By the 19th Century, the European public had been engaging in scientific debate for decades, gathering exotic curiosities, and energetically pursuing the secrets of life. At the same time, they enslaved millions of Africans, profited from the exploitation of their labor, along with that of American Indians and Chinese coolies, and built a hierarchy of human biology, putting themselves at the top. This episode demonstrates how fuzzy the line was, and still is, between science and sexuality, classification and domination, investigation and exploitation, public health policy and genocidal violence. This week, in episode one of our Eugenics series, we will identify 18c antecedents to eugenics such as public sanitation, population hygiene, hereditary science, and human typologies in order to understand the powerful impulses under-girding modern eugenics.

Transcript for Eugenics in the Making: Human Typologies, Population Hygiene, and Racial Science in the 18th Century

Marissa: On September 18, 1814, Hendrick Cesars placed the following advertisement in the Journal de Paris: “The HOTTENTOT VENUS, recently arrived from London. Now on show to the public… This extraordinary phenomenon is the only member of the Hauzanana tribe ever to have appear in Europe. In this woman, as extraordinary as she is surprising, the public has a perfect example of this tribe, which inhabits the most southerly parts of Africa… One may obtain at the same place an engraving of the Hottentot Venus, taken from life. Entry 3 fr.”

Elizabeth: The Hottentot Venus’s real name was Saartjie Baartman (often Anglicized to Sara). Johann Wolfgang Goethe called Saartjie’s presence in Paris “the most important event in European history.” Goethe’s proclamation had little to do with Saartjie herself, rather, he was referring to the debates she inspired among Paris’s leading scientists. Saartjie was exhibited as a specimen of natural history for some time in Paris before Hendrick Cesars sold her to a purveyor of spectacles. Georges Cuvier, a prominent comparative anatomist, was convinced that Saartjie was a living link between humans and lesser mammals. Her new owner allowed George Cuvier to study her until her early death two years after she arrived in Paris. She was 26 years old. Cuvier dissected her corpse, made a plaster cast of her body, pickled her brain and genitals and displayed everything in Paris’s Museum of Natural History.

Marissa: Historian Rachel Holmes has written that Saartjie “captured the essence of contemporary Parisian entertainment: a compound of science, phantasmagoria, fantasy, and curiosity.” But 1814 Paris was not the birthplace of this troubling compound. The European public had been engaging in scientific debate for decades, gathering exotic curiosities, and energetically pursuing the secrets of life. At the same time, they enslaved millions of Africans, profited from the exploitation of their labor, along with that of American Indians and Chinese coolies, and built a hierarchy of human biology, putting themselves at the top. Saartjie’s story, therefore, also illustrates how fuzzy the line was, and still is, between science and sexuality, classification and domination, investigation and exploitation, public health policy and genocidal violence. This week, in episode one of our Eugenics series, we will identify 18c antecedents to eugenics such as public sanitation, population hygiene, hereditary science, and human typologies in order to understand the powerful impulses undergirding modern eugenics.

I’m Marissa

And I’m Elizabeth

Marissa: and we are your historians for this episode of Dig

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Elizabeth: Though the Scientific Revolution took place in the 17th century, it was not until the 18th century that scientists realized they could apply the scientific method to the study of humans. The Enlightenment (1637-1789) incrementally shifted the public’s understanding of disease and death. In medieval Europe, infectious disease, human suffering, and premature death were usually understood to be providential (God’s will). By the 1740s, most people were realizing what scientists had known for decades, that disease and death were preventable and that it was within our grasp decode life’s mysteries, to measure, study, and preserve it. These powerful imperatives spawned countless scientific disciplines: epidemiology, anthropology, embryology, just to name a few. Scientific study shifted to a clinical focus, so for the first time, scientists were applying their theoretical education to real people. They also made an effort to publish scientific manuals for lay use. This new environment produced systematic efforts toward public health directed toward sanitation and population hygiene. 

Marissa: Most cities instituted strategic quarantines. Municipal councils were formed with the purpose of enforcing basic quarantine measures during times of epidemic disease. Vaccinations did not become compulsory until the 1800s but most poor relief institutions required smallpox inoculation or vaccination to be eligible for services. The Foundling Hospital of London, for example, required wet nurses to be vaccinated for smallpox before a nursling was placed with them. The vaccination issue is super important to our series because proponents of 20c eugenic policies justified involuntary sterilization by comparing it to compulsory vaccination, which by that time was ordinary. This was the argument that American Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes used when he ruled against Carrie Buck in the Buck V Bell case. Holmes proclaimed: “The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.”

Public Health

Elizabeth: As municipalities collected more tax income, they made constant improvements to water delivery and waste disposal systems. Eighteenth century public health efforts often pale in comparison to nineteenth-century public health efforts because in some areas, America for example, taxation was low and irregular and therefore many states had inadequate income to build the infrastructures that were needed to execute public health efforts. In these cases, corporate or private funding were solicited for projects that were absolutely necessary.

Marissa: Michel Foucault argues that during the eighteenth century, a collective ideology of health and hygiene emerged to shape public policy. Health and hygiene became subject to group decisions, problems that needed to be addressed with public action. There was a sense that everyone had a responsibility to maintain their own personal hygiene because it either strengthened or weakened the hygiene of the collective. During this period, “clean” began to me more than just neat, tidy, or washed. It meant “safe” and “free from disease.” This is still true today in the world of sexual health, “clean” means free from STIs. Health and hygiene industries thrived: for example spring water spas (in Bath, England), all kinds of quackery, and animal magnetism.

Elizabeth: Population hygiene or health depended on notions of purity and pollution. As Kathleen Brown argues in Foul Bodies, white, fresh, clean linens came to indicate good hygiene and was even an indicator of class, and whiteness. It represented the control whites had over the economy, and their superior access to resources. Hygienic practice marked who was white or nonwhite, citizen or alien, clean or contaminated, a good wife and mother or an impure one. New standards of cleanliness and comportment were meant to convey to others your conscientiousness, refinement or level of wealth.

Marissa: Bodily hygiene became a gauge for race, class, gender, and other categories. Ignorant, provincial country-bumpkins were, by default, dirty and outmoded while urban professionals were, by default, clean and refined. The concept of collective health and hygiene was very much relation to theories of human difference. In the same way that people banded together to prevent racial mixing or (in the 20th century “degenerates” or “mental defectives”), people sought to band together to prevent epidemic disease. Remember this is a time when Western cultures struggled to imaginatively maintain the boundaries of their bodies and identities against the incursions of various “others,” from viruses to Asian immigrants. These were very, very, very early foundations for eugenic thought – but also the foundation for many things that have been fundamentally good for society- like health insurance, routine vaccination, Center for Disease Control, etc.

Elizabeth: Public health campaigns were, initially, aimed at the affluent. Physicians identified “fashionable diseases” that plagued the affluent such as nervous conditions, gout, dyspepsia, or consumption. They differentiated such diseases from those that seemed to plague the poor such as rickets, the itch, and alcoholism. They aimed maternal nursing campaigns as “ladies of fashion” and published books advising women of means how to best care for their infants. Over the course of the 18c, it became clear that the European nobility were suffering from hereditary illnesses and defects because of centuries of inbreeding.

A painting of Charles II of Spain
Charles II of Spain
Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Marissa: For example, the last Spanish Habsburg, Charles II, was chronically ill, had speech and feeding problems, and suffered from impotence and severe developmental delays. He died in November 1700, at the age of 38. Britain’s King George III was known to suffer from bouts of madness and ill health from the early 1780s until his death in 1820. Incidents like these were highly publicized and they caused anxiety about the fate of the human race, since the aristocracy was supposed to be of the purest and most noble blood. Some historians think that concerns about hereditary disease among royalty and the aristocracy also served to undermine their power in a time when it was already on shaky ground because of Enlightenment political philosophies – civic humanism, republicanism (think… American Rev, French Rev, Haitian Rev, targeted and malicious media attacks on royalty in the British press).

Elizabeth: Quickly, attention turned to improving the health of the poor. This was mostly accomplished by addressing the conditions in which they lived and their presumed ways of life. Physicians and public officials advised women on how to feed and clean their children. Foundling hospitals opened all over Europe in order to reduce infant mortality among the poor. Reformers taught the poor and working classes how to effectively clean, sanitize, and tidy. Poor mothers were educated about proper nutrition. Though scientists still understood the disease poorly, they pushed European navies to dose their sailors with sauerkraut to prevent scurvy. James Cooke’s circumnavigated the world in 1768 and managed to not lose even one crew member from scurvy over the course of the three-year journey.

Marissa: The effectiveness of 18c public health initiatives was impeded by insufficient knowledge about disease. It was not entirely clear what caused disease, which diseases were infectious, and which were hereditary or environmental. For example, until the eighteenth century, tuberculosis and scurvy were considered to be hereditary diseases rather than the infectious disease and nutritional deficiency we know them to be today.

Medical scientists began directing their efforts toward the science of heredity. Scientists wanted to know… how does human heredity work? Which diseases are hereditary and which are communicable? What features in humans are hereditary, which are environmental and which are communicable? Is race hereditary or communicable? Animal breeding had been practiced for centuries and natural scientists had been experimenting with the breeding of plant life for some time. Scientists began to wonder, can we apply these principles to humans and make human populations stronger? Less prone to disease? More productive? More valuable? As part of the effort to understand human heredity, scientists turned to human typologies.

Carl Linnaeus and Human Typology

A bust of Carolus Linneaus

A bust of Carolus Linnaeus
Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth: In 1735, the Swedish typologist Carl Linnaeus (known as the father of taxonomy) was the first to create a human typology. He based his typology on Aristotle’s “Great Chain of Being.” In Aristotle’s “Great Chain of Being,” each species represented a link and each was connected to other species (links) to create a chain and their order arranged in the order of the “plan of god.” He also built on the work of earlier natural scientists like John Ray who had been collecting and categorizing plant and animal life for over a century. Linnaeus worked within this tradition to identify and classify all of society, including humanity, in search of the “key to god’s plan.” He called his system of typology the “natural order.”

Linnaeus’s natural order was static; in his view, species were fixed and invariable, each living creature was a copy of its parents. In his publication Systema Naturae, Linnaeus at first classified each race as its own species. He defined each race by its “essence”- a Platonic concept. Plato asserted that everything had an essence or eternal ideal and that all variations on this essence were shadows of the essence. Linnaeus was, therefore, describing each species’ archetypes so it was understood that there was diversity beyond the typology but that they were based on this invariable human typology.

Marissa: Homo americanus (described as “red, choleraic, righteous; black, straight, thick hair; stubborn, zealous, free; painting himself with red lines, and regulated by customs”), Homo europaeus (described as “white, sanguine, browny; with abundant, long hair; blue eyes; gentle, acute, inventive; covered with close vestments; and governed by laws”), Homo asiaticus (“yellow, melancholic, stiff; black hair, dark eyes; severe, haughty, greedy; covered with loose clothing; and ruled by opinions”), and Homo afer (“black, phlegmatic, relaxed; black, frizzled hair; silky skin, flat nose, tumid lips; females without shame; mammary glands give milk abundantly; crafty, sly, lazy, cunning, lustful, careless; anoints himself with grease; and governed by caprice”). I want to note here that Linnaeus was the first to conceptualize “whiteness” though he did not use that term in his typology.

Elizabeth: Linnaeus constantly revised and republished his taxonomies, allowing with variations that he observed but he still thought these variations were unnatural, pulling the species further away from its natural state. In subsequent editions, Linnaeus mistakenly included various monstrous types such as Homo monstrosus, satyrs, feral boys, and Homo troglodyte which he asserted were ape-related species who had much in common with Homo sapiens. In Linnaeus’s view, mythical and monstrous beasts could be explained by his Platonic understanding of the world. He was focused on ideal “types” and then variations of those types. So when someone had all of the features that Linnaeus attributed to their type- they were closer to perfect copies of this ideal type. If someone had some, but not most of the attributes of their type, they were imperfect or even defective copies of the type that contained their essence. This understanding of human typologies made room for monstrosity and had nothing to do with genetics.

Human Typology

Marissa: Frenchmen Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, took human typology further by offering an alternative way of understanding human variation over time. He believed that there were ancestral forms of species that originated long ago and that they changed over time based on their environments. (We know- it sounds a lot like evolution but not quite). Leclerc believed in monogenism, the theory that all humans descended from a single origin. He believed that the first humans were white and that their genes degraded over time based on environmental determinants, resulting in darker skin for Africans, yellower skin for Asians, and pale skin for Nordic populations. Far from Linnaeus, Leclerc’s typologies were based on the foundations of the budding field of hereditary science.

By Systema Naturae’s tenth edition, Carl Linnaeus had revised his earlier claims, calling the different races “variations” of one species but kept the binomial nomenclature of each race. Most historians think this means that he saw the races as discrete units and that mixing them was unnatural, even forbidden, though it was technically possible. He was confronted with racial mixing, which was becoming increasingly visible in European colonial contexts. At the same time, Leclerc posited that different species were unable to procreate with each other. The existence, even ordinariness of racial mixing required Linnaeus to revise his assertion that each race was its own species.

Elizabeth: Though Linnaeus was the first to publish a human typology, and Leclerc was the first to posit environmental determinants, they were far from the only scientists working on categorizing human difference. In the 1760s and 1790s respectively, Englishmen Henry Home, Lord Kames and Charles White theorized a polygenist view. Charles White was the first to suggest that “negroid” humans were descended from apes. This meant that the human races descended from distinct origins. From the 1770s-1790s, German physician and anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach developed a human typology with five categories based on his research of human crania. John Hunter, a physician and anatomical collector we discussed in the forensic pathology episode, asserted that the negroid race was originally white at birth and that it turned brown over time due to sun exposure. He noted how, when black skin scarred, the tissue turned white and suggested that this was evidence that blackness was not inherent but rather occurred incrementally over time. 

Marissa: Human typologies led to the development of racial science and the creation of race as a category (since there is no scientific evidence that “race” even exists). Each successive generation of scientists revised the work of earlier typologists, attempting to reconcile what they knew to be true with their view of human typology. This is a great example of a time when personal and structural prejudices shaped scientific experiment and interpretation. Georges Guvier posited three races, John Hunter proposed seven, Ernst Haeckel thirty-six, Julian Huxley four, Paul Topinard nineteen races… Louis-Antoine Desmoulins proposed sixteen species, Joseph Deniker posited seventeen races and thirty types. There were many attempts among white male scientists to shoehorn scientific data into their view of the world. In their world, whiteness was quickly becoming an imperative for power, respectability, and intelligence.

Elizabeth: Jean-Baptiste Lamarck developed the first coherent theory of evolution around 1800. Lamarck was the first to articulate organic evolution. He used the example of moles being blind because they live underground and no longer needed the sense of sight. He called this “The Adaptive Force.” Lamarck’s most important legacy was arguably his idea of “The Complexifying Force.” He posited that organisms evolved from simple to increasingly complex forms. They moved up a ladder of progress over time. Human typology, the attempt to scientifically explain human difference, quickly became racial science, and ultimately the scientific racism that came to dominate nineteenth-century medicine.

The title page of Thomas Malthus's book, An Essay on the Principle of Population

An Essay on the Principle of Population, Thomas Malthus | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Marissa: In 1798, the preoccupation with hygiene met theories of population growth. Thomas Malthus published his Essay on the Principles of Population which argued that population growth was outpacing our ability to grow food and would therefore, ultimately lead to famine, disease, suffering, and death. Malthusian theory made the poor, the elderly, and the ill particularly vulnerable in European and American societies in the first half of the nineteenth century. Public officials embraced “population hygiene” by dismantling the poor relief systems that supported those who could not support themselves. In Malthus’s words, “if a man will not work, neither should he eat.” Though it would be inappropriate to dub early 19c poor reform as “eugenic,” it had some of the features of negative eugenic policies in the 20c. Poor reform was aimed at preventing the support and survival of society’s most vulnerable. Capital was redirected away from poor relief and toward white, middle-class households with stable income. 

Elizabeth: These were scientific questions, yes, but they had grave consequences for societies that relied heavily on the bonded labor or Africans: Portugal, Spain, Britain, France, the Netherlands…etc. Geneticists found in the beginning of the twentieth century discovered there to be no genetic basis for “race” but still, until the 1950s, human typologies remained the primary way for anthropologists to categorize human difference. This only changed after the horrors of the Holocaust became better known. Historian Nancy Leys Stepan (an expert in the history of race and eugenics) argued in the 1980s that anthropologists clung to typology desperately because it was the entire reason for their profession in some ways. They typically measured the skulls and assessed skeletons based on racial typologies.

Marissa: While the intentions of European medical scientists may have been benign (although they probably did have some kind of idea of hereditary superiority), their human typologies, interest in heredity, and investigations into the causes of disease had devastating consequences for marginalized groups. Some of the earliest recorded public health measures were executed based on principles established by racial science. Putridity and miasma (bad air) were described as black odors- basically unclean, rotten air. Blackness was thought to attract and retain unpleasant odors (think charcoal). Whiteness, on the other hand, deflected odor so health workers whitewashed walls in order to reduce the “porosity of the stone” and give it a “clean look.” Historian William Tullett puts it this way, “Blackness and odour thus had, throughout eighteenth-century culture, a close and enduring link that fed into the conceptualization of the putrid, miasmatic qualities of black skin.”

A pencil sketch depicting a man covering his face to avoid breathing in harmful miasmas

A man covers his face to avoid breathing in unhealthy miasmas. Wellcome Images

Elizabeth: The persistence of enslaved blacks in the Caribbean, or North and South America in harsh conditions perpetuated the idea that people of African descent were immune to diseases in ways that European whites were not. As a result, people of African descent were used as agents of public health and hygiene in ways that endangered their lives. For example, during the yellow fever epidemics in 1790s Philadelphia and New York, blacks were coerced into acting as sick nurses, and as morticians and grave-diggers because whites were convinced that their bodies were less susceptible to yellow fever infection. This was a myth.

Marissa: In the Americas, medical scientists, influenced by European typologies, produced theoretical frameworks that subjugated blacks. Philadelphia’s most eminent physician, Benjamin Rush, understood blackness to be a hereditary disease of the skin related to leprosy. In an oration to the American Philosophical Society, Rush asserted that the vice of poor hygiene and eating “gross animal food” such as bacon made the ancestors of blacks more disposed to leprosy. Rush suspected that Jews were immune to leprosy because they avoided pork and committed ritual “ablutions of the body and limbs.” We know now that this myth originates in Jews’ exclusion from medieval leprosaria based on Leprosy episode. But it is interesting to think about how this theory could be damaging to both blacks and Jews. Blacks were suddenly marked as carriers of this hereditary form of leprosy. This could discourage racial mixing. It also denigrates people of African descent because it asserts that their bodies were irrevocably degraded. At the same time, by proffering the idea that Jews were immune to leprosy, Jews were left more vulnerable to the disease because it was believed they did not need to be protected from it.

Elizabeth: This issue was cyclical. Scientific theories were used to subjugate people of color then the very reality of their subjugation was, in turn, used to validate new racist theories about hygiene. Black bodies, typically enduring harsh labor and poor living conditions, were determined to have more pungent body odor than whites. Blacks were inherently smelly, dirty laborers and had robust constitutions that were able to withstand atrocious living conditions while whites are clean, fresh, intellectuals who are more vulnerable to disease and hard living [SEE HOW THESE CATEGORIES REINFORCE RACIAL SLAVERY??]

Like Saartjie Baartman’s body, black women’s bodies were sexualized at the same time they were othered and degraded. In Edward Long’s 1774 History of Jamaica he described the “bestial or fetid smell” of blacks which he posited was a result of the darkness of their skin. In 1799 Lady Barnard complained that “one of the worse points of [female] slaves… is the dreadful smell which they leave behind them – a fox is a rose to it.” She also complained that she would prefer it if slaves were not allowed to attend a ball since she did not “much like the smell” of their oil. In the 1790s anonymous sex diary written in James Wilson’s almanac (housed at the American Philosophical Society), the author writes: “Lay too all night with a black wench- in the Inn- Foul in Odor but in the breech much the same as the white- Her parts were small.”

Marissa: While early public health efforts were aimed at preventing human suffering, they were also tools of social control. Magdalene Societies or reform homes extended control over female sexuality. Workhouses commanded the lives and labor of the poor in exchange for meeting their basic bodily needs. Venereal disease wards excluded women patients and surveilled the sexual lives of the men who frequented them.

Most obviously, they reinforced institutions of bonded labor. Once again, historian William Tullet puts this so well that I’m going to use his words, “The association of racial odour with foul spaces such as the plantation, slave ship, poor Jewish areas of London or the Native American hut and the focus on stinking grease as the cause of African and Native American odour also fulfilled a ‘use’ of sorts. These descriptions reinforced racial difference whilst expunging the less tasteful qualities of the slave trade and eighteenth-century perfumery from polite English spaces. Projecting their greasy and foul smelling underbelly onto other bodies and spaces thus reinforced the sweetness of English perfumery and the comfort of English houses.”

Elizabeth: The uncomfortable connections between public health and eugenic policy exist today. Most obviously, anti-abortion activists accuse Planned Parenthood of targeting black neighborhoods. Some even use the term “black genocide.” The implication is that Planned Parenthood (like founder Margaret Sanger) has eugenic goals in preventing black women from procreating.

Marissa: Bringing us back to the story we told at the top of the show Saartjie Baartman’s body, and even her corpse, reinforced the idea that blacks were a lesser race than whites. The shapes of her breasts, buttocks, and labia were used as evidence that black women were sexually promiscuous, possessing an animalistic sexual impulse. Her remains were used for over a century, often by white eugenicists who sought to reinforce the scientific origins of their racist ideologies. In 2002, Saartjie’s remains were finally returned to her homeland for a proper burial.

Then-president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, gave a speech during her ceremony that condemned the European exploitation of African bodies. But he also used Saartjie’s fate to justify his problematic approach to public health. Mbeki is an AIDS denialist who challenges the connection between HIV and AIDS. Mbeki used the history of scientific experimentation on black bodies by Europeans and Americans to justify his ban on antiretroviral drugs in South African hospitals. The ban is estimated to have caused the deaths of as many as 365,000 people. In 2009, the Young Communist League rallied for Mbeki to be charged with genocide.


It’s frustrating when people claim that the hard sciences are objective and the humanities are subjective. The hard sciences: biological classification, algorithms, statistical regressions, these can all be biased by race, gender and other aspects of human difference. Science and math are currently guided by prejudices that we will be unable to discover until we put some distance between ourselves and our world.


Benjamin Rush, An Oration: Delivered Before the American Philosophical Society, Held in Philadelphia on the 27th of February, 1786 (London: Printed for Author, 1786), 22-23.

Royal Maladies: Inherited Diseases in the Ruling Houses of Europe By Alan R. Rushton

Grease and Sweat: Race and Smell in Eighteenth-Century English Culture

William Tullett


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