A questionable legacy from a wealthy ancestor

... be wary of well-meant gifts

by John Averell

Like every family, I have ancestors that I am not so proud of. No, this is not another article about my "witch" ancestor, Sarah Averell Wildes. I wrote about her already (click here). This is about Mary Williamson Averell, a very wealthy philanthropist, and mother of W. Averell Harriman, himself an important, influential, and well-known man of the twentieth century.

Mary was born on July 22, 1851 in New York City. She was my great-grandfather's third cousin. She was brought up in a well-to-do family, a branch of the "Cooperstown Averells". She married Edward H. Harriman in 1879, an up and coming businessman. Mary's father, president of a railroad line, brought Edward into his business, providing the path to fabulous wealth at just the time that railroads became a dominant force to the economy.

Over the course of his life, E.H. Harriman acquired at least a half-dozen large railroad lines. At his death in 1909, he left a fortune estimated as much as $500,000,000 solely to his wife Mary.

In the meantime Mary had six children, the fifth being William Averell Harriman on November 15, 1891. There is so much known and written about Averell Harriman that I will not go into any details. Suffice it to say, he was one of Franklin Roosevelt's key ambassadors. I recommend googling "Averell Harriman" and reading some of the biographies. His wife, Pamela Harriman, was an amazing woman in her own right.

Getting back to Mary, she now had control over an unimaginable amount of money, and she set out to see that it was used for good. Her many philanthropies included a huge portion of Palisades State Park in New York, to Boys' Clubs, the Red Cross, and to environmental causes to save and improve the nation's forests and parks.

It was at this point in 1910 that Mary poured money into a foundation called the "Eugenics Record Office" in Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, New York. This organization, well-meaning in its apparent aim, attracted scientists, politicians, writers and academicians. People such as Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Winston Churchill, Oliver Wendell Homes, Louis Brandeis, Alexander Graham Bell, Margaret Sanger, H. G. Wells, and hundreds of others, subscribed to a pseudo-scientific theory called eugenics. The theory postulated that the human gene pool was deteriorating by being degraded by inferior elements that bred faster than "good" elements of the population.

Over the next thirty years scientific papers and newspaper articles were written, followed by laws passed, that resulted in the sterilization or institutionalization of foreigners, feeble-minded, Jews, blacks, etc., etc. Some 29 states passed sterilization laws based on eugenics.

By the 1920s German scientists began to take over the advanced research in eugenics. Much of the rationale for the Nazi program to destroy the undesirables like Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals, in order to purify the "Aryan race", came directly out of the eugenics textbooks. Hitler simply extrapolated the pseudo-science for his own ends.

There are others in the Harriman family who were instrumental in organizing and supporting the movement up to 1940s. You have only to google "eugenics Harriman" to get a list of well-known contributors to the effort that will surprise you.

Well, this is not a legacy I am proud of. For all the good that Mary Harriman did with her money, it has to be outweighed by the terrible harm done by the eugenics movement. I have no doubt that Mary funded the Cold Spring Harbor laboratory in good faith, believing that this was for the good of humanity and was based on sound scientific principles. It is an illustration of why we need to ask questions and demand answers when asked to support a cause that divides humanity into classes of "better" and "worse."


[Author's note about sources]

The family connections are taken from the two-volume genealogy of the Averells referenced in my previous article (see above). I have incorporated various general comments from googled sources that match information I have read about Averell Harriman in his biography and in newspaper accounts.

What inspired me to write about this was an appendix to Michael Crichton's novel "State of Fear" (2004). The novel has nothing at all to do with eugenics, but in his appendix he reviews the awful consequences of the body politic following a pseudo-scientific theory to its logical ends without insisting on real data. I have used freely some of the information in his appendix, particularly in listing famous persons that were drawn into the movement. Thank you, Michael.

May 2, 2008

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