Should folks name a high school after a man who supported Eugenics?

No, say the Canadian Metis blogger, ex-politician, and all around troublemaker Mrs. Gay Caswell on her blog.

So who is she complaining about now? A Canadian bigshot who implemented socialized medicine in that country. Complains Mrs C:

He followed the Regina Manifesto, a doctrinaire communist platform ….  As Premier he made himself Minister of Health.

He called in Dr.Sigurist, a Communist from John Hopkins University to write a report. The  Sigurist Report included everything and more that Tommy Douglas believed by his Masters’ Thesis.  Sigurist was appalled that the natives  were not segregated to die without tainting and infecting the superior  whites. It is said in McLeod and McLeod that Douglas accepted  the report and said “ great!” and went on to apply it.

Is she paranoid? Let’s google a bit to find out. The politician she is railing against is Tommy Douglas, a hero to Canadians for his pioneering of socialized medicine in that country.

A quick google will reveal that the politician in question and his party did support the Regina Manifesto which supported replacing capitalism with a socialist government run economy. (later they changed their mind in 1956).

And the (Canadian) National Post confirms that this leader did his his college thesis in eugenics, and that paper is honest enough to admit that this fact is being airbrushed from history, but the article insists that he did not push eugenics when he became premier. Similarly, Wikipedia confirms that he wrote his college thesis on eugenics, but denies he ever enacted legislation on these ideas.

Actually, Douglas didn’t have to implement eugenic sterilizations in western Canada: The Alberta Sexual Sterilization act was already in place, being passed in 1928 (and not repealed until 1972)

the Act was disproportionately applied to those in socially vulnerable positions, including: females, children, unemployed persons, domestics, rural citizens, unmarried, institutionalized persons, Roman and Greek Catholics, persons of Ukrainian, Native and Métis ethnicity.

But what about Saskatchewan? Their Sterilization act was almost passed in 1945, but ran into opposition. From Time Magazine:

… Last week neighboring Saskatchewan was debating whether it should follow suit. The controversy was touched off by a report on mental ills by Dr. C. M. Hincks, general director of the Canadian National Committee for Mental Hygiene.

Among the report’s recommendations: “There is a special indication for  sterilization in connection with physically attractive moron girls prior to discharge from residential school [for mental defectives].”

Then came the reaction. In all Roman Catholic churches in Regina the Casti Connubü encyclical of Pope Pius XI…

Yup…opposition from those troublesome Catholics, not to mention reports of the eugenics experiment in Germany being a bit, how would one say it, a bit enthusiastic stopped the official program from spreading throughout Canada.

So who is Dr. Sigerist who helped Mr. Douglas implement the local provincial medical reform in 1944? A medical historian at Johns Hopkins who pushed for socialized medicine in the USA. He was a big shot in the US at one point, who even got on the cover of Time Magazine,(the glowing Time article is posted HERE).

What is Sigerist’s relationship to Canadian medical care? 

One of Premier T.C. Douglas’s priorities, within two days of his election on June 15, 1944, was to contact Dr. Henry Sigerist, professor of the history of medicine at Johns Hopkins University, and author of Socialized Medicine in the Soviet Union to head a health study commission.

Sigerist began work on September 6, 1944; completed visits and hearings on September 23; finished the report at five minutes after midnight on October 1; and presented his formal report on October 4.

Also check out  “Steps on the Road to Medicare: Why Saskatchewan Led the Way, byClarence Stuart Houston.GOOGLE BOOK LINK.

Yes, Douglas did ask for a restructuring of medicine in Saskatchewan, and there was a ” report” that outlined how to do it, and it was written so quickly (in one month?!) with no grassroots input that I suspect it was written according to a previously thought out idea that they wanted to implement.

In other words, it was a theory he wanted to implement, without bothering to ask local docs or citizens what they wanted.

Alas, Dr. Siegarist’s pioneering work has usually been ignored in the modern day health care discussion. Why? This Johns Hopkins article notes what got him in trouble was that he went overboard in praising Stalin’s policies while ignoring his atrocities.

“Enamored of the Soviet experiment, he was unwilling to see or believe the hideous purges, which he dismissed as part of a necessary transition period,” writes his daughter, Nora Sigerist Beeson,

No, he wasn’t a communist, just one of Stalin’s “useful idiots”….But his policies sound disturbingly prophetic:

Sigerist, writes Hutchinson, “shared with the architects of Soviet health policy under Stalin an outlook best described as medical totalitarianism. He really believed that humanity would be better off if every individual were under the medical supervision of the state from the cradle to the grave

And he ended up out of favor, not from the McCarthy keruffle of  the mid 1950’s, but much earlier: he started losing support after he supportedthe Soviet invasion of Finland in 1941.

Yet today, the airbrush is almost complete, and we will again see heroes made out of these people. For example, we are now seeing a resurrection of Siegerist the hero, whose  ideas have influenced many countries, including the UK.

He was therefore able to see the relationship between medicine and society in a historical context that is noteably absent from present debates about healthcare reform.

“He had spent years conducting comparative studies of ancient and modern medical cultures, and eventually concluded that medicine must undergo an evolutionary process that ends–by necessity–in socialized medicine. As a society became more complex, contended Sigerist, the medical care of its citizens could not successfully be left up to the individual.” John Hopkins University

Italics mine.

Ah, yes. Must have Doctors follow Health Care guidelines that dole out medicine according to the opinions of experts.  Death panels, anyone?

So why was such a great humanitarian like Sigerist, or a great progressive leaders like Doublas, involved in eugenics, and only changing their mind when the reports of Nazi implemention of similar policies caused the subject to be taboo?

Like most of their fellow elites, they saw it as an acceptiable scientific idea, but the Nazis just didn’t implement their eugenic policies correctly.

as Sigerist put it, eugenics was a “socio-biological experiment that deserves to be watched carefully, even if the present Nazi regime has made it subservient to a thoroughly reactionary—and unscientific—politico-racial ideology.”[8] The German advocates of a racist biology were, in other words, false priests of a true religion. It seemed inconceivable to him that science would, in the long run, not stand with the forces of enlightenment and egalitarianism.

(italics mine).

He shouldn’t be condemned for such evil ideas, because everyone among the elite had the same ideas: As Pat Murphy notes:

So when the early Tommy Douglas adopted a doctrine that would now be considered socially unacceptable, he was in very notable company. With their appeal to expertise and science as a means of beneficially remaking society, they were the kind of people that we are regularly urged to listen to and be guided by today.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Uh, maybe because Alberta’s program didn’t get stopped until the 1972?

Or maybe because the program wasn’t just about the mentally disabled?

This article  admit that most of those forcibly sterilized had disabilities, but that

“many other marginalized groups—single mothers, First Nations and Métis
people, eastern Europeans, and poor people—were also disproportionately
represented amongst those subject to eugenic ideas and practices, such
as sterilization. Precisely why is not known.”

They don’t know why? duh.

Maybe that is why Mrs. Caswell is ranting against naming a high school for Douglas: it was her people who were the brunt of those sterilized in the name of eugenics. And although I can’t find if Douglas implemented sterilization programs, it should be noted he didn’t do much to stop them either. He instituted medical reforms in 1944 but the Time article says that the bill to start the eugenics program in Saskatchewan was proposed in 1945. Coincidence?

Doctors pressuring minorities to be sterilized is not a Canadian issue either: If you think American Indians weren’t pressured into being sterilized, you are kidding yourself. It got so bad that now we require a 30 day waiting period.

The dirty little secret of seeing people as ciphers by experts who only are doing it for the higher good has a long history in the twentieth century, and when you airbrush the truth out of history, you have to be careful, because the people who were harmed by their policies remember.

Mrs. Caswell may be a cranky troublemaking old lady but unlike the history writers of our time, she remembers the Eugenic ideas that have been airbrushed from the history of socialized medicine, and raises her voice in alarm so we don’t make such mistakes again.


yes, I know I spelled Sigerist three different ways. His name is spelled differently in different articles.

Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines.

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