The Eugenics of John M. MacEachran Warrants
Revocation of Honours
Douglas Wahlsten, University
John Malcolm MacEachran was the first professor
to teach philosophy and psychology at the University of Alberta
and was later a founder of the Canadian Psychological Association
(Nelson, 1982). After MacEachran's death in 1971, the Department
of Psychology initiated a series of lectures by distinguished
scholars in 1975 and arranged for them to be published by Lawrence
Erlbaum. A university news release announced that the lectures
were "designed to be held annually to honor the late John
M. MacEachran" (Thomas, 1975). The Department also named
a small conference room where important oral examinations are
held the MacEachran Room, and a large oil portrait of the elderly
MacEachran in academic robe presided over these solemn occasions
for many years.
MacEachran was not celebrated for his scholarship;
he never published an original contribution to the discipline
during a career extending from 1909 until retirement in 1945.
While others were in the library or laboratory conducting research,
MacEachran was busy working for the Alberta government. Most notably,
he was the Chairman of the Alberta Eugenics Board from 1929 to
1964 and personally signed the orders for sterilization of over
3,000 individuals (Wahlsten, 1997a). In the 1930s he published
several political articles and made speeches enthusiastically
endorsing eugenic sterilization, and he never retreated from this
position. Like many eugenicists, he refrained from public boasting
on the topic after World War II, but I could find no evidence
that his sentiments changed. After stepping down from the Eugenics
Board in 1964, he burned his personal papers (Christian, 1974;
personal communication), thereby denying posterity knowledge of
his private opinions in his later years, presumably because he
had much to hide.
Older colleagues, many now deceased or retired,
must have known about the Eugenics Board because they held the
"John M. MacEachran Conference" in 1972, the same year
when the Sexual Sterilization Act was debated in the legislature
and press and finally repealed. Many in the department must have
read a full-page feature article in the Edmonton Journal
that exposed MacEachran's role and noted similarities with sterilization
in Nazi Gemany (Powers, 1979).
Nevertheless, many of us in the current Department
of Psychology were genuinely surprised by revelations during the
suit by Leilani Muir against the Alberta government for wrongfully
confining her to a mental institution and sterilizing her (see
Veit, 1996). The trial revealed many sordid details of the operation
of the Eugenics Board under MacEachran's leadership, and the judgment
of Madame Justice Joanne B. Veit was strong and clear:
The circumstances of Ms. Muir's sterilization
were so high-handed and so contemptuous of the statutory authority
to effect sterilization, and were undertaken in an atmosphere
that so little respected Ms. Muir's human dignity that the
community's, and the court's, sense of decency is offended
(Veit, 1996, p. 696).
Leilani Muir addressed a Department of Psychology
colloquium on September 15, 1995, and in 1996 I circulated my
paper on the Alberta experience with eugenics (Wahlsten, 1997a)
to several colleagues in the department and beyond. Combined with
extensive coverage of the Muir trial in the media and a feature
article in the national magazine Saturday Night (Pringle,
1997), this information opened the eyes of everyone in the Department.
Gilbert Gottlieb, a foremost developmental psychologist,
delivered the MacEachran lecture in 1996 and published the resulting
monograph as part of the Erlbaum series (Gottlieb, 1997a). When
he learned about MacEachran's past, Gottlieb wrote to the Chairman
of Psychology, Eugene Lechelt:
I am glad and honored to have given
the invited lectures at Alberta last Fall, but, to be quite
honest, I would not have been able to accept the invitation
if I had known about Professor MacEachran's involvement in the
eugenic sterilization policy. While I am sure MacEachran did
a lot of good things for the department and the University,
the sterilization business is sufficiently reprehensible so
that I would not personally want to honor his memory. When I
came to work for the North Carolina Department of Mental Health
in 1959, such a law was on the books here. I, among others,
prevailed upon Dr. Eugene Hargrove, the Head of the NCDMH, not
to countenance such a wrong-headed approach to 'mental deficiency'
(measured IQ less than 70 in NC), and the law was eventually
repealed (Gottlieb, 1997b).
After a thorough discussion of several aspects
of the question of honours and naming, on September 3, 1997, my
colleagues and I voted 24 in favour, with one abstention, to rename
the conference room and unanimously to rename the lecture series
(Agenda and minutes, 1997). It was the sense of this meeting that
the deeds of the Eugenics Board were shameful and illegal, and
that MacEachran achieved nothing of sufficient importance to outweigh
the bad. The composition and attitude of the department had changed
significantly since the 1970s. For the first time since 1975 the
distinguished lectures (this time delivered by Charles R. Gallistel)
were not held under the name MacEachran. When my student Katherine
Bishop had her Ph.D. oral examination in the conference room on
September 5, 1997, we took down the old portrait.
The renaming of a lecture series and a small conference
room is a small matter compared with the sterilization of thousands
of innocent children. The details of this dishonouring of the
long-serving Chairman of the Alberta Eugenics Board would be of
little interest were it not for the howls of protest provoked
by a report of the decision in the University newspaper (Robb,
First, a chemistry professor accused the Department
of trying "to bury an unpleasant piece of history" and
urged us to keep the portrait up and retain the name but affix
a plaque telling about MacEachran's role with the Eugenics Board
(Graham, 1997). This letter alerted the Globe and Mail
to a controversy and a front page story soon appeared (Laghi,
1997), followed closely by front page coverage in the Edmonton
Journal (Dolphin, 1997) and attention from CBC radio, the
Canadian University Press, and Alberta Report (Torrance,
1997). The Edmonton Journal attacked our Department in
an editorial that asserted "the department cannot be allowed
to hide its own complicity in the eugenics movement" (Editorial,
1997). Letters of support and condemnation ensued, including a
diatribe from the Chair of Sociology who branded the Department
of Psychology "contemptible" and "diseased"
The core accusation in this media barrage was
that renaming and revoking honours amount to suppression of history,
but this was utterly false. Those who named the conference room
and the lecture series had indeed suppressed history by presenting
to a generation of students and younger colleagues only the palatable
story of MacEachran's role as university administrator in a fledgling
province. The Muir trial and its aftermath had exposed a more
complete history. We defended ourselves in the press (Heth and
Wahlsten, 1997; Wahlsten, 1997b), and our colleagues in the department,
while suffering discomfort from the media exposure, held firmly
to their decisions.
Following this episode, the Department of Philosophy
established a committee to review its annual award of a MacEachran
Medal and Scholarship. The recent committee report strongly recommends
termination of these awards in MacEachran's name (Kahane, et al.,
How is the MacEachran issue relevant to the discussion
of honours for Raymond Bernard Cattell? MacEachran was an obscure
academic acting locally and, in later years, secretly in a remote
jurisdiction, whereas Cattell was a prolific author read by thousands
internationally. I have found no direct evidence that MacEachran
was influenced by Cattell's writings, although two controversial
books by Cattell were in the University of Alberta library during
the reign of MacEachran on the Eugenics Board.
Nevertheless, I believe that the chief ideologues
of the eugenics movement, including Cattell, deserve a large measure
of blame for what happened in Alberta as well as in those states
in the U.S.A. that implemented compulsory sterilization. State-mandated
sterilization had proximal agents who passed the legislation,
signed the orders, and severed the flesh, but these actors did
not arrive on the political stage from another solar system. They
were inspired and imbued with a sense of righteousness by spiritual
and political leaders as well as theoreticians with academic credentials.
Leading ideologues cannot evade blame when their schemes are implemented
by others, even if the local actions are too crude and perhaps
not exactly as recommended by the masterminds.
Cattell was a prominent theoretician and an earnest
spiritual leader who advocated large-scale eugenic measures. He
later complained that eugenics had been "smeared in different
ways in Germany and Russia, and (through the misunderstandings
of a generation ago) in a few communities in America." (Cattell,
1972, p. 347) This does not impress me as a forthright condemnation
of eugenic sterilization. It minimizes the damage done to many
thousands of Americans while lamenting the harm done to his own
reputation. Despite its more moderate tone, Cattell's 1972 book
appears to continue the major themes from his writings in the
1930s. Beyondism is clearly a racist doctrine. It urges that several
entire groups of humans should become extinct. It inspires hatred
against identifiable groups of people and undermines sympathy
for the less fortunate members of our society who suffer mental
deficiency. To honour Cattell with a major academic award would
confer credibility and respectability on Beyondism, just as the
naming of a lecture series and conference room served notice to
students and the public in the 1970s that the leaders of the Department
of Psychology still thought MacEachran was a fine man who had
done nothing seriously wrong as Chair of the Eugenics Board.
Authors Note: All unpublished documents
cited in this article will be made available in the University
of Alberta archives under the subject name of John M. MacEachran.
Agenda and minutes for the 69th Council Meeting.
(1997, September 3). University of Alberta, Department of Psychology.
Cattell, R. B. (1972). A new morality from
science: Beyondism. NY: Pergamon.
Christian, T. (1974). The Mentally Ill and
Human Rights in Alberta. Edmonton: University of Alberta,
Faculty of Law.
Dolphin, R. (1997, October 17). Honours shelved
for professor linked to eugenics. Edmonton Journal, p.
Editorial. (1997, October 18). Eugenics past cannot
be erased. Edmonton Journal, p. A18.
Gottlieb, G. (1997a). Synthesizing nature-nurture:
Prenatal roots of instinctive behavior. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Gottlieb, G. (1997b, April 15). Letter to Professor
Graham, W. A. (1997, October 10). Valuable lesson
lost with decision on MacEachran legacy. Folio (University
of Alberta), p. 4.
Heth, D., & Wahlsten, D. (1997, November 6).
Eugenics prof. should have known better [Letter to the editor].
Edmonton Journal, p. A15.
Kahane, D., Sharp, W.D., & Tweedale, M. (1998,
April). Report of the MacEachran subcommittee. Edmonton:
University of Alberta, Department of Philosophy.
Laghi, B. (1997, October 16). Late professor's
eugenics role costs him honours. Globe and Mail, p. A1.
Nelson, T. (1982). Psychology at Alberta. In M.
J. Wright & C. R. Myers (Eds.), History of academic psychology
in Canada. (pp. 192-219). Toronto: C.J. Hogrefe.
Powers, D. (1979, February 17). Law 'reminiscent'
of Nazi Germany. Edmonton Journal, p. B2.
Pringle, H. (1997). Alberta barren. Saturday
Night, 112 (5), 30-74.
Robb, M. (1997, September 26). What's in a name?
Psychology department cuts ties with eugenics proponent. Folio
(University of Alberta), p. 7.
Sayer, D. (1997, October 24). Airbrushing the
picture of the past. Folio (University of Alberta), p.
Thomas, R. (1975, March 12). New lecture series
established at University. UA News Release (University of Alberta).
Torrance, K. (1997, November 3). The sterilization
of history. Alberta Report, 32-33.
Veit, J. (1996). Muir v. The Queen in Right of
Alberta. Dominion Law Reports, 132 (4th series), 695-762.
Wahlsten, D. (1997a). Leilani Muir versus the
philosopher king: eugenics on trial in Alberta. Genetica, 99,
Wahlsten, D. (1997b, November 7). Letter writer
missed the facts. Folio (University of Alberta), p. 4.
DOUGLAS WAHLSTEN is professor of Psychology
and Neuroscience at the University of Alberta. He is author of
the chapter on behavioural genetics for the 1999 Annual Review
of Psychology as well as book chapters on heredity and behaviour.
His laboratory research on the genetics of mouse brain defects,
sponsored by NSERC, has appeared recently in Brain Research,
the Journal of Comparative Neurology, and Experimental
Neurology. He is a founding member of the International Behavioural
and Neural Genetics Society.
Recent publications include:
Gottlieb, G., Wahlsten, D., & Lickliter, R.
(1997). The significance of biology for human development: A developmental
psychobiological systems view. In W. Damon (Series Ed.) &
R. M. Lerner (Vol. Ed.), Handbook of Child Psychology: Vol.
1: Theoretical models of human development (5th ed.)
(pp. 233-273). New York: Wiley.
Wahlsten, D. (1997). The malleability of intelligence
is not constrained by heritability. In B. Devlin, S. E. Fienberg,
D. P. Resnick, & K. Roeder (Eds.), Intelligence, genes,
and success: Scientists respond to the Bell Curve (pp. 71-87).
New York: Copernicus.
Wahlsten, D. (1999). Single-gene influences on
brain and behavior. Annual Review of Psychology, 50, 599-624.