Op-Ed: Questioning C.C. Little's legacy

Sunday, April 17, 2016 - 7:48pm

Clarence Cook Little’s name should be removed from the University of Michigan’s science classroom building. The building bearing his name supports a narrative that the University condones his unethical behavior. For those who are unfamiliar, here is a brief background of the man in question: Little was a Harvard-trained geneticist. He is credited for creating a line of genetically altered mice for laboratory use, working on why the body sometimes rejects organ transplants and researching genetic traits.

Little was also the mediocre, at best, president of the University from 1925 to 1929. His failed University policies comprised a ban on automobiles in parts of campus and a two-year standard curriculum for freshmen and sophomores. While his accomplishments as a scientist and status as a former University president seem to earn placement of his name on a science building, his later career trajectory refutes that idea entirely. C. C. Little was the president of the American Eugenics Society, which, founded in 1926, was supported by generous donations from the Carnegies.

The ideology behind eugenics claims that all behaviors, good and bad, are caused by genetics, and certain races have genetic traits particular to them, including behavior, abilities or mental capacity. In eugenists’ view, birth control would effectively prevent any woman who was not considered acceptable because of her class, race or intelligence from having children. As historian Stefan Kuhl writes in her book “The Nazi Connection,” many of the eugenics beliefs in the United States were held concurrently with the Nazis. Hitler wrote in his book “Mein Kampf” of admiring the work of California scientists pursuing eugenics.

Little held on to his belief in eugenics throughout his entire career and well into the 1960s, well after the Nazis’ promotion of eugenics led to the creation of the Nuremberg Code of bioethics.

Bioethics has made great strides since then, but the legacy of eugenics lives on in the disproportionate restrictions and negative birth outcomes for poor women of color. The Hyde Amendment, for example, states that Medicaid funds cannot cover abortion, while sterilization by tubal ligation for any woman over the age of 21 is covered by Medicaid in all states. Justice Thurgood Marshall in his dissenting opinion stated that the Hyde Amendment was “designed to deprive poor and minority women of the constitutional right to choose abortion.” So when women of color cannot terminate unwanted pregnancies, and if they do not have access to or the money for reliable birth control, they may end up choosing tubal ligation as their only way of controlling pregnancy — even if they desire to have children. While the method may be indirect, the outcome is essentially the same as those Little and his colleagues promoted: limiting control of the reproduction of racial minorities through medical policies and politics.  

Little decided prestige was more important than scientific evidence or the health of Americans when tobacco companies asked him to become the scientific director of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Tobacco Industry Research Committee. As director, he refuted his own prior scientific publications about the biological harm of inhaled particles. He now claimed tobacco was a minor cause of lung cancer at best, and the majority of cancer cases were caused by genetics. He funded millions of dollars in scientific research to legally protect the tobacco industry.

The scientific connection between smoking tobacco and cancer has been known since the 1920s; tobacco companies knew this fact and still adamantly denied it in court in 1994. The Supreme Court later convicted tobacco companies for fraud of this conspiracy in 2006. Every day, 1,300 people die from cigarettes in the United States. Little’s actions are still relevant in the here and now.

Critics may say leaders are products of their time and may often have unacceptable views. They may also say that if we begin changing the names of every tribute because of the misguided beliefs their namesakes held in the past, we will disrupt long-held traditions. And I would say to that: good. The past is the past, and we should learn from it, not perpetuate it. Students seeing names like Little’s on buildings inhibits this learning.

Instead, these people should be in textbooks and museums where they are held in a critical light and used as a starting point for change. When we put Little’s name on a university building, does that say we value money and scientific progress more than our distaste for bigotry and greed? That we are more embarrassed to admit our mistake in praising him than we are willing to take down his status as an honored past president? As an institution of learning, we should actively and critically engage with our history, pulling down from pedestals those who are not worthy of our praise.

Peggy Korpela is a graduate student in the School of Public Health.