Two faces of earnest A. Hooton


  • Eugene Giles

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    1. Department of Anthropology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, IL 61801
    • Department of Anthropology, 109 Davenport Hall, University of Illinois, 607 South Mathews Avenue, Urbana, IL 61801-3635
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The American Anthropological Association's multimedia project, “Race: Are We So Different?” alleges that Earnest A. Hooton (1887–1954) of Harvard University was a racist eugenicist who “perhaps more than any other scientist of his time… did more to establish racial stereotypes…” and infers racism from his having sat on a National Research Council Committee on the Negro in the 1920s. I take issue with this perspective to argue against Hooton as a racist by exploring Hooton's relationship with African American students, particularly Caroline Bond Day, and with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People when it awarded a medal to Charles R. Drew, M.D. In the heyday of eugenics, Hooton was an atypical eugenicist in espousing a resolutely nonracial view of the woes of humankind perpetuated by what he considered the biologically unfit. As eugenics and Nazism became conflated in the late 1930s, Hooton hewed to a path that was more antiracist than many of his anthropological colleagues and publicly disputed Nazi racial ideology. Am J Phys Anthropol 2012. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

Google “Earnest Hooton” (at least at this writing, July 2012) and the first comment that appears, which is from Wikipedia, states (after birth and death dates and places) that Hooton “was a U.S. physical anthropologist known for his work on racial classification and his popular writings such as the book Up From the Ape. Hooton sat on the Committee on the Negro, a group that ‘focused on the anatomy of blacks and reflected the racism of the time.’” This last sentence reappears in some of the following Google entries and raises the question why his membership on this committee is deemed so important that it merits such prominence in evaluating the man and his contributions (Fig. 1).

Figure 1.

Two faces of Earnest A. Hooton.

Wikipedia attributes the quotation to the American Anthropological Association's multimedia, multimillion-dollar “Race: Are We So Different?” project (www.aaanet. org) (Moses,12011). While the project at one point misspells Hooton's name and claims he was a medical doctor who worked at Harvard's Peabody Museum in Boston, its thrust is to castigate him as a racist eugenicist who “[p]erhaps more than any scientist of his time… did more to establish racial stereotypes about black athleticism and black criminality from an anthropological framework.” The project says Hooton sat on the Committee on the Negro which endorsed a comparison of African babies with young apes and published findings in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology to “prove that the Negro race is phylogenetically a closer approach to primitive man than the white race.”

Is this really the Earnest A. Hooton whose 40-year career (1913–1954) at Harvard University produced some 28 PhDs (see Giles,1997, for a list), including six members of the National Academy of Science? And who taught not only the first three awardees of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists' Charles R. Darwin Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992, but the three AAPA members who presented them the awards? And who, together with the Smithsonian's Aleš Hrdlička (1869–1943), has been considered a founder of American physical anthropology in the first half of the 20th century (Giles,2010)? And the man for whom the AAPA in 1986 named an annual student prize? In this article, I argue that the facts do not bear out the AAA's contention that Hooton was a racist eugenicist.2


The AAA's “Race: Are We So Different?” project website does not display authorship nor attribution for its quotations. Comments about Hooton are in the website's History section titled “Eugenics and Physical Anthropology”; there is no pagination. The website contractors utilized Darwin's Athletes (1997) by John M. Hoberman, Chair of Germanic Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, for many of their observations on physical anthropology. The penultimate paragraph begins: “In 1926, the American Association of Physical Anthropology [sic] and the National Research Council organized a Committee on the Negro, which focused on the anatomy of blacks and reflected the racism of the time.”3 This cannot be completely true, since the AAPA was not in existence in 1926. In 1926, however, the Committee of the National Research Council on the Negro was organized by the archaeologist Alfred V. Kidder, the chair of the NRC's Division of Anthropology and Psychology at the time. Kidder appointed a diverse set of scientists to the committee: Robert J. Terry (chair), Franz Boas, Charles B. Davenport, Earnest A. Hooton, Aleš Hrdlička, T. Wingate Todd, and two psychologists (Hrdlička,1927a). (In its extensive discussion of Boas [1858–1942], the AAA project never mentions that he sat on the Committee on the Negro.) According to W. Montague Cobb (1904–1990), “[t]his group formulated a set of recommendations for needed study projects and a general program, which was presented to the Council. No funds were available at the time for the execution of these recommendations and the work of the Committee thus yielded no collective results” (Cobb,1942:135–136). Cobb goes on to say that the “American Association of Physical Anthropologists has never specifically encouraged Negro studies, except as included in notation of all spheres in which investigation has been needed” (Cobb,1942:136).

Contrary to Cobb's statement, the AAA project claims that “[i]n 1927 the committee endorsed a comparison of African babies with young apes. Ten years later the group published findings in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology to ‘prove that the negro race is phylogenetically a closer approach to primitive man than the white race.’” All this is a flagrant misrepresentation if not a fabrication. As to the first point in the quotation., Hoberman (1997:211) refers to an article by Hrdlička (1927b) in which he describes six cases of small children running on all fours naturally and spontaneously. “These children belong to the four principal races, white, yellow-brown (Amer. Indian), negro, and Australian. They are all healthy, physically normal infants of between one and two years of age” (Hrdlička,1927b:352). What Hoberman (1997:285–286) picks up on in a footnote is a postscript (amusingly miscopied by Hoberman) in which Hrdlička (1927b:353–354) says that while his article was “passing through the press” he accidentally came across 20-year-old “remarks” written by an “old, respected friend … Mr. R. L. Garner” describing similar behavior in West Africa under the heading, “Simian acts of African children.” He proceeds to print Garner's remarks verbatim in the postscript. Hrdlička himself makes no “simian” comparisons and emphasizes that the behavior occurs in various human populations. The remarks written by Hrdlička's friend circa 1907 are the basis for the AAA's assertion that “the committeeendorsed a comparison of African babies with young apes [emphasis added].”

The second point refers to another article referenced by Hoberman (1997:211), this by a medical doctor, Robert C. Moehlig, at the time an assistant professor of endocrinology in the Wayne University College of Medicine and on staff in the Department of Internal Medicine at Harper Hospital, both in Detroit. In this article, “The mesoderm of the Negro,” Moehlig says (1937:297) “[t]he purpose of the present article is to show that the mesoderm of the Negro is in many respects unique when compared to that of the White. By this method it is hoped to prove that the negro race is phylogenetically a closer approach to primitive man than the white race.” Moehlig was not an anthropologist, not a member of the AAPA, and not a member of the Committee on the Negro. Since Moehlig's article does include the exact phrase the AAA has in quotation marks and was published 10 years later, it must represent the “findings” published by “the group,” i.e., the Committee on the Negro, according to the AAA. One might imagine the AAA's associating Boas, as a member of the Committee on the Negro, with such a “comparison” and publishing such “findings” could set him spinning in his grave.

The AAA project accuses Hooton of doing “perhaps more than any scientist of his time … to establish racial stereotypes about black athleticism and black criminality from an anthropological framework.” Indeed, for stereotyping black athleticism, doing “perhaps more than any scientist of his time” appears based on Hoberman (1997:212) finding that “Hooton's two short passages on black athleticism” epitomize his position. For Hooton, athletics was not even a secondary concern in his writing or life (he was a self-described poor golfer but enjoyed professional wrestling). But, as he put it, “[n]o one who follows sporting news can fail to be impressed with the apparent supremacy of Negroes in certain types of contest—notably, sprinting, middle-distance running, high- and broad-jumping, boxing” (Hooton,1940:108). He speculates that this may have something to do with advantages in body build, reaction time, etc. but emphasizes that this has not been explored. He goes on to say that “[o]pportunities for the Negro to compete in athletic sports with Whites are so limited regionally and in type of activity that there is no fair basis for comparison. For example, in golf, tennis, and rowing, the Negro has to play by himself. It may be that his apparently phenomenal ability in a few events is not due to a special aptitude for those particular types of competition, but rather to his exclusion from other sports. The Negro, for aught I know, may have superior, all-round athletic ability” (Hooton,1940:108–109).

W. Montague Cobb, on the other hand, did excel athletically (crosscountry and boxing at Amherst College) (Rankin-Hill and Blakey,1994:79) and did write specifically about African Americans and sports (e.g., Cobb,1936, 1942:168–171). “The physiques of champion Negro and white sprinters in general and of Jesse Owens in particular reveal nothing to indicate that Negroid physical characters are anatomically concerned with the present dominance of Negro athletes in national competition in the short dashes and the broad jump” (Cobb,1936:54, 56). Cobb believed that his 1974 Kober lecture at Georgetown University “expresses the point of view [I] developed after 46 years in physical anthropology” (Cobb,1976). In that lecture, he argued that “every African who landed on these shores had undergone a more rigid biological selection than any group in the history of mankind…. Despite the propaganda and oppression, the genetic quality must have held, else how could we explain the sudden burgeoning of Afro-American super-stars in every sport, once the barriers were lifted” (Cobb,1974:17). One might expect Cobb, who was not a big fan of Hooton (Cobb, 1987, personal communication), to have criticized Hooton if he believed him to be stereotyping black athleticism. Does Hooton but not Cobb appear to be establishing racial stereotypes about black athleticism, or, in my view, neither? The case for Hooton's racial stereotyping is, again in my view, stronger when examining his criminal anthropology research.

The original idea for Hooton's foray into the anthropology of criminals, for which he was able to generate funding to study some 13,000 prisoners in 10 states (and a “control” sample of 3,200 nonprisoners) with anthropometric measurements and observations, came to him when, as an undergraduate at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, he worked for two summers at a near-by prison. He and some of the guards thought they could tell from their appearance the kinds of crimes prisoners had committed. His research resulted in two books. Both the large (309 text pages and data appendix of 480 pages) technical volume, The American Criminal (Hooton,1939a), and the so-called popular version, Crime and the Man (Hooton,1939b) (the latter was the January 1939 selection of the Scientific Book Club) received mixed but generally poor reviews. Sales were mediocre, 180 copies for the former, 1,277 for the latter by mid-1941 (Rafter,2004:747). The research volume, The American Criminal, became the only one of three originally planned that was published. It was based on “native White criminals of native parentage in prisons and reformatories and the civilian check samples of similar origin” (Hooton,1939a:254). Some statistical results, however, from his African American sample (4,100) appear in chapters 9 and 10 in Crime and the Man.

Nicole Rafter, who considers Hooton an “offbeat eugenicist” (2004:756), sums up Hooton's two books from her perspective of criminology. “Unarguably, much of his work is unpersuasive by today's standards. Yet, no matter how tempted we may now be to dismiss it, his research on crime played an important part in the development of criminology, sociology and anthropology. Moreover, it forms part of the background of some recent criminological trends…” (Rafter,2004:736). “Unpersuasive” is perhaps an unduly constrained term, but nevertheless the issue here is whether, in this major, if flawed, research effort, “statistical analysis of one of the largest surveys of criminals ever compiled” (Rafter,2004:735), Hooton “establish[ed] racial stereotypes about … black criminality from an anthropological framework” as the AAA project asserts.

In Crime and the Man, Hooton, in a step almost incomprehensible today, divides his white sample into nine “racial types”: Alpine, Dinaric, East Baltic, Keltic, Mediterranean, Nordic Alpine, Nordic Mediterranean, Predominantly Nordic, and Pure Nordic. His African American sample is divided into Negro and Negroid, the latter perceived as having varying amounts of white admixture. Each of these groups has its own crime frequency of murder, rape, robbery, burglary, fraud, and so forth. (He found, however, that “there is almost no difference in the distribution of kinds of criminal offenses between Negroids and Negroes” [Hooton,1939b:385].) This only gives a sense of his approach; its additional complexity is one of his many problems. Hooton himself realized some of these problems in analyzing his African American sample. “The study of crime among the Negroes of the United States is fraught with unusual difficulties and perplexities for several reasons. The first of these is that the American population classified as Negro presents a range of physical variation all the way from the approximately full-blooded African to persons who are predominantly White…. The second reason for the difficulty in studying crime in American Negroes is that all of these physically heterogeneous millions who are labeled ‘Negro’ have been subjected alike to social and economic oppression and, indeed, have not been able to call even their bodies their own for as much as three-quarters of a century” (Hooton,1939b:384).

“The goal of [Hooton's] criminological research,” as Rafter (2004:758) puts it, “did not include identifying one race as more criminalistic than another.” And he did not, but he did stereotype each of these “races” with varying patterns of criminal behavior. His results were not necessarily viewed negatively by African Americans, however. Carter Woodson, for example, reviewing Crime and the Man for the Journal of Negro History, found the book “on the whole, is interesting and valuable,” and observed that “[i]t is interesting to note … that the author finds the Negroes less addicted to rape than old American whites, less than foreign whites, and the number of Negroes committing rape is not any larger than that of new American whites. This is an epoch-making revelation, for the barbarous element who, justifying their lynching of Negro men as rapists, has branded the entire race as being of the most brutal order when the award for such bestiality belongs to the whites themselves” (Woodson,1939:359).

With its generally poor reception, and with Harvard University Press backing out of any commitment to publish further research volumes, Hooton's venture into criminal anthropology came to an end as World War II approached. He believed he had “convinced virtually no one else” (Hooton, unpublished autobiographical MS. p 281) of the relationship he saw between the physical man and the crime for which he was convicted.


The African American newspaper columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. cautions against “[buying into] the silly contention that talking about race is, of itself, racist” (Pitts,2010). Hooton certainly talked a lot about race. Hooton saw quasi-taxonomic subgroupings within the species Homo sapiens, subgroupings that could be defined morphologically and to some degree hierarchized (e.g., he “distinguish[es] several races within the great ‘White’ division of mankind” [Hooton,1939a:205]). Although he believed such variation among these major divisions was “as marked as usually serve[s] to distinguish species in other animals” (Hooton,1931:395), the notion that it in fact reached the species level in humans was “discredited” (Hooton,1946:571). The 1960s saw a sea change in physical anthropology, moving from more traditional, Hooton-esque perspectives like Stanley Garn's Human Races (1961) toward a populational viewpoint, perhaps spearheaded by Frank Livingstone's seminal 1962 article “On the nonexistence of human races.” But my question is, did Hooton's pontification on race categorization reflect racism in his academic or professional behavior?

Caroline Bond Day (1889–1948) was an African American born in Atlanta. She received a bachelor's degree from Atlanta University in 1912. In 1916, she entered Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and received a second bachelor's degree in 1919. She then taught at several colleges in the South but in 1927 took leave from Atlanta University and reentered Radcliffe as a graduate student in anthropology. The lives of Day and her relatives are chronicled at length in a biographical book by Adele Logan Alexander (1999) and more briefly in articles by Drake (1980), Roses and Randolph (1990), Alexander (1993), Ross et al. (1999), and others.

Hooton (1930a:768) says of Day, “Occasionally one may find among these Radcliffe students some young woman who has a real interest in, and an undoubted gift for, some kind of scientific research. I found such a rare individual in the class of '19 at Radcliffe College.” With Hooton's guidance and financial support that he wrested from Harvard (described in Hooton,1930a), Day engaged in a study of what was then called “race mixture.” Day, using in part her widespread connections among African Americans, gathered anthropometric, biographical and photographic data on 346 families of diverse backgrounds who were living primarily in the southeastern United States (Day,1932 4). Her publication was praised by, among others, W. E. B. Du Bois (19325:385; 1935:95). She used these data for her master's degree at Radcliffe in 1930,6 with Hooton as her mentor.

Of African American women who earned degrees from Radcliffe College before World War II, Sollors et al. (1993) chose only four to commemorate in their book, Blacks at Harvard. Day was one. Day was the first African American woman to receive a graduate degree in any field of anthropology in the United States, and only the second African American.

Hooton had a long and friendly relationship with Day. He was careful not to let anyone use the data Day had gathered without her permission. For instance, he asked Day if it was all right for Alice Brues, one of Hooton's doctoral students, to use the data. Day replied that Brues was quite welcome to do so. At one point, Day wrote Hooton that two of the daughters of families in her book were going to graduate school at Radcliffe. Hooton replied that she should encourage them to come and see him. She wrote Hooton about the families she had studied and how they were doing. She went to the Cherokee Reservation in North Carolina, she said, since one of her grandmothers was part Cherokee, and while there purchased a silver-decorated belt that she sent to Hooton's wife Mary in belated appreciation, she said, of her generous hospitality while she was in Cambridge. She invited Hooton and Mary to stay with her and her husband if they ever came to Durham, NC. Hooton encouraged Day to continue for a PhD, but Day declined, perhaps because of failing health (she died in 1948 in Durham) and for economic reasons.

Two other African American students of anthropology at Harvard about the same time as Day were Allison Davis (1902–1983) and William Leo Hansberry (1894–1965). Although Davis would go on to receive his PhD at the University of Chicago in sociocultural anthropology in 1942, his graduate work at Harvard earned him a particularly strong encomium from Hooton in a letter of recommendation. He said Davis was “the most brilliant Negro student who ever studied in this Division of Harvard University and also ranks in the first 10% of graduate students whom we have had in the last 25 years, quite irrespective of race.” He also said he was lured away to Chicago, but would be welcomed back if he chose to finish his degree at Harvard. While Davis was in London on a Rosenwald Fellowship in 1932–1933, he and Hooton kept in touch. In a letter dated November 28, 1932, Hooton wrote Davis that he “did not wish to put myself in the position of having steered you into a thesis in physical anthropology if your interests are primarily cultural” and concluded by sending his “kind regards to Mrs. Davis and tell her that here in the Department of Anthropology we greatly miss both of you this year.” Davis's first publication (Browne,1999) seems squarely in physical anthropology (Davis,1935), but in fact he makes only a passing reference to Hooton.

Hansberry, the son of a history professor at Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College in Mississippi, was unable to satisfy his passion for African history and culture at Atlanta University and transferred to Harvard in 1917. At Harvard “[h]e came under the influence of Earnest A. Hooton….[t]hey remained friends until Hooton's death…. Hansberry resembled his mentor in many respects: among colleagues both men were known for their subtle humor, and heterodoxy; among students, they were beloved for their devotion to teaching and their availability” (Smyke,1982:285). He left Harvard in 1921 with a bachelor's degree in anthropology. His teaching at Howard University began the next year, but resistance to his intense African focus finally led him back to Harvard for a master's degree in anthropology and history in 1932. Hooton wrote to the Rosenwald Foundation that Hansberry “has been unable to take the Ph.D. degree… because… there is no university or institution that has manifested a really profound interest in this subject [of African history and culture]…. no present day scholar has developed anything like the knowledge of this field that Hansberry has developed…” Despite Hooton's effort, no grant was forthcoming and Hansberry returned to Howard where only in the 1950s did he begin to be appreciated, and only in 1972, 7 years after his death, did Howard recognize his many contributions by naming a lecture hall after him (Wolf,1996).

All in all, Hooton's relationship with these African American students—and being invited to and giving a talk at Howard University in 19297—would seem to belie the AAA's assertion that Hooton was or perceived to be a racist in the academic realm. So would his relationship with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in his professional activities.

In July 1944, about a year before the end of World War II, Hooton found himself on a train bound for Chicago. He had been asked by Roy Wilkins, Assistant Secretary for the NAACP, to present the organization's 29th Spingarn Medal to Charles R. Drew at its Wartime Conference. The Spingarn Medal was established “for the highest or noblest achievement by an American Negro during the preceding year or years” (Anon,1914:1). Wilkins indicated Hooton was invited to make this presentation because the NAACP believed that Drew's accomplishments, at a time when the military first refused to accept African American blood donations and then insisted they be segregated into “white” and “black,” would appeal to Hooton as an example of the crazy and illogical pattern of race prejudice.8

Charles R. Drew, M.D. (1904–1950) was perhaps the best known African American medical doctor of the day. Drew grew up in Washington, D.C. (where his home was made a National Historic Landmark in 1976), attended the renowned but segregated Dunbar High School (as did W. Montague Cobb, born in the same year as Drew), then Amherst College in Massachusetts and McGill University in Montreal for his medical degree. He developed techniques for and promulgated the use of storable blood plasma for transfusions and set up programs in New York city to aid Great Britain at the beginning of World War II. After the United States entered the war, he headed the Red Cross Blood Bank in New York and was given the task of hugely expanding its program. When the military insisted that African American donors be excluded and that donors be identified by race, he balked. He stated “I feel the recent ruling of the United States Army and Navy regarding the refusal of colored blood donors is an indefensible one from any point of view. As you know, there is no scientific basis for the separation of the bloods of different races except on the basis of the individual blood types or groups” (Drew,1942:2). He resigned from his Red Cross directorship and returned to the Chair of Surgery at Howard University's Medical School and his position as Chief Surgeon at Freedmen's Hospital in Washington, DC.

The closing meeting of the NAACP's Wartime Conference was held in Chicago's Washington Park on a Sunday afternoon, July 16, 1944. The crowd that greeted Hooton was variously estimated at 30,000 by the NAACP, 15,000 by the Chicago Defender newspaper, and between 20,000 and 25,000 by the Chicago Park District's general superintendent. It was certainly the largest audience Hooton ever addressed. Hooton's talk has been preserved in the NAACP archives (Hooton,1944). It was extensively quoted in a New York Times July 17 article on the conference under the headline “Dr. Hooton Assails Racial Prejudice: It Is a Cloak to Cover a Selfish Desire to Dominate Others, Harvard Educator Says.” Some excerpts follow from his 2,000 word speech:

I deem this a fit occasion for an appraisal of the evolutionary status of the Negro race, of the cultural advance of the Negro in the United States in the face of prejudice and adverse discrimination, of the prospect for the eradication of the injustices to which your race has been subjected in our common country…. Mankind today is a single zoological species, consisting of a number of physically distinct races that interbreed without diminution of fertility, vitality, or the intellectual and cultural capacity of the resulting offspring. …. No race is nearer its ape ancestry than any other in point of time, because all have sprung from a generalized Homo sapiens stock…

I need not tell you how few and inadequate have been the opportunities grudgingly extended to the American Negro under nearly eight decades of theoretical emancipation, or how disgracefully short of our lofty ideals and vociferous pronouncements on the subject of human equality, liberty, and justice, the White majority of this country has fallen in the treatment of our ever loyal fellow citizens of Negro origin….

The trumped-up allegations of racial inferiority or superiority are not based upon scientific findings and have never deceived any except the ignorant and the mentally inferior—but these, unfortunately, include an enormous proportion of individuals of whatever race or nationality….

Perhaps the greatest medical achievement of the present World War is the use of blood plasma for the salvaging of wounded men…. The utterly unscientific and prejudiced segregation of Negro and White blood plasma by the armed services of this country has rightly evoked the protest of Dr. Drew and the indignation of all informed and fair minded citizens of this country, White or Colored.

After the conference Wilkins (1944) wrote Hooton to tell him “how grateful we are for your memorable speech before our war-time conference on July 16 in Chicago. It received an excellent press…. You must have gathered from the audience reaction that the delegates and visitors keenly appreciated your remarks.” Sadly, less than 6 years later, at the age of 45, Drew died from injuries received in an automobile accident in North Carolina.


During the early period of Hooton's career at Harvard University, his research focused on the skeleton (Giles,2012); in the later period he turned to the living, as evinced by studies on criminals, on the Irish, on railway coach seating, and extensive applied functional “anthropology of the living,” as he called it, for the military. His enthusiasm for Caroline Bond Day's research came at the beginning of this latter period. The first publication, to the best of my knowledge, that anticipated his future, nonracial pronouncements in the eugenics arena was an article on race mixture. In a symposium, “The Melting Pot—A Nation in the Making,” he stated “[i]n the absence of adequate scientific data on the subject of racial differences in mental capacity, assertions in regard to the superiority or inferiority of this or that race are mischievous and strongly to be condemned….To stigmatize a race as inferior solely upon the basis of a backward material culture is altogether unfair. Similarly, there is a total lack of scientific evidence which would justify the exploitation of the all-around superiority of any particular race” (Hooton,1921:125).

In 1929, he reviewed two books by a German racist, Hans F. K. Günther, The Racial Elements of European History and Rassenkunde des deutschen Volkes, for the American Anthropologist. He considered the author a “Nordomaniac,” and said that “[u]p to the present time not one scrap of scientific evidence has been presented to indicate the intellectual superiority of the Nordic race over the Alpine race or over the Ainu race or over any other race” (Hooton,1929:165). Furthermore, he believed the book Racial Elements… “will undoubtedly receive a favorable reception among members of the Ku Klux Klan and of the ‘Nordic Guard’” (Hooton,1929:166).

By 1930, Hooton made it clear he believed something had to be done about what he saw as our increasing lack of biological fitness. “[I]n spite of the infinitesimal quantity of our knowledge [of their genetic bases], we are completely justified in urging that measures be taken to prevent the insane and the mentally defective from reproducing. Segregation and sterilization of the unfit ought to be promoted by scientists and by instructed laymen” (Hooton,1930b:103). But at the same time, he goes on to warn that “we have no data which justify the raising of racial issues as a part of eugenics propaganda. We know nothing at all about inherent superiorities or inferiorities of the several races and the many nationalities. If eugenics is to be made the vehicle of bigoted race prejudice, it must be ditched… To me, eugenics in the United States represents too much ill-considered talk and too little careful scientific research” (Hooton,1930b:103). Those in the eugenics movement in the United States who were in fact displaying “bigoted race prejudice” became role models for German “racial hygienists” before Hitler's ascension in 1933 and admirers afterward, for a while (Kühl,1994).

It is difficult now to realize just how popular eugenics was in the 1930s. On March 9, 1907, Indiana became the first place in the world to authorize by law the compulsory sterilization of the unfit (i.e., in Indiana's law “confirmed criminals, idiots, rapists, and imbeciles”); by 1940 some 35,000 involuntary sterilizations had been carried out in the United States under state laws (Carlson,2001:12, 218, 215). In 1937, a Fortune magazine poll found that 63% of Americans endorsed the compulsory sterilization of habitual criminals, and that 66% favored sterilizing mental defectives (Kevles,1985:114). Even the New England Journal of Medicine advocated sterilization of the unfit (Brandt,2012:6). Thirty-three states had eugenics programs (Stern,2011:96); by the mid-1970s “over 63,000 people nationwide received eugenic sterilizations. With almost 20,000 sterilizations between 1909 and 1953, California led the way, followed by North Carolina and Virginia with over 7,000 [each]” (Schoen,2011:142). These activities 80 years ago resonate today. In 2010, for example, North Carolina established the N. C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation ( to assist the estimated 3,000 individuals still living of the ∼7,600 who were sterilized between 1929 and 1974 under the authority of a North Carolina Eugenics Board program.

The theme of humankind's biological unfitness runs in a large number of Hooton's publications in the 1930s and into the 1940s. The causes “include the preservation of the constitutionally inferior, the chronically diseased, the insane and the feeble-minded, the criminals and the economic and social paupers by the skill of medicine, by the largess of private philanthropy, and by the imposition of taxes upon those who can and do produce” (Hooton,1942c:362). Nicole Rafter (2006)9 has noted how frequently dental decay manifests itself in Hooton's writing on human ailments. Hooton's best known poem (e.g., Shalit,1987:367; is titled, “Ode to a Dental Hygienist,” which concludes, “At least as far as she has gotten/She sees how much of me is rotten.” He even uses the term “malocclusion” to deplore the lack of communication among various scientific disciplines (Hooton,1938). His final philippic was an article in Redbook magazine in which he says “[t]here can be little doubt of the increase during the past fifty years of mental defectives, psychopaths, criminals, economic incompetents and the chronically diseased. We owe this to the intervention of charity, ‘welfare’ and medical science, and to the reckless breeding of the unfit” (Hooton,1950:31).

As a eugenicist Hooton was, as they say they say in Texas, all hat and no cattle. His blustery pronouncements in both popular and academic media did not lead him into active participation in eugenic endeavors or into political arenas. Franz Boas, on the other hand, was a liberal activist who, in the period between the world wars, made numerous efforts to alert colleagues and the public to the increasing malevolence of racism in Nazi Germany (Barkan,1988, 1992; Wolpoff and Caspari,1997; Little,2010). Two examples suggest the differences between the men's styles. According to Barkan (1988:184), Boas “paid a great deal of attention to media coverage,” and, after several rejections, managed to publish a 2,500-word article on “Aryans and Non-Aryans” (Boas,1934) in the American Mercury. This monthly was a provocative literary/political magazine, edited by the iconoclast H. L. Mencken, with a readership around 75,000. Boas states that Aryan “is a linguistic term and nothing else” and “an Aryan is anyone who speaks an Aryan language, Swede as well as American Negro or Hindu…. A judgment of the German policy requires the answer to two questions,” essentially what are Aryans racially, and the hereditary basis of individual and group behavior (Boas,1934:219). Boas then discusses these issues in an academic and nonpolemical fashion.

Barkan (1992:312) claims that Hooton only “occasionally contributed to nonscientific periodicals, he usually refused solicitations by popular magazines.” Actually, Hooton published articles in any number of popular magazines, including the Nation, Ladies' Home Journal, Collier's, Woman's Home Companion, Redbook, Atlantic Monthly, and Good Housekeeping. In serious stylistic contrast to Boas (1934), 8 years later and after World War II was underway, Hooton published an 1,800-word article, “Science debunks that pure race theory of the Nazis” (Hooton,1942a), in the American Weekly. Time magazine (November 3, 1961, p 41) described the American Weekly as William Randolph Hearst's “peculiar contribution to Sabbath reading.” It was a supplement included with every copy of the Sunday edition of all Hearst newspapers and after 1938 some others. Whether or not it lived up to its claim of having the “Greatest Circulation in the World,” its circulation was enormous. According to N. W. Ayer & Son's Directory of Newspapers and Periodicals, 1944 (p 616), it was 7,872,972. And if that wasn't enough, Hearst published a condensed version of Hooton's article in his Reader's Digest knock-off called the American Digest (Hooton,1942b). The American Weekly was no literary magazine: its sometime editor considered his best headline to have been “NAILED HER FATHER'S HEAD TO THE FRONT DOOR” (Abraham, Merritt, 1942:156, “The story behind the story,” New York). With great gusto, Hooton used this platform to savage Germans past and present. “Germany,” he said, “since the twelfth century is one of the most complicated racial hashes which can be found anywhere in the world…. The stuff about Aryans makes no more sense than does the baseless claim of Germanic racial purity…. Most of the people who speak Aryan languages have borrowed them or had them forcibly substituted for native tongues which are now lost. There is no sufficient evidence for the claim that the original Aryans were Nordics, much less that they were Germans…. Joe Louis is probably as authentic an Aryan as Adolph Schicklgruber,10 and certainly an infinitely finer specimen of human being” (Hooton,1942a).

At times Boas's activism found in Hooton, as Barkan (1992:312) puts it, “the most cooperative anthropologist on the American scene.” In a comment contained in Lesser (1981:30), Gene Weltfish relates how “in 1939, at the meeting of the Anthropological Association at which [Edward] Sapir presided,11 the question of a resolution against the Nazi classification of the races came up. Sapir proposed the resolution. Thereafter the whole meeting split. On one side were most of the people; on the other side was a poor little group” comprised of her, Boas, and three others. “We voted for this resolution. All the rest of the gang rose up and voted against it, on the grounds that the Germans were a friendly power. Thereafter Sapir, with his fine sense of humor, said, ‘This resolution was proposed by A. E. [sic] Hooton of Harvard.’ Everyone thought they were voting against a resolution proposed by Boas.”


A potential disconnect between Hooton's public espousal of eugenics and his personal life involved his two sons, Jay C. Hooton and William N. Hooton. (The latter's middle name was Hooton's mother's maiden name, Newton, and, for better or worse and by one and all, he was known as Newton Hooton.) Both had developmental disabilities, Jay more so than Newton. A nurse who knew Hooton well, Rita A. Jordan (1990, personal communication), attested to the concern he displayed and the assistance he provided to both Jay and Newton.

I knew and worked with both, Jay in 1954–1955 and Newton in the late 1950s. Before he died in May 1954, Hooton established a fund to employ his sons in the Peabody Museum at Harvard. Jay worked in the skeletal collection area, the “bone laboratory,” and Newton in the “stat[istics] laboratory,” both on the fifth floor of the museum. Jay had a phenomenal memory for movie plots and characters. And a sense of humor. In the 1950s, the Museum was free, and school children would make their way to the fifth floor. Among the displays were a gorilla head and a male proboscis monkey head in two huge glass jars in which the liquid preservative was becoming depleted. When the shouting and yelling these grisly specimens evoked got to be too much, Jay would don a white lab coat, put on a fierce expression, and shuffle out among the kids, who would run screaming down the stairs. Newton, in the days of Hollerith cards and IBM sorters, offered card-punching services for a fee, and otherwise tended to the “stat lab.” He kindly gave me a copy of his father's posthumously published book of poetry, Subverse.


One newspaper headline at Hooton's death called him a “prophet of human decay” (Boston Herald, May 4, 1954), perhaps a more fitting epitaph than eugenicist. Although emphatically a nonracist eugenicist, too many of his views are rebarbative, and he persisted in uttering them too long. But however outlandish Hooton's concept of race and races may seem to us 80 years later, and without even considering the context of his time, his actions and attitudes are simply not consonant with his being a racist. For the AAA's “Race: Are We So Different?” to assert otherwise does a singular disservice to the memory of a physical anthropologist who, despite his own research sometimes dead-ending, virtually created (along with Aleš Hrdlička) American physical anthropology between the two World Wars, and started an extraordinary number of physical anthropology graduate students down their own diverse roads to research and teaching renown.


I want to acknowledge my great indebtedness to the Hooton archives in the Peabody Museum, Harvard University, and to Emma Hooton Robbins for gracious access to unpublished materials relating to her father. My wife Inga has been most helpful in this endeavor, as has the Interlibrary Loan Department of the University of Illinois Library. The encouragement of Bob Sussman and his advice and that of his three reviewers were essential in developing and improving the manuscript.

  • 1

    Yolanda T. Moses became the first African American president of the AAA in 1995, 38 years after W. Montague Cobb was elected president of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (Fikes,2004).

  • 2

    On July 3, 2009, I e-mailed Alan Goodman, a past president of the AAA, with these concerns. He responded immediately and cordially, indicating that at this point he was co-directing the “race project” and would look into it. I have not heard from him again.

  • 3

    The original version is “The organizing in 1926 of a ‘Committee on the Negro,’ jointly sponsored by the American Association of Physical Anthropology [sic] and the National Research Council, institutionalized an interest in Negro anatomy that expressed the racism of the era” (Hoberman,1997:211).

  • 4

    This publication was reprinted in 1970 by Negro Universities Press, Westport, Connecticut.

  • 5

    Unsigned, but authenticated as being by Du Bois by Aptheker (1973:339).

  • 6

    Many references to Day's master's degree state it was awarded in 1932. This is incorrect. See Gough (1931:364). Laurence Foster (1903–1969) was the first African American to earn a PhD in anthropology (Pennsylvania, 1931) (Bernstein,2002:558). W. Montague Cobb's PhD in Anatomy was awarded by Western Reserve University School of Medicine in 1932.

  • 7

    “The Study of Anthropology by Negro Students,” 4 p. MS. in the Peabody Museum Archives, Harvard University.

  • 8

    In view of the AAA project's position that Hooton “did more [perhaps than any other scientist] to establish racial stereotypes about … black criminality …,” it is interesting that Wilkins chose Hooton for the Spingarn presentation in part precisely because he believed Crime and the Man had upset popular theories of Negro criminality.

  • 9

    The book containing this paper, Popular Eugenics, personalizes its content with a front-cover photo (ca. 1939) by the famous New York City noir photographer Weegee (Arthur Fellig) showing stripper Sherry Britton reading a copy of Hooton's Apes, Men and Morons.

  • 10

    A Hitler family surname used disparagingly by Americans during World War II.

  • 11

    This cannot have been the annual meeting of the AAA in December 1939. Sapir died in February 1939. The AAA did pass a resolution against racism at its annual meeting in December 1938, but Sapir, although president that year, was ill and did not preside. Darnell (1990:405) believes it was an unspecified “AAA meeting late in 1938.”