The best books on how eugenics came to Canada

C. Elizabeth Koester Author Of In the Public Good: Eugenics and Law in Ontario
By C. Elizabeth Koester

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By Erika Dyck

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

Why 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.


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

By Cecily Devereux

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

Why 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.


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

By Ian Robert Dowbiggin

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

Why 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.


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

By Martin S. Pernick

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

Why 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.


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

By Robert J. Sharpe, Patricia I. McMahon

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

Why 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.


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