Newman University student Kristin Martin receives Best-Paper Award for study of eugenics in Kansas

Mar 06, 2014

Newman University student Kristin Martin has been awarded the Student Best-Paper Award from the Missouri Valley History Conference at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Martin, a senior, will present her paper at the conference on March 6 and receive the award at the Phi Alpha Theta luncheon later that day. The title of her paper is: “‘Fitter Families for Future Firesides’: 1920s Kansas Eugenics Contests.”

Kristin Martin
Kristin Martin

“I am completely surprised and incredibly honored to receive this award,” Martin said.

Martin’s paper is an outgrowth of her senior thesis for the Honors Program at Newman. Associate Professor of History and Chair of the Humanities Division Kelly McFall, Ph.D. guided Martin as advisor for her thesis, helping her in conceptualizing the project and in crafting and revising drafts of the paper.

“But Kristin has done all of the original research, both at the Kansas state archives and by using online archives,” McFall said. “I’m thrilled that Kristin has won this award, which she richly deserves. I knew nothing about the Fittest Family contests before she told me about them and now I can’t stop telling others. The award testifies both to Kristin’s abilities and her chances of success in the future.”

The “Fitter Families for Future Firesides” eugenic contests were held at the Kansas Free Fairs during the 1920s. At the fairs, farmers would bring their best products of selective breeding such as pigs, horses or pumpkins. The concept was carried over to judge “human stock” by selecting the most eugenically fit family. Eugenics, a popular topic at the time, involved the study of or belief in the possibility of improving the human race by discouraging reproduction by people having perceived genetic defects or undesirable traits, and encouraging reproduction by those having perceived desirable traits.

At most contests, competitors submitted an “Abridged Record of Family Traits,” and a team of medical doctors performed psychological and physical exams on family members. Each family member was given an overall letter grade of eugenic health, and the family with the highest grade average was awarded a silver trophy.

Martin said the “Fitter Families” contests attracted her interest because they are a shocking part of Kansas and American history that has not been extensively researched.

“I was surprised and embarrassed to find out that eugenic propaganda thrived in my own state in such a form, and I thought it was important for people today to learn from the past and, in doing so, be prepared for the future,” Martin said. “I am hoping that this award will bring attention to my topic. I hope it encourages people to become acquainted with the pre-World War II eugenic culture in America and to see the marks that the eugenics movement left on American culture.”

Martin’s paper on eugenics in Kansas is as follows:


Kristin Martin
Newman University
March 6, 2014

In 1920, in a small building at the Kansas Free Fair, Dr. Florence Brown Sherbon and Mary T. Watts gave life to a new idea, an idea that had grown and developed for almost 10 years. It started in Iowa in 1910 with Mary Watts’ Better Babies contests in which volunteer doctors judged preschool-aged children for health using similar standards to those of livestock judging. During these contests, Watts and fellow contest organizer Dr. Florence Brown Sherbon presented eugenics education exhibits. In time, Watts received criticism from Charles Davenport, a leader in the eugenics movement, regarding her failure to take the heredity of children into consideration when judging. Sherbon’s experience while judging corroborated his concern. The idea for the Fitter Families for Future Firesides contest came as a result of Davenport’s criticism. The event took both heredity and health into account when judging. This was Watts and Sherbon’s idea that debuted at the 1920 Kansas Free Fair.

This slice of history is obscure and can almost seem bizarre in light of our current understanding of genetics. What can it tell us about problems in transferring current eugenic teachings from the minds of professional eugenicists to the lives of everyday people in the 1920s? How were the teachings of the eugenics movement affected during the transfer? How did everyday Kansans accept these new ideas?

Generally, new eugenics ideas reached everyday people through intermediaries like Watts and Sherbon who sought, with mixed results, to tie in eugenics teachings with general health concerns and to further the larger agenda of the eugenics movement while making their message agreeable to everyday people. In the case of the Fitter Families contests, children’s health activists Watts and Sherbon, who understood their rural audience from years of experience in Iowa, sought to encourage good health and breeding by drawing a parallel between breeding quality stock and breeding quality humans. However, since families received the status of good eugenic heritage after examinations in both health and heredity, it is quite possible that some families became confused on the larger eugenic message, believing that an improvement in health would increase an individual’s eugenic standing in the Fitter Families contest.

The journey towards these Fitter Families contests began in 1910 in Iowa with the Better Babies contests mentioned before. Watts had the idea. What if a contest existed to judge babies in the same way as livestock were judged? What if people realized that better babies meant better adults? Although other states like Louisiana had put on Scientific Baby contests before, none based their contests on the principles of animal husbandry. Watts wondered if the same principles used to judge livestock could help parents “breed” better children. With this in mind, Mary T. Watts founded the Better Babies contest at a little county fair in Iowa. Watts’ baby contests were a success and every year the winners packed into a car with a runner proclaiming “Iowa’s Best Crop” for the fair’s final parade.

Dr. Florence Brown Sherbon shared Watts’ enthusiasm for children’s health and eugenics. Dr. Sherbon, in conjunction with Dr. Margaret Clark of Waterloo, developed the first human scorecard to be influenced by livestock judging standards. As Watts explained later in her career, “While the stock judges are testing the Holsteins, Jerseys, and Whitefaces in the stock pavilion, we are judging the Joneses, Smiths, and the Johnsons…and nearly everyone replies ‘I think it is about time people had a little of the attention that is given to animals.'” Sherbon, who in the past ran a sanitarium with her husband, brought the necessary views of a medical professional as a counterbalance to Watts’ organization skills. The contest’s success and a growing interest in children’s health even led Watts and Sherbon to help found the American Baby Health Organization together.

As the contests gained popularity, Charles Davenport, a leader of the eugenics movement took notice of the women’s work. In 1911 and 1912, Watts received two simple but jarring postcards from him that radically changed her view on how the contest evaluations ought to be conducted. The director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and founder of the Eugenics Records office, Davenport sent Watts a postcard in 1911 which read, “You should give 50 per cent to heredity before you begin to score a baby.” Watts initially disregarded the postcard and filed it away. A year later, Davenport sent another postcard with the lone sentence: “A prize winner at two may be an epileptic at ten.” This second comment caught Watts’ attention. In the postcards, Davenport had implied that her work did not properly represent the real teachings of the eugenics move. Watts liked to consider her work eugenically inclined and she always tried to include a “Eugenics Exposition” as a part of her contests. This censure from Davenport, a prominent leader in the American eugenics movement, caused her discomfort.

After receiving this second reprimand, Watts brought the issue to the attention of Sherbon, who came up with a plan. Sherbon agreed with Davenport, stating that, in her experience, it was all too common for a child with bad heredity to still score highly due to good health. Therefore, the contest organizers began to search for a way to more comprehensively analyze both the health and the genetic wellbeing of children. In 1916, Sherbon was laid off from the Children’s Bureau in Iowa. A divorcee and the mother of twins, she applied to different State Boards of Health throughout the Midwest in an attempt to find a job to support her family. Sherbon accepted a position in Kansas where, by 1920, she had outlined a plan to improve on the Better Babies contests and had enlisted the help of her old colleague Mary Watts. These so-called “Fitter Families for Future Firesides” contests were a calculated improvement upon the Better Babies contests, a response to Davenport’s postcards. Unlike the Better Babies competitions, the Fitter Families contests had the advantage of the entire family’s presence which allowed judges both to rate a subject’s health and also to judge the quality of family genetic heritage. The Fitter Families regimen took genetics into account where the Better Babies contests failed to do so.

In 1920, Sherbon convinced Philip Eastman, the executive secretary of the Kansas Free Fair Association, to allow the new contest into the fair. An article from a 1925 issue of the Pictoral Review states that Eastman, “set aside a small building and paid the expenses of the first scoring of human stock ever attempted, so far as is known, at any agricultural fair.” And so, for the first time, the Fitter Families for Future Firesides contests came into being. The small building with a “Fitter Families for Future Firesides” sign running along the ridgepole was partitioned off into 8 different areas into which different members of the family were led for private examinations.

Families got into the contest by previously made appointment and completed examinations for both health and heredity. Local medical professionals, such as Dr. James Naismith, a professor at the University of Kansas and the inventor of American basketball, volunteered to help complete the examinations. First in the judging, examiners collected records of the family’s three most recent generations for the purpose of creating a permanent family history and evaluating the genetic quality of the family line. Next, each family member went through nine rigorous units of examination: nervous and mental tests, structural measurements, and medical examinations; eye, ear, nose, throat, and dental examinations; laboratory examination of urine and blood; and an examination of health habits. The judging took about three hours. At the end, the scores for all family members were averaged by volunteer clerks in order to determine the family’s final score. Each family member rated a B+ or higher received a eugenic certificate from the Kansas State Board of Health. All families receiving a Grade B+ or above received a Senator Arthur Capper medal inscribed with the Bible verse, “Yea, I have a goodly heritage” (Ps 16:6, KJV). The overall winning family received the silver Capper trophy.

The Fitter Families for Future Firesides contests were held every year throughout the 1920s at the Kansas State Free Fair and, as far as the records show, every year the event became more popular. At the first contest in 1920, one hundred and one individuals from twenty families competed. In 1925, twenty five families competed and 40 individual adults were examined. It seems the contest continually grew in popularity, although, as Watts stated, “Each year the interest has increased, [but] there are always more requests for entries than space and equipment will permit.”

Next door to the examination building was a smaller building covered in signs and labelled the Eugenic and Health Exhibit. One sign used in eugenic exhibits around the country was the birth rate “flashing light” exhibit. This sign, emblazoned with “SOME PEOPLE ARE BORN TO BE A BURDEN TO THE REST” across the top, was wired with lights fixed to blink every time a certain type of person was born. One light blinked every 15 seconds, showing that “every 15 seconds $100 of your money goes for the care of persons with bad heredity, such as the insane, feeble minded, criminals, and other defectives.” Another light blinked every 50 seconds, showing that someone was committed to jail in the United States, with the explanation that “very few normal people ever go to jail.” At the end of the board was a light that flashed every 7 minutes, indicating the birth of a eugenically fit American. Only four out of every 100 Americans born was considered eugenically fit. [Author’s note: Here, in speech, I will reference a handout with pictures of various exhibits.] It is apparent from these signs that Watts and Sherbon intended to not only educate families through eugenic and health examinations, but also to educate families more formally through the eugenics exhibits.

What did Watts and Sherbon seek to gain through this eugenics education? Ultimately, they sought to encourage the better breeding of human beings. As was stated in one of the eugenics exhibits, “If all marriages were eugenic, we could breed out most of this unfitness in three generations…selected parents will have better children. This is the great aim of eugenics.” Watts and Sherbon made clever use of the agricultural expertise possessed by most Fitter Families participants. In fair listings, those judged were referred to as Human Stock and many who supported the Fitter Families contests because they believed the human germline deserved a little of the pampering that the livestock germline received. A poem by Rose Trumball, reflecting on the equal importance of both human breeding and livestock breeding, was included in the 1920 Kansas Free Fair handbill:

And what of your boy—Have you measured
His needs for a growing year?
Does your mark, as his sire, in his features,
Mean less than your brand on a steer?
Thoroughbred-that is your watchword
For stable and pasture and pen-
But what is your word for the homestead?
Answer, you breeders of men!”

Mary Watts herself stated her beliefs about human breeding and heredity in an interview:

Farmers started in to improve their livestock by better housing and more careful thinking but they still raised scrubs [animals of inferior breeding]. It was not until they discovered that heredity was a factor in stock improvement that any great change in the grade of livestock took place…we are studying [good health practices] but still the number of unfortunates increases. We must go further; we must place more emphasis upon the factor of heredity.

Watts and Sherbon sought to place an emphasis on human heredity so that people would marry with eugenic purpose in mind.

To better understand the broader intent of Watts and Sherbon as concerns the science of better eugenic breeding, it is helpful to look into Sherbon’s other works. Sherbon laid out her ideas on eugenic breeding and the science behind it quite thoroughly in her book The Child. She defined eugenics as “the application of the laws of heredity to human welfare, or the ‘self-direction’ of human evolution.” The first aim of eugenics, Sherbon writes, is to check the birth of the unfit through “human weed laws”. These “human weed laws” included measures such as segregation in institutions, legal sterilization, and marriage regulation. Is it possible that this eugenic education, this public assertion through eugenics exhibits that “if all marriages were eugenic, we could breed out unfitness” was meant as a logical step towards “human weed laws”?

It is quite possible that this was the case. In 1917, a few years before the beginning of the Fitter Families contests, a “Pure Marriage” bill came before the Kansas House of Representatives. The bill, if made into law, would have required all couples to receive a physical examination before receiving their marriage license. Any candidate with tuberculosis or any other communicable disease would be barred from marriage. Rep. F. O. Stone, who sponsored the bill, claimed that the law would “insure a race of giants in Kansas in 100 years.” Throughout the nineteen teens and 1920s, the bill repeatedly came up, but the Kansas State Senate voted it down for the last time in 1927. Knowing that this happened contemporaneously to the Fitter Families contests and considering Watts and Sherbon’s strong association with the eugenics movement, it is not unreasonable to assume the eugenics exhibits were meant to garner support of this legislation. This was not the only direct connection with the broader eugenics movement that Watts and Sherbon utilized in the Fitter Families contests.

The permanent family hereditary records compiled during the Fitter Families contests not only meant to help individual families, but also to serve a larger purpose in the eugenics movement. A journalist at the time explained the usefulness of family health records: “You may be sure that the young man who knows the eugenic history of his family will look for more than just a pretty face when he decides to marry.” Another author stated that “the enthusiasm generated result[s] in the rest of the family being on hand for the examinations…they wanted to have the family health record complete.” However, what journalists did not pick up on was that records were not collected merely to establish the genetic history of each individual family. They were also collected to help with larger eugenics studies through the American Eugenics Society A few years after the contests started, Sherbon began to send in copies of scorecards to the Eugenics Records Office. These records were collected by Charles Davenport with the hope that one day the American Eugenics Society might compile a database of information on all human traits. So, the Fitter Families contests served not only to better the health and the eugenic knowledge of individual families, but also to feed into the larger goal of completing “scientists'” knowledge of genetics.

Watts and Sherbon, in their Fitter Families contests, attempted to walk the fine line of promoting both good health and eugenic awareness simultaneously. While they succeeded in getting the information on both health and eugenics to participants, the eugenics that participants incepted was not always the “eugenics” that the organizers intended. During the early eugenics movement, there was often tension between those who studied eugenics professionally and the intermediaries who popularized eugenic ideals. The professionals did not always agree with the eugenics that the intermediaries were teaching. These contests were no exception. In the case of the Better Babies contests and the two reprimanding postcards from Charles Davenport, Watts did not correctly implement Davenport’s eugenics ideology in her contests and she was censured accordingly. Her loose use of the term “eugenics” elicited criticism and muddied the understanding of eugenics for those exposed to her works. As those who studied and developed the “science” of eugenics were often detached from those they were trying to apply it to, this sort of disparity was common.

This disparity is again apparent in the Fitter Families for Future Firesides contests as families began to believe that good health led to good genetics. Watts and Sherbon knew the working of genetics well enough to know that it was not possible to change one’s genetic makeup simply by good health. However, since Sherbon and Watts cared about public health, it was impossible for them to imagine putting on any sort of contest without bettering the public health in the process. Even though Watts and Sherbon meant to teach solid eugenic principles through these contests and exhibits, their insistence upon including health examination led to confusion.

And confusion there most likely was. In these Fitter Families contests, the health examination and education were inextricably intertwined throughout the whole process. Theoretically, a family with a bit of bad heredity could do well by virtue of excellent health, despite the checks and balances built into the system. Furthermore, the doctors encouraged families with good heredity but average health status to improve their health and return the next year for a better eugenic rating. It was possible that a family who received a low rating because of health one year could return the next with perfect health and only then be proclaimed as having “a goodly heritage.”

It seems that families who went through this process often came to understand the true meaning of eugenics wrongly, equating good health with eugenic fitness. One father stated after his family’s examination, “This family is coming back next year, but we can’t make much of a showing until our teeth are fixed up.” Even though the eugenics exhibit explained that “what you really are was all settled when your parents were born”, the example set by the contest examination process contest showed something different. Ultimately, Watts and Sherbon succeeded in getting their ideas about breeding and good health into the public forum, but they failed to keep the two distinguishable in the process.

In conclusion, the newest ideas of the eugenics movement in the 1920s often became accessible to everyday people by the enthusiasm of intermediaries such as Watts and Sherbon. This arrangement worked, but had the unintended consequence of accidentally misleading the target audience. Those who participated in these contests and attended the attached eugenics exhibits received the message eagerly, partly because they were already familiar with the ideals of animal husbandry that were inherent in the contest’s format. These eugenics exhibits subtly hinted at the advantages of “human weed laws” such as the Pure Marriage Bill of 1917 and 1927. The Fitter Families contest itself helped people recognize and collect their family history while simultaneously aiding the American Eugenics Society in attempting to create a database of genetic traits. Finally, although Watts and Sherbon intended to educate people correctly in eugenic ideas, they unintentionally muddled their message by providing eugenic and health evaluations and education simultaneously. Watts and Sherbon were invaluable to the American Eugenics Society for their contribution to spreading eugenics ideas to a wider audience. However their assistance came at a price, as Kansans came to believe that good health could improve genetic heritage.


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This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: March 10, 2014
The text and Bibliography of Martin’s paper was added to the article.

By Robin Allard

Robin Allard is an international graduate student at Newman University in the MBA program. Hailing from France, Robin enjoys playing soccer, cooking, and writing. Follow Robin's blog at