Theodore M. Porter


On his book Genetics in the Madhouse: The Unknown History of Human Heredity

Cover Interview of June 18, 2018


The madman (or woman) in a performance is usually there for comic effect, but the actual experience of madness is dismayingly tragic. Many of my characters, especially in the early 1800s, envisioned that the insane could be cured and the disease practically eliminated. The association of insanity with a science of heredity implied a loss of faith in cures and, simultaneously, a dream that the regulation of human reproduction might provide a solution of a different sort. Modern historians have debated whether the true origins of human genetics were bound up with eugenic tools and ambitions. My “unknown history,” of “genetics in the madhouse” aspires to show that eugenic ambitions were present, so to speak, in the very DNA of human genetics. Here I use ironically a locution that I generally prefer to avoid.

I regard the subject matter of this book as a formative phase in a long history of genetic overreach. The faith that mental disabilities could be relieved most effectivity by restricting reproduction, already prominent in the nineteenth century, was greatly strengthened after 1900, when the late recognition of Gregor Mendel’s long-ignored work inspired extraordinary anticipations of eugenic triumph over mental defect. I do not claim any competence to anticipate what might be possible in the future, but we should at least be realistic about the past and present. The Human Genome Initiative, for example, presented a vision of critical discoveries arising from laboratory research supported by massive computer power. The data work of madhouse doctors, though tending also to overreach, at least acknowledged their dependence on data and insights from mundane human institutions such as hospitals, schools, prisons, and state surveys.

Human genetics did not spring from the flowing curves of DNA like Athena from the head of Zeus, but had its start amidst the stench, the moans, and the punishing remedies of medical-bureaucratic institutions for the treatment and confinement of the mad. Genetics continues to rely on data and tissues taken from such people. It has proved far from straightforward to do much to relieve their suffering.