Aside from the building that bears his name, former University President Clarence Cook Little hasn’t left a very visible legacy on campus. His signature project, the creation of a University College that would teach a unified curriculum to all undergraduates for their first two years, never got off the ground. The automobile ban he instituted in an attempt to keep students from “necking” and driving to Prohibition-era speakeasies is a distant memory, to which anyone who has ever tried to park in student neighborhoods can attest.
It’s perhaps just as well, though, that Little’s time at the University was brief and the impression he made fleeting. On first glance, it’s difficult to see Little’s career as anything but a blemish on our collective past.
A Harvard-trained biologist and a cancer researcher by trade, Little’s passion was eugenics, the scientific effort to improve the quality of the human gene pool. Nowadays, eugenics is invariably described as a “pseudo-science,” the discipline terminally discredited through its associations with Nazi doctrines of racial superiority that called for the “unfit” to be killed. In Little’s day, however, eugenics was a legitimate if somewhat controversial science, an irresistibly logical and beneficial application of Darwin’s ideas about natural selection.
Little is indeed far from the only eugenicist associated with our fair University. Victor Vaughn, a former dean of the medical school whose name remains on a building on Catherine Street, gave a series of speeches on eugenics that ultimately spurred state legislation to sterilize those deemed “feeble-minded.” Physicians at the University’s hospital carried out a large proportion of Michigan’s court-ordered involuntary sterilizations.
But of the eugenicists in the University’s past, President Little undoubtedly maintained the highest profile. He was an officer in the American Eugenics Society, later becoming its president. He strongly supported contraception, in part because of his eugenic beliefs, and even went so far as to speak in favor of birth control from the pulpit, literally, when giving a guest sermon. He also aided Dr. John Kellogg – a prominent eugenicist who with his brother founded the cereal company – by serving as the president of a Race Betterment Conference held in Battle Creek in 1928.
Eugenics has fallen out of favor in part because of its all but inevitable links to other unsavory ideas. It’s a small step from arguing that the human gene pool must be protected from deterioration to arguing that the stock of “better” races must be protected from the influx of the inferior blood of “weaker” ones. Believing strongly in the power of heredity to determine fate, eugenicists tended to see in poverty a confirmation that some individuals simply couldn’t compete effectively; those selected for involuntary sterilization came overwhelmingly from the ranks of the disadvantaged and powerless.
Yet during the Roaring Twenties, in those heady days before the world had heard much of Hitler’s ideas about the “master race,” a good Christian businessman like Kellogg could, and did, safely sponsor a “Fitter Families Contest.” Its winners were feted at the Race Betterment Conference that Little presided over, where Kellogg told them, “in this little town of ours the beginnings of a Better Race are being developed.”
Little’s own address at the conference reflected his longstanding concern about the effects of overpopulation – a subject he had even broached in his inaugural address after becoming president of the University. Speaking in Battle Creek in 1928, Little observed that due to advances in medicine, “variations in physiology that would have been eliminated by Nature a few decades ago will carefully be allowed and encouraged to survive.” He fretted that by counteracting natural selection, there would be greater numbers of “the out-and-out public charge, the out-and-out defective, the anti-social, the non-social individual, who has to be confined and kept at public expense,” until the costs became so great that society would simply have to “develop means to prevent the production of the unfit, and to spread information as to how this can be done to all intelligent people.”
Some of Little’s comments at the Race Betterment Conference would certainly cause a firestorm today; one can only imagine what would happen to University President Mary Sue Coleman if she repeated Little’s speculation that perhaps “a number of the interesting criminal and near-criminal cases that we find … represent the results of a not very strict standard of mental selection in our present methods of civilization.”
And yet compared to some of the company he kept at the conference, Little comes across almost as soft and compassionate. Appealing to a strain of xenophobia so base it would make even the campus organizers of “Catch an Illegal Immigrant Day” flinch, the chairman of the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization of the U.S. House of Representatives made this observation is a speech titled “The Menace of the Melting Pot Myth”: “History records that the Founders of the Republic felt keenly that the indiscriminate mingling of varied races and inharmonious cultures constituted a danger to the success of the great experiment that they had launched upon the seas of time.” Certainly, the Smithsonian Institution would no longer advocate the racist views a curator from its division of physical anthropology shared at the Race Betterment Conference: “The limited influx of white (blood) into the colored blood is a gain to the latter. The danger lies in the colored stream flowing eventually wholly into the body of the larger white group.”
The relative moderation of Little’s comments at the conference might reflect a degree of tolerance in his thought, his eugenic views notwithstanding. It’s perhaps more likely that after the criticism he received for advocating birth control, Little had learned to temper, at least slightly, his controversial views.
Little ultimately didn’t have much success avoiding turmoil. In addition to criticism for his views on birth control, eugenics and euthanasia, Little’s often combative personal style – and his divorce, at a time when such things simply weren’t done – didn’t win him many friends in Ann Arbor. He resigned the presidency in 1929, and spent the next 25 years researching eugenics and cancer research at a private institute, the Jackson Laboratory.
His lifelong support for eugenics aside, the final phase of Little’s career leaves his character rather in doubt. After leaving the Jackson Laboratory in 1954, Little became the first scientific director of the Tobacco Industry Research Committee, an organization funded by the tobacco companies themselves. As a respected geneticist skeptical of environmental causes of cancer as well as of statistical epidemiological studies, Little was the perfect scientific mercenary to defend Big Tobacco against an increasing consensus that smoking caused cancer.
Little’s critics during his time at the University found that the President was stubborn; that tenacity helped him hold on to scientific beliefs as they fell out of fashion. He persisted in his support for eugenics after its disastrous application in Germany; he continued defending cigarettes until his retirement at age 81 in 1969. For those keeping score at home, that’s five years after a prominent 1964 report by the U.S. surgeon general linked smoking to cancer and other diseases.
It’s perhaps unfair to judge historical figures by today’s standards: We don’t ignore George Washington’s or Thomas Jefferson’s contributions to our nation, even though both were slave owners. Little, however, was a controversial and arguably immoral figure even in his own day. It certainly seems he should have known better in his old age than to continue defending the tobacco companies.
Yet a closer examination of his ideas reveals he wasn’t always off base.
Euthanasia, which Little supported, remains divisive and got Jack Kevorkian (or “Dr. Death”) thrown in prison decades later. Eugenics has become unspeakable – though some of its principles live on more or less benignly in genetic counseling.
But birth control, which was shocking in Little’s day, is mainstream today. The exponential population growth that led Malthusian fears in Little’s day has leveled off, at least in the developed world. Historical figures like Clarence Cook Little might seem amoral at best viewed in the light of their own day and grossly immoral by today’s standards. They nonetheless can wind up contributing to what we today view as right and just.