An immigrant, perhaps a Russian Jew, after traveling by boat for weeks, arrives in New York in the spring of 1913. While negotiating the maze at Ellis Island, he's pulled aside by a woman.
The woman asks him to look at a line drawing. The figure is then withdrawn and the immigrant is given a pencil and asked to draw it from memory. Other tasks in the test include asking the immigrant--who may have left a place which kept a calendar very different from that in use in the United States--to name the present date and year.
Only a few years earlier, a French scientist, Alfred Binet, had invented the test as a way to determine whether children were of normal intelligence or were, in the parlance of the time, "feeble-minded."
It was the first intelligence test, and measured something called the "intelligence quotient," or IQ. Binet had warned that his test had limited value and should only be used to identify children who would need special help in school. He did not intend that it be used to test the general public or that the numbers it produced represented a real measure of "intelligence," whatever that was.
But American researcher H.H. Goddard, ignoring all of Binet's warnings, seized on the tool and began testing immigrants. Goddard had hired the women administering the tests because he believed that with their "women's intuition" they could pick out immigrants of low intelligence who were worth testing for feeble-mindedness. To Goddard's utter astonishment, the immigrants were shockingly slow; 83 percent of Jewish test-takers, for example, tested below the feeble-mindedness threshold.
"Most are poor and have never gone to school; many have never held a pencil or pen in their hand. They march off a boat; one of Goddard's intuitive women takes them aside shortly thereafter, sits them down, hands them a pencil, and asks them to reproduce on paper a figure shown to them a moment ago, but now withdrawn from their sight," writes Stephen Jay Gould in his 1981 book The Mismeasure of Man, which details how social and cultural assumptions have repeatedly contaminated investigations of heredity and intelligence. "Could [the immigrants'] failure be a result of testing conditions, of weakness, fear, or confusion, rather than of innate stupidity? Goddard considered the possibility, but rejected it."
Instead, a decade later, Goddard's results would be presented to members of Congress as they debated whether to reduce the immigration of Russian Jews and others into the United States.
One of those testifying on behalf of lowering immigration levels was a man named Harry Hamilton Laughlin. An advocate of eugenics--a philosophy, then growing in popularity, which seeks to improve the human race through selective breeding--Laughlin cited Goddard's results and argued that the genetic "inadequacy" of eastern and southern Europeans would negatively affect "the germ plasm of the future American population."
Laughlin was one of several experts who helped convince Congress to severely clamp down on immigration in 1924. For the next 40 years--Beck's "Golden Era of Immigration"--immigrating to the U.S. from eastern Europe became very difficult; for Asians it became nearly impossible.
"For years, [Laughlin] successfully lobbied to maintain the restrictions, which eventually blocked an escape route for Jews fleeing the Nazis," Newsday reported in 1994. "In 1922, Laughlin wrote and lobbied for a law that forced the sterilization of tens of thousands of 'unfit' U.S. citizens, including the insane, the homeless and the blind."
Similar laws were later passed in Nazi Germany, where Laughlin was lauded. In 1936, the University of Heidelberg awarded Laughlin an honorary degree. Laughlin, in turn, asked the American Eugenics Society to offer Adolf Hitler an honorary membership.
The next year, five New York millionaires created a private foundation with an endowment of $5 million. One of those men was Wickliffe P. Draper, a textile tycoon who advocated sending American blacks to Africa.
The millionaires named their creation the Pioneer Fund and charged it with backing research in heredity, eugenics and "race betterment." Harry Laughlin became its first president.
He died four years later, however, and until the 1950s, the fund remained largely inactive. Partly, that may have been a result of the severe blow eugenics suffered as the truth about Nazi atrocities came to light. In 1950, the United Nations made its famous declaration in the wake of the Holocaust that "Mankind is one."
Eugenicists and researchers in hereditary intelligence were all but driven underground.
The Pioneer Fund persevered, however, and became increasingly active through the 1950s. It was the fund's opposition to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision to integrate public schools which attracted its current president, New York lawyer Harry F. Weyher, who assumed the job in 1958.