Proposed 1920s Orphanage Study Just One Example in History of Scientific Racism

By Michael Yudell, interim chair and associate professor at the School of Public Health at Drexel University. Originally published in The Conversation.

In the late 1920s, scientists hatched an outrageous plan to settle a question at the heart of American racial thought: were differences between racial groups driven by environment or by heredity? In other words, was the racist social order of the time – white over black — an inevitable and genetically driven outcome? Or did the environment in which all Americans lived create the deep disparities and discord between races that defined the social, economic and political reality of the United States?

A committee on “Racial Problems,” jointly sponsored by the venerable National Research Council and the Social Science Research Council, discussed an experiment: create racial orphanages, separate institutions where children of different races would be received as close to birth as possible. The idea was to compare white and black children under similar conditions. Scientists could closely monitor the institutionalized children as they developed to figure out whether differences were due to innate characteristics or environmental influence. Nursery schools and foster homes were proposed as places of comparative study too, but most of committee’s discussions focused on the idea of racial orphanages.

Morton and contemporaries believed differences in skull size among races explained variance in intelligence. Here scientists fill skulls with water to measure capacity. Morton filled them with lead shot.
Washington Matthews

Science has made claims about race in America since the late 18th century, when Thomas Jefferson hypothesized that the differences between races are “fixed in nature.” In the 19th century, anthropologists such as Samuel Morton argued for a racial hierarchy of intelligence and believed human races evolved from separate origins. Eugenicists tried to quantify the hereditary nature of race difference in the early 20th century, using their science to develop social policy, including forced sterilization and anti-immigration laws. Racism has indeed left its stain on scientific thought.

The committee on “Racial Problems” was no different. Its 1930 report alleged the racial orphanage experiment could “throw light” on how heredity and environment influenced health, vigor, intelligence and sociability. To do this, scientists would try to improve the condition of the black children in the study by altering environmental factors, including shielding the children from racism, offering improved nutrition, and providing better educational opportunities than they might otherwise have had.

The idea for the experiment came from Dr Joseph Peterson, a psychologist at George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville (now part of Vanderbilt University). Peterson wrote extensively on racial differences in intelligence. He proposed that the experimenters have “complete control” over children enrolled in the study from birth through schooling years.

The study would have experimented on children similar to those who lived at the segregated Colored Orphan Asylum in New York.
Harlem Dowling-West Side Center for Children and Family Services

At a 1930 meeting to discuss the proposal’s feasibility, concerns were raised on a number of issues. Could the differences in care between the black and white children be controlled for? Could the children be shielded from the racist world around them? And how would children be recruited into such a study?

Recruitment proved to be a sticking point. In a chilling exchange, psychologist Knight Dunlap from Johns Hopkins and Clark Wissler, an anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History, discussed “the difficulty of obtaining children.” Dunlap worried about the “difficulty in getting a perfect sampling of children away from their parents.” Wissler’s response: “Suppose you took infants completely at random. If we are interested in the question of how much the actual life creates bias, shouldn’t you have random selection?” The committee went on to debate whether it would be more “desirable in this study to take orphans, in order to be free from the home environment” or whether “taking negro children away from negro families” would be better for the proposed experiment.

What Dunlap and Wissler meant when they talked about “taking” children from black families isn’t clear. Whether they wanted to forcibly remove black children from their homes or had in mind some form of consent or some incentive, is unknown. It’s ironic that the closest the committee came to any level of concern for the children was wondering what would happen to black children raised in an environment shielded from racism once they became adults, left the orphanage, and experienced the full force of American racism.

By today’s standards, such an experiment seems preposterous and disgraceful. Preposterous because of the implicit and explicit racism that shaped and limited such a study. Disgraceful both because of the inferiority committee members ascribed to an entire race – even while debating an experiment to see if that alleged inferiority was or was not innate – and because there was no consideration of the ethical implications of placing children in an orphanage under experimental conditions.

The only good news in this history is that the study never went forward. By 1931, the idea for racial orphanages died.

Blood being drawn from one of the Tuskegee study subjects.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Yet, at that same time, preparations were beginning for another awful and unethical racial experiment. Beginning in 1932, the notorious “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” was in the earliest stages of its forty year study. Like the proposed racial orphanages experiment, it was a federally sponsored project and assumed that traits believed to be unique to African-Americans and whites were worthy of both study and expense.

These studies of race — proposed and actual — assumed difference and inferiority. Such presumptions fueled unethical behavior, from the denial of effective medical care for the men in the Tuskegee Study to the proposal to take children from their families to place in an orphanage. It is somewhat heartening that neither study would win approval today thanks to ethical safeguards put in place in part because of the fallout from the Tuskegee Study.

Though the deeply rooted racism of the proposed racial orphanages experiment is today largely absent from science, science still struggles with the meaning of race. Today mainstream scientists utilize race in studies of human evolutionary history, to study the distribution of health-related traits within and between groups, and to use an individual’s ancestry to help determine the best medical treatments.

But this too is not without controversy. Many scientists argue that race is an imprecise marker of human genetic diversity and a poor proxy for predicting disease risk or drug response. As experiments like the racial orphanage and Tuskegee studies remind us, the scientific and social meanings of race are inseparable. The use of race in scientific study is problematic at best and dangerous at worst.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Chinese Opium Dens and the “Satellite Fiends of the Joints”

By Anne Garner, Curator, Rare Books and Manuscripts

Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) visits an opium den. Cinemax, 2014

Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) visits an opium den in The Knick. Cinemax, 2014

Dr. John Thackery passes through a number of dimly-lit opium dens in the heart of New York’s Chinatown during the course of The Knick. What were these dens really like—and who frequented them?

In the mid-19th century, the Chinatowns of America were largely isolated communities, populated by immigrants brought by labor brokers to work on the Central Pacific Railroad or other jobs. Many of these workers planned to return home after several years; there was little desire to assimilate. Scholar Gunther Barth has suggested that with the safety of a familiar culture came familiar vices.1

A large number of Chinese immigrants came from Canton, a region with a rich history of opium-smoking. As the Chinese presence spread east, opium dens cropped up in the Chinatowns of every major American city.

American Opium-Smokers Interior of a New York Opium Den/ Drawn by J.W. Alexander. [New York] : Harper and Brothers, Oct. 8, 1881. Courtesy of Images from the History of Medicine (NLM).

American Opium-Smokers Interior of a New York Opium Den/ Drawn by J.W. Alexander. [New York] : Harper and Brothers, Oct. 8, 1881. Courtesy of Images from the History of Medicine (NLM).

H. H. Kane wrote in 1882 that the first white American to smoke opium did so in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1868.2 Until then, opium smoking had been strictly confined to the areas of Chinese settlement. By 1875, the practice was widespread enough that San Francisco passed a law prohibiting opium dens. This ordinance was America’s first anti-narcotics law.

The San Francisco ordinance coincided with an increasing anxiety among whites in large urban areas that the low-paid Chinese would threaten wages and standards of living. At the time, the country was mired in a deep recession. The federal Page Act, passed the same year as the San Francisco law, similarly targeted Chinese immigrants, aiming to “end the danger of cheap Chinese labor and immoral Chinese women.”3

Beginning with Virginia City the following year, local ordinances banning opium-smoking quickly passed across the U.S. These laws were largely ineffective. Law enforcement, focused on prosecuting Chinese dens known to attract white clientele, only drove whites deeper into Chinatown, and to smoke at higher rates.4

As opium use among whites increased, community leaders began to signal a concern about the morals of white women. Philadelphia missionary Frederic Poole cautioned that white women exposed by the Chinese to opium-smoking were at risk of “a life of degradation.”5 In 1883, Reverend John Liggins wrote of the dangers of the many New York City dens found in Mott and Pearl Streets (still the heart of Chinatown today), and quoted Kane that the habit, learned from the Chinese, contributed to “the downfall of innocent girls and the debasement of married women.”6 The same year, Allen S. Williams wrote in an early book on the opium-smoking habit about New York’s Chinatown dens:

Chinamen flit noiselessly by in ghostly, fluttering garments, and startle the Caucasian intruder by the very suddenness of their unsympathetic companionship…. the Chinese opium joint…is run for the sole purpose of pandering to a vicious taste whose indulgence is injurious to society.7

On the left coast, The Wasp, a popular San Francisco paper, sent two “reporters” to that city’s Chinatown in 1881, and published their findings:

In reeking holes ‘two stories’ underground, where the light of heaven and healthy atmosphere never penetrate, we found human beings living—if it may be called living, which is at best but an existence—as contentedly as rats in a sewer, whose habitation theirs so much resembles. The opium smokers’ resorts were among the first visited…a person once there, he may well desire to make himself oblivious of such surroundings and raise himself to a temporary heaven of his own, but how white men, and even white women, can bring themselves to descend to such filthy holes, where the reeking slime courses down the walls and the air is heavy with foetid odors, is a mystery to any well-regulated mind.8

The Wasp article offers an especially disturbing example of how many Americans implicated the Chinese as a group with standards and moral habits far inferior to those of whites. As early as the 1880s, opium dens run by the French and even white American-born women could be found in New York and Philadelphia, but the imagery continued to portray them as exclusively Chinese-owned and -operated. “It’s a poor town now-a-days that has not a Chinese laundry, and nearly every one of these has its lay-out [pipe plus accessories],” wrote one white traveler in 1883.9

Fig. 2—Smoker's Outfit. In Opium-Smoking in America and China.

Fig. 2—Smoker’s Outfit. In Opium-Smoking in America and China.

The framing of opium smoking as a Chinese problem continued as the century drew to a close. Temperance advocates and moral reformers identified opium smoking with indolence and passivity, qualities out of sync with a culture that emphasized hard work and a fast-paced industrial society. These kinds of characterizations became an important way to generate public revulsion for an immigrant group perceived to threaten both economic and social stability, and to gain traction for legislative action.10

The antagonisms toward the Chinese and attendant immigration restrictions resulted in a Chinese immigrant population that decreased by 1920 to less than half of what it was in 1890.11 The last opium den in New York was raided in 1957. Decades before, many of Chinatown’s dens, largely abandoned because of the rise of opium derivatives morphine and heroin, had all but disappeared.


1. Courtwright, David. Dark Paradise. Opiate Addiction in America before 1940. Cambridge: Harvard, 1982. 68.

2. Kane, H.H. Opium-Smoking in America and China. New York: G.P. Putnam’s, 1882. 1.

3. Peffer, George Anthony. Forbidden Familes: Emigration Experiences of Chinese Women Under the Page Law, 1875-1882. Journal of American Ethnic History, Vol. 6 No. 1, Fall, 1986.

4. Courtwright, 79.

5. Courtwright, 78.

6. Liggins, John. The Spread of Opium-Smoking in America. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1883. 20.

7. Williams, Allen Samuel. The Demon of the Orient and his Satellite Fiends of the Joints. New York: [the author], [1883]. 12.

8. The Chinese in California, 1850-1925.

9. Courtwright, 73.

10. Musto, David F. The American Disease. Origins of Narcotic Control. New Haven: Yale, 1973. 294-300.

11. Courtwright, 85.