Eugenic theories gained currency in the last part of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century in most of the industrialized western world. The term “eugenics” or “good birth” was coined by the English naturalist and mathematician Sir Francis Galton in 1883, and its German equivalent, “Rassenhygiene,” or “racial hygiene,” was first invoked by the German economist Alfred Ploetz in 1895. Eugenics was an idea that human heredity was fixed and immutable. For eugenicists, the ravaging social ills that we associate with modern society—illegitimacy, alcoholism, promiscuity, mental illness, even poverty—stemmed from hereditary factors. It didn’t occur to eugenicists that some of these ills could stem from environmental or social factors, and did indeed stem in large part from the rapid urbanization and industrialization which accompanied modern society at that time.
Museum historian and subject matter expert [2002 interview]