor, ruled in the Persons case that women were eligible for appointment to Canada's Senate. Initiated by Edmonton judge Emily Murphy and four other activist women, the Persons case challenged the exclusion of women from Canada's upper house and the idea that the meaning of the constitution could not change with time. The Persons Case considers the case in its political and social context and examines the lives of the key players: Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung, and the other members of the "famous five," the politicians who opposed the appointment of…


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Empire in the Sand

By Shane Joseph,

Book cover of Empire in the Sand

Shane Joseph Author Of Empire in the Sand

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I have been a writer for more than twenty years and have favored pursuing “truth in fiction” rather than “money in formula.” I also spent over thirty years in the corporate world and was exposed to many situations reminiscent of those described in my fiction and in these recommended books. While I support enterprise, “enlightened capitalism” is preferable to the bare-knuckle type we have today, and which seems to resurface whenever regulation weakens. I also find writing novels closer to my lived experience connects me intimately with readers who are looking for socio-political, realist literature.

Shane's book list on exposing corporate, political, and personal corruption

What is my book about?

Avery Mann, a retired pharmaceuticals executive, is in crisis.

His wife dies of cancer, his son’s marriage is on the rocks, his grandson is having a meltdown, and his good friend is a victim of the robocalls scandal that invades the Canadian federal election. Throw in a reckless fling with a former colleague, a fire that destroys his retirement property, and a rumour emerging that the drug he helped bring to market years ago may have been responsible for the death of his wife, and Avery’s life goes into freefall.

Does an octogenarian beekeeper living on Vancouver Island hold the key to Avery’s recovery, a man holding secrets that put lives in jeopardy? Avery races across the country to find out, with crooked bosses, politicians, and assassins on his tail. Joseph spins a cautionary tale of corporate and political greed that is endemic to our times.

Empire in the Sand

By Shane Joseph,

What is this book about?

Avery Mann, a retired pharmaceuticals executive, is in crisis. His wife dies of cancer, his son’s marriage is on the rocks, his grandson is having a meltdown, and his good friend is a victim of the robocalls scandal that invades the Canadian federal election.

Throw in a reckless fling with a former colleague, a fire that destroys his retirement property, and a rumour emerging that the drug he helped bring to market years ago may have been responsible for the death of his wife, and Avery’s life goes into freefall.

Does an octogenarian bee keeper living on Vancouver Island hold…


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