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Intelligence Tests and Immigration to the United States, 1900–1940



Measuring innate (genetically determined) mental traits was a major part of the psychometric movement in the early decades of the twentieth century. Low test scores (given as an intelligence quotient, or IQ) were used by eugenicists to lobby in the US Congress for restricting immigration of those claimed to be genetically inferior in IQ.
Intelligence Tests and Immigration to the
United States, 1900±1940
Garland E Allen, Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology,
Cambridge, MA, USA
0612:1Attempts to ®nd an objective, quantitative measure of
mental function and to apply the results to the solution
of educational, social, legal and political problems
have a long history. From the late eighteenth to the
late nineteenth century, measurements of the human
skull ± facial angle (the angle formed by a line through
the chin and nose intersecting a line through the ears
and eyes), cranial index (the ratio of vertical to
horizontal diameter of the skull) and cranial capacity
(measurement of the volume of the cranium, where the
cerebrum, the cognitive part of the brain, is housed) ±
were used as biological indicators of mental capacity.
However measured, smaller brains were thought to
have less intellectual capacity than larger brains. These
criteria were applied to women and nonwhite ethnic
and racial groups to demonstrate that the white male
was the most `intelligent' product of all Creation. In
Europe, cranial data was used to argue against
women's suffrage and their admission to universities;
while, in both Europe and the USA, it was used to
oppose the abolition of slavery. Biologically, however,
these correlations were meaningless, since comparative
anatomists at the time had already shown that brain
size is correlated with body size and had no absolute
meaning on its own. Napoleon's brain was smaller
than that of the average European woman, and no one
wanted to concede that elephants or whales (with the
largest brains in the animal kingdom) were intellec-
tually superior to humans.
0612:2In 1904 a French psychologist, Alfred Binet (1857±
1911), was appointed by the Minister of Public
Education, in France, to ®nd ways of identifying and
measuring retardation among primary school chil-
dren. In particular, Binet sought to devise a relatively
simple test that would indicate a child's level of
cognitive ability at the time the test was given. Between
1905 and 1908, Binet devised a series of tests that
involved a large number of short, varied problems
relating to day-to-day situations. Because Binet
assumed that intelligence increases with age, he
assigned to each task an age `level', de®ned as the
youngest age at which a child of normal mental
functioning could perform that task. The tests were
administered starting with the tasks for the youngest
age, proceeding to the more dif®cult tasks, until the
child could no longer complete the task. The age
associated with the most dif®cult task the child could
perform successfully was given as the child's mental
age. Mental age was then subtracted from chronolo-
gical age to obtain a quantitative value (in 1912 the
practice of dividing mental age by chronological age
was introduced, yielding the familiar number we now
know as the `intelligence quotient' or IQ). Binet's test
was not meant to say anything about inborn capacity
of any given child to learn, but rather to diagnose what
the child had learned up to that point in their
chronological development. However, when Binet's
tests were used and modi®ed by American psycholo-
gists, they took on a different meaning.
0612:3Henry H. Goddard (1866±1957), superintendent of
the Training School for Feebleminded Girls and Boys,
at Vineland, New Jersey, became one of the ®rst to
adapt Binet's test for use in the USA. To the earlier,
generally accepted categories of mental defect, `idiots'
(mental age below 3 years, unable to learn spoken
language) and `imbeciles' (mental age below 7 years,
unable to learn to write), he introduced a third
category, `moron', also called `high-grade defective'
or `dull-normal', encompassing those with mental age
between 8 and 12 years, and just below `normal' on the
Binet scale. Moreover, unlike Binet, Goddard insisted
that IQ measured an inherited ability of the brain to
function and hence was not alterable during an
individual's lifetime. To Goddard, intelligence was
rei®ed as a unitary, concrete property of an individual,
like eye color. That there may be many kinds of
intelligence (verbal, abstract, mathematical, practical)
and that it is thus not a distinct trait did not occur to
Goddard at the time. He also made the assumption
that IQ was inborn, determined by simple Mendelian
genes. `Normal intelligence', he wrote, in 1914, `seems
to be a unit character and transmitted in true
Mendelian fashion'. In this interpretation, morons
had a double dose of defective genes (in Mendelian
terms, homozygous recessive); dull-normal types such
as day laborers had one recessive, mutant gene and one
AU: If
Intelligence Tests and Immigration to the United States, 1900±1940
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE HUMAN GENOME / &2003 Macmillan Publishers Ltd, Nature Publishing Group /
Article contents
normal gene (genetically they were heterozygous); and
`normal' people had two copies of the normal gene
(they were homozygous dominant).
0612:4With his strong belief in the hereditary nature of
intelligence, Goddard was an active participant in the
eugenics movement of the early twentieth century.
`Eugenics', a term coined in the early 1880s by
Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton (1822±1911), meant
`purely or truly born' in a biological sense. Eugenicists
in the USA (and many countries of Europe at the time)
thought that a large number of social and mental traits
(alcoholism, schizophrenia, criminality, `nomadism'
and sense of fair play, among others) were all
determined by one or, in some cases, two Mendelian
genes. Like most eugenicists, especially in the USA,
Goddard wanted to apply genetic theories to the
guidance of social policy. He thought, for example,
that morons, like imbeciles and idiots, ought to be
institutionalized and sexually segregated so as not to
reproduce. Prevention of the `un®t' from reproducing
(many favored sterilization) was one of the major goals
of the eugenics movement. Eugenicists were convinced
that defectives had a much higher birth rate than
normal or `high-grade' people, and that, if various
methods to reduce this rate were not undertaken, high-
quality human lines would be `swamped' by those of
low quality, and population as a whole would
degenerate. As a result of their fear of degeneration,
eugenicists were able to in¯uence over 30 States to pass
eugenic sterilization laws that could be applied to
institutionalized individuals such as those in prisons
or state mental hospitals. IQ scores ®gured heavily in
the evaluation of those proposed for sterilization.
0612:5Goddard was the ®rst in the USA to apply a version
of the IQ test to immigrants arriving at Ellis Island,
New York. Assuming that immigrants of the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, unlike the
older immigrants from the mid-nineteenth century,
were inferior by hereditary nature (otherwise, he
argued, why would they ®nd it necessary to emigrate?),
Goddard modi®ed the Binet test speci®cally to pick
out mental defectives arriving in the USA. With the
approval of the Immigration and Naturalization
Service (INS) in 1913, Goddard tested 35 people of
Jewish origin, 22 Hungarians, 50 Italians and 45
Russians at Ellis Island. The results were astounding:
83% of the Jews, 80% of the Hungarians, 79% of the
Italians and 87% of the Russians were categorized as
morons, imbeciles or idiots. As a result of these test
®ndings, the US Immigration and Naturalization
Service increased deportations of immigrants from
the tested countries by 400% between 1913 and 1914.
0612:6The ®rst, most systematic and widely used version
of the Binet test was designed by Stanford University
psychologist Lewis M. Terman (1877±1956), and
published in 1916 as the `Stanford±Binet' test (still
one of the major testing instruments in use today). The
Stanford±Binet test was almost double the size of
Binet's original and was extended from children to
adults as well. When administered in schools in the
USA, the Stanford±Binet test showed that black
pupils scored less well than white pupils, and girls
less well than boys (though a 1936 revision of the test
was `standardized' so that male±female means became
identical; not so, however, for black±white differences,
which remain 15 IQ points apart to this day). Terman
shared the prevalent hereditarianism of the eugenicists
and was an active member of the American Eugenics
Society. Like Goddard, he ®rmly believed that his IQ
test measured an inborn, biological (genetic) ability
that could not be signi®cantly modi®ed by experience.
Criminals and other social mis®ts were af¯icted
with `mental weakness' and were viewed by Terman
as `feebleminded' ± that is, below mental age 12 years
on his scale. Moreover, Terman pushed to have IQ
testing universally applied in schools, so that every
child would have a score that followed him or her
for life. The massive administration of IQ tests in
schools gradually took hold in the 1920s, after the
First World War, and has remained a staple of the US
educational system.
0612:7First World War provided an opportunity to
expand IQ testing on a massive scale. Using army
recruits as subjects, Harvard psychologist Robert
M. Yerkes (1876±1956), along with Terman and
Goddard, devised three types of tests, based on
language and literacy levels, to be administered to
1.75 million army recruits. Those who could read were
given the written Alpha test, while those who could not
read or could not read English took the pictorially
based Beta test; those who failed one or both would be
retested with a modi®ed form of the Stanford±Binet
test. This unprecedented sample offered the hope of
being able to draw statistically signi®cant conclusions
about the relationship between innate mental capacity
and ethnicity, race, socioeconomic status and many
other social and cultural parameters. Psychologist
E. G. Boring (1886±1968), Yerkes's assistant, did the
initial analysis of a large selected sample from the
total, the results of which Yerkes published in 1921
as an 800-page monograph, Psychological Examining
in the United States Army. The data showed that the
average American-born recruit had a mental age of
13 years, just above the level of `moron'. Of interest to
those concerned with immigration, the tests showed
that northern Europeans and those of Nordic and
Anglo-Saxon descent scored higher, while those from
southern and eastern Europe, and the Mediterranean
scored signi®cantly lower: from a mental age of 10.7
years for Poles to 11.3 years for Russians. African
Americans (`Negroes' in the language of the day) had
the lowest score, at 10.4 years. Like his colleagues
Intelligence Tests and Immigration to the United States, 1900±1940
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE HUMAN GENOME / &2003 Macmillan Publishers Ltd, Nature Publishing Group /
Goddard and Terman, Yerkes believed these scores
measured genetically determined differences in mental
function and gave virtually no attention to the role of
environment, culture or socioeconomic factors. Yet
the tests proved to be highly bound to American
culture, asking the subject to identify commercial
products, sports ®gures, or to point out what was
missing in the drawing of an object such as an old-
fashioned Victrola phonograph.
0612:8The implication of Yerkes' data, from the army
tests, for the immigration issue was disturbing: the
longer the immigrant had resided in the USA, the
higher the score they received on the test. The obvious
interpretation would be that knowledge of the English
language and American customs and culture greatly
enhanced an individual's ability to do well on the test.
Yerkes admitted this possibility, but his disciple, a
young Princeton professor, Carl C. Brigham, in his
1923 book, Testing American Intelligence, opted for a
different answer, one that preserved the objectivity of
the test and the inferiority of the immigrant:
Instead of considering that our curve indicates a growth
of intelligence with increasing length of residence, we
are forced to take the reverse of the picture and accept
the hypothesis that the curve indicates a gradual
deterioration in the class of immigrants examined in the
army, who came to this country in each succeeding
®ve-year period since 1902 ....The average intelligence
of succeeding waves of immigration has become
progressively lower (Brigham, 1923, pp. 110±111)
Brigham went on to become one of the founders of the
Educational Testing Service in Princeton.
0612:9Not everyone was so enamored of IQ testing and
especially the view that it re¯ected underlying genetic
causes. Some critics pointed to the multiple problems
involved with constructing and administering the tests:
most notably, the cultural and linguistic biases, which
undermined any claim that the tests measured `native'
intelligence. Others emphasized the myriads of pro-
blems inherent in the way the tests were administered:
rooms were often crowded and noisy; many taking the
tests were confused by the directions (verbal, written
or both); the tests were timed and few had a chance to
®nish any one part before being rushed on to the next;
and so on. The fact that in the army tests many recruits
scored zero on numerous sections was indicative,
critics noted, of the tests' unreliability. As for the
genetic argument, several biologists dismissed it as
having no scienti®c foundation. One of the strongest
and most widely publicized critiques came from
journalist Walter Lippmann, in a series of articles
launched in the widely respected New Republic,in
1922. Lippmann was particularly concerned with
Terman's mania for making IQ testing universal and
the resulting classi®cation of individuals by an IQ
number that was considered ®xed and followed them
for life. If Terman had his way, Lippmann noted,
educators would:
stop when they have classi®ed and forget that their duty
is to educate. They will grade the retarded child instead
of ®ghting the causes of his backwardness. For the
whole drift of the propaganda based on intelligence
testing is to treat people with low intelligence quotients
as congenitally and hopelessly inferior. (Lippmann, 1922)
0612:10While IQ data found many uses in educational,
social service, charitable and political circles, nowhere
was it employed more dramatically than in the
immigration debates in the US Congress between
1920 and 1924. Already heavy from areas such as
southern and central Europe in the ®rst decade of the
twentieth century, immigration mushroomed after the
war. The `new' immigrants came in droves from war-
torn Europe, spoke little English, migrated to the
larger, especially industrial cities and, unlike their
predecessors, were less prone to integrate into the
wider society. A variety of groups, including the
Immigration Restriction League (mostly wealthy,
old-moneyed, who found new immigrants unsavory,
unintelligible, and a threat to the very fabric of
American society), eugenicists (who saw the `new'
immigrants as genetically inferior to the old Nordic
stock), some labor groups (who feared take-over of
their jobs by immigrants willing to work for low
wages), and elements of big business (who saw
immigrants as leaders in the burgeoning trade-union
movement) had all been organizing since the 1890s to
limit indiscriminate immigration into the USA. There
were repeated calls for restrictive legislation at the
federal level, although it was a politically sensitive
issue, since the USA had always maintained (toward
Europe, at any rate) an `open door' policy, and
because many members of Congress by 1920 found
increasing numbers of immigrants among their con-
0612:11In 1921 a temporary immigration restriction bill
was introduced to cope with the immediate postwar
¯ood. Almost immediately, however, work was begun
on permanent legislation. By 1921, Albert Johnson, a
representative from the state of Washington who had
come to Congress on an anti-union, anti-immigrant
platform, had been appointed Chairman of the House
Committee on Immigration and Naturalization.
Among the political challenges Johnson faced was to
draft a bill that would restrict immigration selectively
(i.e. against southern and eastern European, and
Jewish immigrants) without appearing to be politically
biased. Here is where IQ data, primarily from the army
tests, played an important (if not all-determining) role.
The primary agent who brought the scienti®c data of
IQ testing directly to bear on the immigration issue
C6 C7
Intelligence Tests and Immigration to the United States, 1900±1940
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE HUMAN GENOME / &2003 Macmillan Publishers Ltd, Nature Publishing Group /
was the American eugenicist Harry Hamilton
Laughlin (1880±1943), Superintendent of the Eugenics
Record Of®ce (ERO) at Cold Spring Harbor, Long
Island, New York.
0612:13 Originally a teacher of agricultural science in
Missouri, Laughlin had been brought to Cold Spring
Harbor in 1910 by Charles B. Davenport (1866±1944),
a well-known and highly connected biologist, who
was also Director of the Carnegie Institution of
Washington's Station for the Experimental Study of
Evolution (SESE) at Cold Spring Harbor. Having
secured generous funds and property from the
Harriman family of New York, Davenport set up the
ERO, adjacent to the SESE, with Laughlin as its chief
administrator. The function of the of®ce was both
research and publicity and education (many would call
it `propaganda'). Davenport, Laughlin and the team of
researchers at the ERO collected family pedigree
information for many physical, mental and emotional
traits in humans (color blindness, hemophilia,
Huntington disease,alcoholism, epilepsy, feebleminded-
ness, pauperism, nomadism and a variety of other
defects.), which they interpreted as inherited in simple
Mendelian terms. Two of the traits that Laughlin
particularly fastened on were mental function and
criminality, both of which he thought were genetically
determined. Like most eugenicists, Laughlin thought
that most current social problems were caused by
people with defective genes. Two of the most impor-
tant political arenas in which Laughlin used his
eugenic ideas to further legislation were in the various
state legislatures, where he lobbied for eugenic
sterilization laws (allowing involuntary sterilization
of those deemed to be genetically inferior), and in the
US Congress, where he strongly supported restricting
the immigration of `inferior stock' (i.e. non-Nordics).
0612:14 As the tide of opinion for immigration restriction
mounted after the war, Laughlin got to know Albert
Johnson and introduced him to the work of the ERO
and other eugenic groups. So enthusiastic did Johnson
become about the new science that he was appointed
honorary chairman of the Eugenics Research Asso-
ciation (ERA) and became one of the movement's
biggest supporters on Capitol Hill. In preparation for
drafting an immigration restriction bill, starting in
1922, Johnson held a series of hearings by the House
Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, for
which Laughlin served as `eugenics expert witness'.
Johnson's aim was to bring `scienti®c expertise' to
bear on the immigration question, partly as way of
circumventing the claim that he and the Committee
were ethnically or racially biased, and partly as a way
of showing his willingness to bring modern science to
bear on legal and social questions. Laughlin testi®ed
for 2 full days (in 1922 and 1924) before the committee,
presenting myriads of charts and graphs (which were
hung on the walls of the meeting room) that showed
ratios of individuals institutionalized for different
defects ± feeblemindedness, criminality, alcoholism,
prostitution and immoral behavior ± ranked by
country of origin. For most of the traits, Laughlin's
data showed that the worst offenders were those from
eastern and southern Europe (as well as African
Americans). Laughlin told his audience that those of
inferior ethnic and national origin were overrepre-
sented in the nation's jails, insane asylums and homes
for the feebleminded. The Committee were particu-
larly impressed by the charts based on IQ data from
the army tests. The ¯ood tide of imbecility was
swamping out the older Nordic and Anglo-Saxon
blood, Laughlin emphasized. Americans owed it to
themselves and their children, he argued, to stop this
needless cost and perpetuation of misery. The most
ef®cient way to stop this process was to cut it off at
the source and restrict the in¯ow of `defective germ
0612:15Most members of the committee were impressed
with Laughlin's data and with the high-minded
science that he claimed to represent. Laughlin had
good answers to the questions put to him. For
instance, when asked about the lack of data on
incarceration of African Americans for feebleminded-
ness in the South, where it would be expected to be
high, he suggested that in rural communities the
feebleminded were cared for by family and therefore
would not have shown up in his sample (which was
taken solely from institutionalized populations). Only
a few representatives, such as Adolph Sabbath and
Samuel Dickstein, both Jewish, thought Laughlin was
merely hiding raw prejudice behind a barrage of
numbers and statistics. The Johnson±Reed Act (also
known as the Immigration Restriction Act) was passed
in 1924 by both houses of Congress. It achieved the
aims for which it was originally conceived: selectively
restricting immigration from southern and eastern
Europe, including the Balkans and the Slavic countries
and peoples of Jewish descent. This selectivity was
obtained not by naming these groups directly, but by
establishing quotas based on 2% of each national
group residing in the USA as of the 1890 census
(34 years previously!). In 1890, of course, there were
far fewer representatives of eastern and southern
Europeans in the USA than in 1920 or 1924; hence
their numbers were the most severely restricted of
all national groups by the terms of the new immigra-
tion law.
0612:16As it turned out, Laughlin's data was ¯awed in
numerous respects. First, as pointed out by Professor
Herbert Spencer Jennings, a biologist from Johns
Hopkins University, there was no indication that the
conditions for which most people in Laughlin's sample
had been institutionalized were genetically determined.
Intelligence Tests and Immigration to the United States, 1900±1940
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE HUMAN GENOME / &2003 Macmillan Publishers Ltd, Nature Publishing Group /
With such vague de®nitions as `alcoholism' or `feeble-
minded', there was no way to separate out the effects
of poor social, economic and educational background
from that of defective genes. Second, a close analysis
of Laughlin's institutional samples showed some
striking problems. His survey had merely been mailed
to superintendents of the various institutions to ®ll out
on their own. The assignment of individuals to ethnic
and national categories was highly variable, sometimes
based on inmate and patient response, sometimes on
guesswork. The rate of response by institutions was
uneven, with a higher percentage of returns from the
northeastern states than from the Midwest or far
Western states. Because immigrants were more highly
concentrated in the northeast, the institutionalized
rate was arti®cially in¯ated. The data for institutiona-
lized persons was also not corrected for age or sex:
since the proportion of young males in prisons was
much higher than in the general population, compar-
isons were spurious. In addition, Laughlin used ®gures
from the 1910 census as his basis for the prevalence of
different ethnic groups in the general population.
However, immigration, especially to the northeast,
had increased dramatically after 1910, re¯ected in the
institutional survey results of 1921, but not in the
census data. Overall, it was the consensus of those who
examined the data, from both a genetic and a
statistical point of view, that what Laughlin presented
to the House Committee was of no scienti®c value.
0612:17Although immigration restriction would probably
have been passed without Laughlin's testimony, the
presentation of IQ and other purportedly objective
scienti®c data made the job easier. What would
otherwise have appeared as naked prejudice could be
justi®ed as the ®ndings of the most recent and
advanced science. The quantitative data from the
army tests, combined with the hereditarian arguments
from eugenics, provided a perfect smoke screen for
what restrictionists wanted to achieve for other ±
social and economic ± reasons. The effects of the law
resounded throughout Europe, especially with the rise
of fascism in Germany and Italy after 1933. Vast
numbers of refugees from the very regions most
restricted by the Johnson±Reed Act were denied
entry to the USA (or its colonies such as Cuba). If
they could not ®nd asylum elsewhere, many ended up
in concentration camps. Because science is such a
powerful tool in modern society, its misuse or false
claims made in its name can have devastating effects.
Further Reading
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C5 Surely `eastern Europe' includes the area of the Balkans, and the Slav peoples?
C6 What is a Victrola? A `phonograph'?
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C8 Would it be accurate to say: `i.e. against southern and eastern European immigrants, including Slavs and Jews'?
C9 Please con®rm change to `Two of the traits that Laughlin...'
C10 I was under the impression that eastern Europe included the Slavic countries
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This “article” is simply a book review. Please see Selden’s book for the full account. This is just a summary: How could so many of America's educational, political and intellectual leaders have advocated such things as institutionalization, segregation and even sterilization of those with "inferior blood"? How could the racist notion of selective breeding and racial betterment have become an integral part of high school and college biology textbooks? In this work Stephen Selden tells the story of the eugenics movement in America during the early decades of the 20th century. Complete with archival photographs, "Inheriting Shame" provides a powerful historical account and refutation of biological determinist ideas. Selden discusses the role played by America's foremost socialists and scientists, popular media, and most importantly, the school textbook, in shaping public consciousness regarding the "truth" of biological determinism. Much more than simply an historical overview, "Inheriting Shame" concludes with a trenchant analysis of contemporary research evidence of the role that inheritance plays in complex human behaviour - including traits ranging from Down Syndrome to violent behaviour and homosexuality.
Full-text available
Le terme " eugenisme " fut introduit dans le vocabulaire scientifique par le naturaliste et mathematicien britannique F. Galton en 1883. L'eugenisme comme mouvement social aux Etats-Unis apres 1900 : une solution rationnelle, avec des methodes scientifiques aux problemes d'une societe industrielle et urbanisee (alcoolisme, criminalite, etc...). Avec C. B. Davenport (1866-1944)
Chapter American polygeny and craniometry before Darwin : blacks and Indians as separate, inferior species Notes in computer files
Includes both genetic and social factors in human progress. Harvard Book List (edited) 1971 #179 (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
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C15 Please supply a glossary of dictionary-style de®nitions. This should be a list of 6±10 terms used in the article that need de®ning Intelligence Tests and Immigration to the United States, 1900±1940 ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE HUMAN GENOME / &2003 Macmillan Publishers Ltd, Nature Publishing Group /