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A Science Museum visitor reading about Eugen Fischer, a German professor of medicine and anthropology who developed the physiological specifications used by the Nazi regime to determine racial origins.

In search of the perfect human

U explores international eugenics movements with Science Museum of Minnesota

By Pauline Oo

March 17, 2008

Editor's note: Stephen Feinstein, director of the U's Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and adjunct professor of history, was interviewed for this story on February 29. He was generous with his time and knowledge. Feinstein died unexpectedly four days later. This story is published in his memory.

In 1883, English scientist Francis Galton coined the term "eugenics," the belief that humanity could be improved by encouraging the most able and healthy people to have more children. A quarter of a century later, Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, founded the Eugenics Society of Great Britain. Fast-forward to Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler took eugenics to a deviant extreme. Between 1933 and 1945, the German government promoted nationalism that combined territorial expansion with claims of biological superiority and virulent anti-Semitism--killing six million Jews. Through May 4, the Science Museum of Minnesota, along with the U's Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, is hosting "Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race," an exhibition that delves into the theory of eugenics, its spread across the globe, and its role in the Nazi effort to legitimize persecution and the killing of human beings in pursuit of a superior Germany. "When you talk about genocide, one of the things we emphasize is that these are not a bunch of barbarians with bones sticking through their nose and with big spears," says Stephen Feinstein. "These were the top scientists and top medical people in Germany who were playing around with this concept of eugenics--they just went over the edge to become involved in mass murder."

Feinstein, who saw the exhibit two years ago at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., was responsible for bringing the exhibit to St. Paul. He approached the Science Museum--because there was no place suitable or big enough at the U to hold it--and he landed a $25,000 grant from the Regis Foundation to cover the rental and one-way transportation fee of the traveling exhibit. (The Canadian War Museum in Ottawa will host it next.)

"This is sort of an edgy exhibit," he says. "It asks questions. That's what critical thinking is suppose to be about, and that's what the University's business is--to ask critical questions, even embarrassing questions."

The exhibit includes black-and-white photographs of scientific experiments, such as a doctor using calipers to measure the width and length of a child's nose; posters of Nazi propaganda, like the Reich Committee for Public Health's 1935 poster on "The 10 Commandments of Choosing A Mate" (No. 7 on the list: "Health is a requirement also for physical beauty"); video clips featuring interviews with witnesses of gas chambers; charts on how to identify eye color and "hybrids," or part Jews; and objects such as an isolation cell door from a German psychiatric hospital and medals the Nazi government would give to mothers of large, healthy families.

"The things the Nazis did with eugenics were being done in other parts of the world, as well," says Feinstein. Local eugenics societies and groups sprang up around the United States after World War I, with names like the Race Betterment Foundation. By 1933, 26 U.S. states had sterilization laws that allowed the "mentally slow" or "feeble-minded" to be sterilized without their consent. Even the University of Minnesota had ties to the eugenics movement. Until the early 1960s it had the Dight Institute for the Promotion of Human Genetics, founded when Charles Fremont Dight, the president of the Minnesota Eugenics Society, left his estate to the U.

A man looking at a museum exhibit.

"This exhibit shows you the danger of science when it's misused," says Feinstein.

In mid-February, Feinstein and Kirk Allison, from the U's Program in Human Rights, helped to train 75 of the museum's volunteer docents on various aspects of the show. The museum has also held training sessions for more than 300 Minnesota teachers interested in bringing their students to the show.

To bolster that interest and to fuel public discussion, the museum and University are offering a series of related events, including lectures on the Twin Cities campus (see schedule below), a 15-minute play in the Science Live Theatre adjacent to the exhibit that challenges the audience to think about what they would do if faced with "deadly medicine," and online discussions about contemporary eugenics and genocide on Science Buzz, the museum's blog.

"I get more scared by horror movies than I do by this stuff," says Feinstein, who was trained in Russian and art history but switched his focus to the Holocaust in 1975, when he was asked to teach a course on it at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. "I'd say go to the Deadly Medicine exhibit because you'll see something that not only reflects on Germans 50 or 60 years ago, but that resonates in society today, especially with immigration, different levels of income, questions of welfare, and especially health care."

"I know people would like to think of cheerier things, like the Sound of Music and the world without the war in Iraq," he adds. "But the idea of critical thinking and learning is that you don't only learn the good things that we do, but you learn some of the bad things."

Admission to "Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race" exhibit is $11 ($8.50 for children and seniors). For tickets, call 651-221-9444 or buy online at the Science Museum. The museum is open seven days a week from 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. (or 9 p.m., Thursday to Saturday). Theater erformances are Thursday and Friday at noon and 1 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 1, 2, and 3 p.m.

Deadly Medicine: remaining lectures

The following lectures are free on the Twin Cities campus and $12 at the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul. (Admission to the Deadly Medicine exhibit is included in the ticket price; call 651-221-9444.)

Thursday, March 27
"Brain Research and Euthanasia in the Third Reich," by Dr. Hans-Walter Schmuhl
1 p.m., 2-530 Moos Tower; 4 p.m., 25 Mondale Hall; 7:30 p.m., Science Museum of Minnesota

Thursday, April 3
Unit 731: Japan's Biological Force, a 45-minute film about the Japanese human experimentation program in WWII
6 p.m., 25 Mondale Hall

Thursday, April 10
Film: Forgiving Dr. Mengele, with Eva Kor, Holocaust survivor and Megele twin
7 p.m., Science Museum of Minnesota

Thursday, April 17
"Race and Eugenics: Minnesota and the University of Minnesota," by U alum Mark Soderstrom
1 p.m., 2-530 Moos Tower; 7:30 p.m., Science Museum of MinnesotaThursday, May 1
Liebe Perla, a 63-minute film about the last living member of a Jewish family of dwarfs who survived experiments in Auschwitz
6 p.m., 25 Mondale Hall

Thursday, May 8
Film: The Elephant Man
6 p.m., 25 Mondale Hall
To read Stephen Feinstein obituary, see "University professor dies at 64."