Note: This is an encore post from 2005 and originally appeared on the 1947project.
Meet Paul Popenoe, who appears in hundreds of stories in The Times (including 11 in 1947), often as the elder statesman of family counseling in Los Angeles in later years. Among other things he said in 1947 was that childless couples were far more like to divorce than married couples and therefore recommended having children to preserve families, the more, the better. He also noted that people who were married by a justice of the peace were only half as likely to stay married as those married by a minister. At a presentation featuring Mills College President Lynn T. White Jr. on how “Colleges Can Help Reduce the Divorce Rate,” Popenoe said: “Too much feminine domination during a boy’s formative years leaves him unprepared and inadequate to face the man’s world, including marriage.”
But the most fascinating part of Popenoe’s life is his early work in the 1920s for the Human Betterment Foundation of Pasadena. An ardent eugenicist, Popenoe advocated the sterilization of sex offenders, the mentally retarded and other unfit human beings (a philosophy endorsed in The Times’ editorials). His book, “Sterilization for Human Betterment: A Summary of Results of 6,000 Operations in California, 1909-1929,” written with financier E.S. Gosney, found an extremely receptive audience among those setting up the Nazi regime.
Popenoe apparently adhered to these eugenics beliefs later in life. In 1968 he wrote to The Times:
A psychiatrist’s recent suggestion that the Scandinavian countries are peaceful because they have “sexual freedom” certainly does not square with the age-long and notorious sexual aggressiveness of men at war. Three-quarters of a century ago, sociologist Thorsten Veblen suggested a more reasonable explanation. For a thousand years, he noted, the Norsemen roamed the seas bent on war, or invaded other countries. Many were killed, many others settled permanently abroad.
Thus year by year the North was drained of its most aggressive and belligerent men, while the remaining population was made up in larger and larger proportions of those with less aggressiveness. The present population of the Scandinavian countries is descended from persons who had a minimum of inherent belligerent aggressiveness.
Popenoe died in 1979.
For those interested in the Human Betterment Foundation, I would recommend Mike Anton’s July 16, 2003, Times article. The foundation’s papers are in special collections at Caltech in Pasadena.