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Euthenics /jˈθɛnɪks/ is the study of the improvement of human functioning and well-being by improvement of living conditions.[1] Affecting the "improvement" through altering external factors such as education and the controllable environment, including the prevention and removal of contagious disease and parasites, environmentalism, education regarding employment, home economics, sanitation, and housing.[2]

Rose Field notes of the definition in a May 23, 1926 New York Times article, "the simplest being efficient living."[3] A right to environment.[4]

The Flynn effect has been often cited as an example of euthenics. Another example is the steady increase in body size in industrialized countries since the beginning of the 20th century.

Euthenics is not normally interpreted to have anything to do with changing the composition of the human gene pool by definition, although everything that affects society has some effect on who reproduces and who does not.[5]

Origin of the term

Ellen Swallow Richards, the first female student and instructor at MIT.

The term was derived in the late 19th century from the Greek verb eutheneo, εὐθηνέω (eu, well; the, root of τίθημι tithemi, to cause).

(To be in a flourishing state, to abound in, to prosper.—Demosthenes. To be strong or vigorous.—Herodotus. To be vigorous in body.—Aristotle.[6])

Also from the Greek Euthenia, Εὐθηνία. Good state of the body: prosperity, good fortune, abundance.—Herodotus.[6]

The opposite of Euthenia is Penia, Πενία ("deficiency" or "poverty") the personification of poverty and need.[7]


Ellen H. Swallow Richards (1842–1911; Vassar Class of '70) was one of the first writers to use the term, in The Cost of Shelter (1905), with the meaning "the science of better living".[2][8] It is unclear if (and probably unlikely that) any of the study programs of euthenics ever completely embraced Richards multidisciplinary concept, though several nuances remain today, especially that of interdisciplinarity.

Vassar College Institute of Euthenics

Julia Clifford Lathrop as the first chief of the U.S. Children's Bureau.

After Richards' death in 1911, Julia Lathrop (1858–1932; VC '80) - one of Vassar's most distinguished alumnae - continued to promote the development of an interdisciplinary program in euthenics at the college. Lathrop soon teamed with alumna Minnie Cumnock Blodgett (1862-1931; VC '84), who with her husband, John Wood Blodgett, offered financial support to create a program of euthenics at Vassar College. Curriculum planning, suggested by Vassar president Henry Noble MacCracken in 1922, began in earnest by 1923, under the direction of Professor Annie Louise Macleod (Chemistry; First woman PhD, McGill University, 1910).[9]

According to Vassar's chronology entry for March 17, 1924, "the faculty recognized euthenics as a satisfactory field for sequential study (major). A Division of Euthenics was authorized to offer a multidisciplinary program [radical at the time] focusing the techniques and disciplines of the arts, sciences and social sciences on the life experiences and relationships of women. Students in euthenics could take courses in horticulture, food chemistry, sociology and statistics, education, child study, economics, economic geography, physiology, hygiene, public health, psychology and domestic architecture and furniture. With the new division came the first major in child study at an American liberal arts college."[10]

For example, a typical major in child study in euthenics includes introductory psychology, laboratory psychology, applied psychology, child study and social psychology in the Department of Psychology; the three courses offered in the Department of Child Study; beginning economics, programs of social reorganization and the family in Economics; and in the Department of Physiology, human physiology, child hygiene, principles of public health.[11]

The Vassar Summer Institute of Euthenics accepted its first students in June 1926. Created to supplement the controversial euthenics major which began February 21, 1925, it was also located in the new Minnie Cumnock Blodgett Hall of Euthenics (York & Sawyer, architects; ground broke October 25, 1925). Some Vassar faculty members (perhaps emotionally upset with being displaced on campus to make way, or otherwise politically motivated) contentiously "believed the entire concept of euthenics was vague and counter-productive to women's progress."[12]

Having overcome a lukewarm reception, Vassar College officially opened its Minnie Cumnock Blodgett Hall of Euthenics in 1929.[9] Dr. Ruth Wheeler (Physiology and Nutrition - VC '99) took over as director of euthenics studies in 1924. Wheeler remained director until Mary Shattuck Fisher Langmuir (VC '20) succeeded her in 1944, until 1951.[12]

The college continued for the 1934-35 academic year its successful cooperative housing experiment in three residence halls. Intended to help students meet their college costs by working in their residences. For example, in Main, students earned $40 a year by doing relatively light work such as cleaning their rooms.[13]

In 1951, Katharine Blodgett Hadley (VC '20) donated $400,000, through the Rubicon Foundation, to Vassar to help fund operating deficits in the current and succeeding years and to improve faculty salaries.[14]

"Discontinued for financial reasons, the Vassar Summer Institute for Family and Community Living, founded in 1926 as the Vassar Summer Institute of Euthenics, held its last session, July 2, 1958. This was the first and last session for the institute’s new director, Dr. Mervin Freedman."[15]

Elmira College

Elmira College is noted as the oldest college still in existence which (as a college for women) granted degrees to women which were the equivalent of those given to men (the first to do so was the now-defunct Mary Sharp College).[16] Elmira College became coeducational in all of its programs in 1969.

A special article was written in the December 12, 1937 New York Times, quoting recent graduates of Elmira College, urging for courses in colleges for men on the care of children. Reporting that "preparation for the greatest of all professions, that of motherhood and child-training, is being given the students at Elmira College in the Nursery School which is Conducted as part of the Department of Euthenics."[17]

Elmira College was one of the first of the liberal arts colleges to recognize the fact that women should have some special training, integrated with the so-called liberal studies, which would prepare them to carry on, with less effort and fewer mistakes, a successful family life. Courses in nutrition, household economics, clothing selection, principles of foods and meal planning, child psychology, and education in family relations are a part of the curriculum.[17]

The Elmira College nursery school for fifteen children between the ages of two and five years was opened primarily as a laboratory for college students, but it had become so popular with parents in the community that there was always a long waiting list.[17]

The New York Times article notes how the nursery had become one of the essential laboratories of the college, where recent mothers testified to the value of the training they received while in college. "Today," one graduate said, "when it is often necessary for young women to continue professional work outside the home after marriage, it is important that young fathers, who must share in the actual care and training of the children, should have some knowledge of correct methods."[17]

Euthenics today

Many factors led to the movement never getting the funding it needed to remain relevant, including: vigorous debate about the exact meaning of euthenics, a strong antifeminism movement paralleling even stronger women's rights movements, confusion with the term eugenics, the economic impact of the Great Depression and two world wars. These factors also prevented the discipline from gaining the attention it needed to put together a lasting, vastly multidisciplinary curriculum. Therefore, it split off into separate disciplines. Child Study is one such curriculum.

Martin Heggestad of the Mann Library notes that "Starting around 1920, however, home economists tended to move into other fields, such as nutrition and textiles, that offered more career opportunities, while health issues were dealt with more in the hard sciences and in the professions of nursing and public health. Also, improvements in public sanitation (for example, the wider availability of sewage systems and of food inspection) led to a decline in infectious diseases and thus a decreasing need for the largely household-based measures taught by home economists."[18] Thus, the end of euthenics as originally defined by Ellen Swallow Richards ensued.

Euthenics vs. eugenics

According to Ellen Richards, in her book Euthenics: the science of controllable environment (1910):[6]

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The betterment of living conditions, through conscious endeavor, for the purpose of securing efficient human beings, is what the author means by Euthenics.

“Human vitality depends upon two primary conditions—heredity and hygiene—or conditions preceding birth and conditions during life.”

Eugenics deals with race improvement through heredity.

Euthenics deals with race improvement through environment.

Eugenics is hygiene for the future generations.

Euthenics is hygiene for the present generation.

Eugenics must await careful investigation.

Euthenics has immediate opportunity.

Euthenics precedes eugenics, developing better men now, and thus inevitably creating a better race of men in the future. Euthenics is the term proposed for the preliminary science on which Eugenics must be based.

Debate, misconceptions and opposition

Abraham Flexner, c. 1895.

Debate over misconceptions about the movement started almost from the beginning. In his comparison "Eugenics, Euthenics, And Eudemics", (American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 18, No. 6, May 1913), Lester F. Ward of Brown University opens the second section regarding euthenics lamenting:

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Is there, then, nothing to do? Are we to accept that modem scientific fatalism known as laissez faire, which enjoins the folding of the arms? Are we to preach a gospel of inaction? I for one certainly am not content to do so, and I believe that nothing I have thus far said [about eugenics] is inconsistent with the most vigorous action, and that in the direction of the betterment of the human race. The end and aim of the eugenists cannot be reproached. The race is far from perfect. Its condition is deplorable. Its improvement is entirely feasible, and in the highest degree desirable. Nor do I refer merely to economic conditions, to the poverty and misery of the disinherited classes. The intellectual state of the world is deplorable, and its improvement is clearly within the reach of society itself. It is therefore a question of method rather than of principle that concerns us.

Ward later noted about the organic environment that:

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Darwin has taught us that the chief barrier to the advance of any species of plants or animals is its competition with other plants and animals that contest the same ground. And therefore the fiercest opponents of any species are the members of the same species which demand the same elements of subsistence. Hence the chief form of relief in the organic world consists in the thinning-out of competitors. Any species of animals or plants left free to propagate at its normal rate would overrun the earth in a short time and leave no room for any other species. Any species that is sufficiently vigorous to resist its organic environment will crowd out all others and monopolize the earth. If nature permitted this there could be no variety, but only one monotonous aspect devoid of interest or beauty. Whatever we may think of the harsh method by which this is prevented, we cannot regret that it is prevented, and that we have a world of variety, interest, and aesthetic attractiveness.

Vassar historians note that "critics faulted the new program as a weakening of science and a slide into vocationalism. The influential educator and historian of education, Abraham Flexner—one of the founders of the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study—attacked the program, along with other “ad hoc” innovations like intercollegiate athletics and student governments, in Universities, American, English, German (1930)."[10]<templatestyles src="Template:Blockquote/styles.css" />

"Well, what is euthenics? Euthenics is the ‘science of efficient living;’ and the ‘science’ is artificially pieced together of bits of mental hygiene, child guidance, nutrition, speech development and correction, family problems, wealth consumption, food preparation, household technology, and horticulture…. The institute is actually justified in an official publication by the profound question of a girl student who is reported as asking, ‘What is the connection of Shakespeare with having a baby?’ The Vassar Institute of Euthenics bridges this gap!"

In the summer of 1926, Margaret Sanger created a stir when she gave a radio address, called "Racial Betterment", in the first Euthenics Institute, where she praised attempts to "close our gates to the so-called 'undesirables'" and proposed efforts to "discourage or cut down on the rapid multiplication of the unfit and undesirable at home", by government-subsidized voluntary sterilization. (from The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, vol. 1 (2003), Esther Katz, ed.)

Eugenicist, Charles Benedict Davenport, noted in his article "Euthenics and Eugenics," found reprinted in the Popular Science Monthly of January 1911, page 18, 20:[19]

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Thus the two schools of euthenics and eugenics stand opposed, each viewing the other unkindly. Against eugenics it is urged that it is a fatalistic doctrine and deprives life of the stimulus toward effort. Against euthenics the other side urges that it demands an endless amount of money to patch up conditions in the vain effort to get greater efficiency. Which of the two doctrines is true?

The thoughtful mind must concede that, as is so often the case where doctrines are opposed, each view is partial, incomplete and really false. The truth does not exactly lie between the doctrines; it comprehends them both. What a child becomes is always the resultant of two sets of forces acting from the moment the fertilized egg begins its development—one is the set of internal tendencies and the other is the set of external influences. What the result of an external influence—a particular environmental condition—shall be depends only in part upon the nature of the influence; it depends also upon the internal nature of the reacting protoplasm.

Incest, cousin marriage, the marriage of defectives and tuberculous persons, are, in wide circles, taboo. This fact affords the basis for the hope that, when the method of securing strong offspring, even from partially defective stock—and where is the strain without any defect?—is widely known, the teachings of science in respect even to marriage matings will be widely regarded and that in the generations to come the teachings and practice of euthenics will yield grater result because of the previous practice of the principles of eugenics.

In a New York Times op-ed dated October 24, 1926, entitled "Eugenics and euthenics,"[4] in response to an op-ed entitled "Bright Children Who Fail"[20] which appeared the previous October 15, student of child psychology, Joseph A. Krisses observes:

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From intensive study we realize the importance of eugenics—the right of birth, and also the subject of euthenics—the right to environment. Too little credit is given to environment when we speak of children having hereditary traits as "Like father, like son," or "Chip off the old block." Such phrases have their origin from the study of eugenics. No one has ever taken an Edwards baby and reared it in a Jukes environment.


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"Not through chance, but through increase of scientific knowledge; not through compulsion, but through democratic idealism consciously working through common interests, will be brought about the creation of right conditions, the control of the environment." (Ellen H. Swallow Richards)[6]

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"Right living conditions comprise pure food and a safe water supply, a clean and disease free atmosphere in which to live and work, proper shelter and adjustment of work, rest, and amusements." (Ellen H. Swallow Richards)[2][6]

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"Probably not more than twenty-five percent in any community are capable of doing a full days work such as they would be capable of doing if they were in perfect health" (Ellen H. Swallow Richards)[2][6]

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"Men ignore nature's laws in their personal lives. They crave a larger measure of goodness and happiness, and yet in their choice of dwelling places, in their building of houses to live in, in their selection of food and drink, in their clothing of their bodies, in their choice of occupations and amusements, in their methods and habits of work, they disregard natural laws and impose upon themselves conditions that make their ideals of goodness and happiness impossible of attainment." (George E. Dawson, The control of life through Environment)[2][6]

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"It is within the power of every living man to rid himself of every parasitic disease." (Louis Pasteur)[2][6]

See also

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  18. HEARTH Library-Cornell University
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Further reading

Chronologically listed

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External links