Publication Title

Perspectives in Biology and Medicine

Document Type


Publication Date

Summer 2014


James Ewing Mears (1838-1919) was a founding member of the Philadelphia Academy of Surgery. His 1910 book, The Problem of Race Betterment, laid the groundwork for later authors to explore the uses of surgical sterilization as a eugenic measure. Mears left $60,000 in his will to Harvard University to support the teaching of eugenics. Although numerous eugenic activists were on the Harvard faculty, and who of its Presidents were also associated with the eugenics movement, Harvard refused the Mears gift. The bequest was eventually awarded to Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. This article explains why Harvard turned its back on a donation that would have supported instruction in a popular subject. Harvard's decision illustrates the range of opinion that existed on the efficacy of eugenic sterilization at the time. The Mears case also highlights a powerful irony: the same week Harvard turned down the Mears legacy, the U.S. Supreme Court endorsed eugenic sterilization in the landmark case of Buck v. Bell. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., graduate of Harvard and former member of its law faculty wrote the opinion in that case, including the famous conclusion: "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

Copyright © 2015, The John Hopkins University Press. This article first appeared in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, Volume 57, Issue 3, Summer, 2014, pages 374-392.

Recommended Citation

Paul A. Lombardo, When Harvard Said No to Eugenics: The J. Ewing Mears Bequest, 1927, 57 Persp. Biology & Med. 374 (2014).







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