In the summer of 1913, Middlebury College in Vermont was asked to organize a Rural Life Conference as part of an effort to promote economic, social, and intellectual improvement across the state.
Middlebury agreed to host the conference and supplied speakers for the week-long program. Robert J. Sprague, a professor of economics and sociology at the Massachusetts Agricultural College, was recruited to chair the event. Like many academics and scientists at the time, Sprague was a champion of eugenics — the now-discredited belief that human populations could and should be improved by preventing inferior classes of people from reproducing.
In his address to the conference, later published in the Middlebury College Bulletin, Sprague warned of the “racial menace” that posed a threat to “Anglo-Saxon civilization in America.” Citing census data, he claimed that “the native stock” — he meant whites of English ancestry, not American Indians — “has for many years been failing to keep up its numbers while the foreign born stock has been increasing rapidly.” Without far-reaching reforms, Sprague predicted, “the Anglo-Saxon . . . will die off and his homes and institutions be occupied by foreign bloods.” Already the countryside was turning into a “rural slum where a group of more or less degenerate, and perhaps at times criminal, people live together for generations.”
A pro-eugenics speaker featured at Middlebury College? Given recent events, that may come as a surprise.
In a column earlier this month, I described the decision by Middlebury College to rename Mead Memorial Chapel. The campus’s beautiful house of worship was built and donated to the school more than a century ago by John A. Mead, a Middlebury alumnus and former Vermont governor, on the understanding that it would be named for his family. But in September 2021, with no advance notice, Middlebury’s president and trustees ordered the Mead name removed from the campus landmark. In a subsequent statement, citing what they called Mead’s “central role in advancing eugenics policies that resulted in harm to hundreds of Vermonters,” they explained that honoring the generous former governor was “not consistent with what Middlebury stands for in the 21st century.”
In reality, Mead’s connection to eugenics was slight. He expressed support for it in a single speech at the end of his term as governor and didn’t pursue the subject thereafter. Vermont eventually did enact an odious eugenics law in 1931 — long after Mead’s death, in 1920.
Nonetheless, Middlebury has been unsparing in condemning its benefactor. In a lengthy court filing, it identifies Mead as one of the “most prominent advocates for eugenics in Vermont’s history” — a clear exaggeration — and goes so far as to suggest a connection between its long-ago alumnus and the “movement which would later serve as an inspiration for the Nazis’ program of forced sterilization.”
So it is curious that the college, while repudiating Mead and labeling his support for eugenics as “counter in every way to our values as an institution,” says nothing about its own extensive involvement in the eugenics movement. (Asked to comment, Middlebury’s spokeswoman responded that the college “has evolved” over the past century and that evidence of its past practices is “available to the public in our digital archives.”)
The Rural Life Conference was no anomaly. Middlebury for years instructed students in the principles of eugenics. In 1925, for example, a mandatory course for entering freshmen included a lecture on “What Has Civilization to Expect From Eugenics.” Among the topics students were expected to study were “Eugenics” and “Galton’s Experiments and Observations.” (Francis Galton, who coined the term “eugenics,” was an early proponent of the notion that “undesirable” people should be discouraged or prevented from having children.) The 1908 course catalog advised seniors taking the required course in sociology that they would learn about “race characteristics” and “heredity” as well as “pauperism, defectives and degenerates, [and] crime and its punishment.”
For years, Middlebury was listed among institutions of higher education that provided instruction in eugenics. In 1914, The Journal of Heredity included Middlebury in its roster of 44 colleges where eugenics was taught. It appeared in a similar list published by The Eugenics Review in 1925. Some Middlebury scholars were such prominent eugenicists that they attracted media coverage. When Professor A.E. Lambert, the head of the college’s biology department, came to Rutland, Vt., in 1914 to lecture at the Woman’s Club, the Rutland Daily Herald covered it. “Strong Advocate of Eugenic Marriages” read the headline the next day.
More prominent still was Paul Moody, who was Middlebury’s president from 1921 to 1945. Like so many other leading academics of the era, he was all in on eugenics. In 1931, he led the Committee on the Human Factor together with Henry F. Perkins, the most influential eugenicist in Vermont at the time. Their committee recommended a major public relations effort to promote eugenics among the public. That recommendation appeared in “Rural Vermont: A Program for the Future,” a manifesto replete with eugenics content, including a “Chart of Defects Found Among 55 Degenerate Families Studied.”
In his embrace of eugenics, Moody didn’t balk at disparaging the intellectual abilities of Middlebury residents who were not of the right lineage. He regarded French Canadians as an inferior ethnicity of subnormal intellectual ability. When Perkins asked if Middlebury College had ever “had any students of French Canadian descent who had made a name for themselves in any type of endeavor,” one historian records, “Moody immediately said no.” He was even more vehement about the inferiority of French Canadians in the wider community. “The whole French Canadian population could be wiped out of Middlebury and no one would miss it,” Moody told Perkins.
In short, eugenics was for decades entwined in the intellectual culture and public image of Middlebury College. Yet no one would have any inkling of that history from the college’s current president and board of trustees. In their long document justifying the removal of Mead’s name from the chapel, they made no mention of the school’s extensive connection to the eugenics movement. They condemned Mead for holding views that were considered progressive and scientific at the time without acknowledging that those views for many years were taught, promoted, and applauded by the faculty and administrators of Middlebury itself. It’s hardly surprising that as a loyal and active Middlebury alumnus, Mead was influenced by the views of his alma mater and fellow alums.
It is shabby that Middlebury College now tarnishes Mead’s good name for expressing opinions that the college long extolled. It is dishonest and hypocritical that it does so while deliberately ignoring its own culpability. If Middlebury administrators really believe that no name ever associated with the vile doctrine of eugenics should appear on the college’s grounds, that’s fine. They’ve already pried the name “Mead” from the campus chapel. To be consistent, they should now get to work pulling down the name “Middlebury” wherever it appears.