Mastering Genetics: Pauling and Eugenics

Illustration from Medical World News article,

Illustration from Medical World News article, “Sickle Cell Anemia” December 3, 1971.

“I have suggested that the time might come in the future when information about heterozygosity in such serious genes as the sickle cell anemia gene would be tattooed on the forehead of the carriers, so that young men and women would at once be warned not to fall in love with each other.”
-Linus Pauling, August 15, 1966

After declaring sickle-cell anemia to be a “molecular disease” in the late 1940s, Pauling spent more than a decade describing the cause of the disease and the significance of its unique origins to his fellow academics. Unfortunately, though interested, his colleagues seemed more concerned with the concept of a molecular disease than its real world application in genetics and medicine. Beginning in 1958, Pauling became a vocal advocate of genetic counseling, focusing especially on sickle-cell anemia among the African American population. His efforts went largely unnoticed by both researchers and the general public alike.

Frustrated with his unsuccessful endorsement of genetic counseling, Pauling chose to take his ideas a step further. In 1962, Pauling began a public campaign in support of negative eugenics – the restriction of human breeding and childbirth as a means of minimizing the sharing of hereditary diseases. He advocated genetic testing as a requirement for obtaining a marriage license. Perhaps even more controversial, Pauling recommended placing legal restrictions on marriage and childbirth between carriers of hereditary diseases.

Listen: Pauling on Marriage Tests and the Disclosure of Genotype Information

Pauling recognized the difficulty of controlling and monitoring a program of this magnitude. Without being able to easily identify carriers of various diseases, the public could not effectively choose sexual partners, thus lessening the potential effectiveness of employed eugenics. As a solution, in the late 1960s, Pauling began suggesting a means of visibly marking disease carriers – a tattoo on the forehead, clearly marking the individual as the carrier of a specific disease. Not surprisingly, this suggestion engendered a great deal of criticism. He was compared with the likes of Hitler by his critics who drew parallels between the proposed tattoo and the yellow star worn by Eastern European Jews during the reign of the Nazi party.

In reflecting upon Pauling’s stance, it is important to note that he was not interested in positive eugenics – the manipulation of genetic combinations as a means of developing a superior human. Rather, he intended only to minimize human suffering and found the idea of building a “super race” highly undesirable. Pauling was also a critic of the concept of genetic purity. He was concerned with purifying the human gene pool of harmful diseases, but he was not motivated by the desire to manipulate intelligence, appearance, strength, etc.

Pauling insisted that his ideas, though extreme, were meant to decrease human suffering rather than to segregate and belittle. Though Pauling faced many critics, he did have supporters as well. Nobel laureate Sir Peter Medawar agreed with Pauling, famously stating,

It is humbug to say that such a policy violates an elementary right of human beings. No one has conferred upon human beings the right knowingly to bring maimed or biochemically crippled children in the world.

During the 1960s, Pauling’s critics began discussing the effect that negative eugenics could have on evolution. Roderic Gorney, a psychiatrist, argued that over a long enough period of time, eugenics could redirect and even supersede the process of natural selection.

For example, consider the effect of negative eugenics in relation to sickle-cell anemia. An individual with sickle-cell anemia has two sickle-cell alleles. Typically, sufferers of sickle-cell anemia are plagued by a host of related health problems, often leading to an early death. Some individuals, however, possess only one sickle-cell allele. These individuals exhibit some sickling of the blood cells, but are otherwise able to live normal, healthy lives. Because sickle-cell anemia is a hereditary disease, it is passed on in Mendelian fashion. As a result, a person with a single sickle-cell allele, when paired with a healthy individual, has a 25% chance of giving birth to a child with one sickle-cell allele. When paired with another single-trait individual, there exists a 50% chance that a child will have one sickle-cell trait, and a 25% chance that the child will be afflicted with full sickle-cell anemia.

Gorney argued that sickle-cell anemia, if left alone, would eventually be removed from the human gene pool. He explained that, because individuals suffering from sickle-cell anemia rarely live to procreate, few instances of sickle-cell anemia are added to the collective gene pool. Similarly, a single-allele individual has a statistical opportunity to produce children with sickle-cell anemia when paired with another carrier. These offspring will die at a young age, further reducing the number of carriers present in the next generation. As a result, over a period of time, the number of sickle-cell carriers would decrease to nothing.

Negative eugenics, however, allows sickle-cell carriers to identify other carriers and instead mate with healthy individuals, producing more children with a single sickle-cell allele. If this process were to continue indefinitely, more and more humans would be heterozygous for sickle-cell anemia, rendering it virtually impossible for natural selection to remove the disease from the human gene pool. This argument could, in fact, be applied to any similar hereditary disease.

“Bad Genes and Marriage,” New York Post, October 21, 1968.

Pauling acknowledged Gorney’s concerns but countered that, without eugenics, preventative medicine would have a much more damaging effect. Pauling felt that modern medicine (antibiotics, chemotherapy, prescription drugs, etc.) helped prolong the lifespan of sick or diseased individuals, sometimes allowing them to procreate and pass along hereditary diseases. As such, modern medicine was effectively undoing natural selection, leaving negative eugenics as the best hope for maintaining a balanced, healthy population.

In the early 1970s, Pauling began to run into trouble. His main focus throughout his eugenics campaign was the elimination of sickle-cell anemia, a disease that had originated in Africa where it became common among the native population because of its ability to prevent malaria. When slave traders brought African captives to North America, sickle-cell anemia was introduced to the United States. Due to racial segregation and the social mores that developed in the U.S. over the intervening 300 years, very few individuals outside of the African American population were afflicted with sickle-cell disease. For these reasons, Pauling advocated blood testing among the African American population. As the Civil Rights movement gained momentum, Pauling’s suggestions were seen as racist, and even as an attempt to cast African Americans as genetically inferior and meriting legal restrictions on their rights to marriage and procreation.

Frustrated and embarrassed by the criticism that he was receiving, Pauling fell silent on the topic of eugenics. In the past, when faced with heavy opposition, Pauling had always held his ground. But this episode was different. By the end of 1972, Pauling had given up his negative eugenics campaign and turned to other means of improving the human condition.

For more information on Pauling and his work with genetics, visit “It’s in the Blood! A Documentary History of Linus Pauling, Hemoglobin and Sickle Cell Anemia” or Linus Pauling Online.