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Romanian eugenics and its international context

July 22, 2010

By Marius Turda and Tudor Georgescu

The legacy of 20th-century eugenics has propelled fresh research into a myriad of international ideological movements, professional networks and population policies. As a result, scholars now know a great deal about the relationships between British, US, German and Scandinavian eugenic movements – and the international networks that linked many of their protagonists.

We have also gained considerable insights into attempts by European (Italian, French and Spanish) and South American eugenicists to create a ‘Latin’ brand of eugenics. Although recent scholarship has focused increasingly on case studies outside of western Europe, and their relationships with the established ones, little attention has yet been paid to how Romanian eugenicists engaged with the animated international discussion and proliferation of eugenics themes and methodologies.

With a 12-month research grant from the Wellcome Trust, this pilot project on Romanian eugenics in its international context investigated the influences of both local and international agents on how and why Romanian eugenics emerged and evolved between 1918 and 1944. To approach this in its international context invites us to examine how eugenic ideas were mobilised, and how scientific networks aided their dissemination into eastern Europe. While state institutions certainly played a key role in the development of eugenic projects and often take centre stage in research projects, they do so at the expense of investigations into the significance of outstanding individuals, intellectuals, professionals and social agencies.

Interwar Romania offers a particularly rewarding case study owing to, among other things, its numerous and increasingly aggressive nation-building projects aiming to incorporate new territories after World War I that had created ‘Greater Romania’, the profound socio-cultural and economic differences between these various new regions, as well as an internationally networked elite in search of national roots. Reconstructing this institutional network linking the local, the regional, the national and the international is central to understanding how eugenic ideas travelled between the national and international stages, and how they were ultimately adopted or rejected. In doing so, this pilot project mapped the diversity of participants involved in national debates on health and hygiene, ranging from state institutions, churches and ethnic minorities to the general public in newspapers and local health initiatives in the regional capitals of Romania (Cluj, Chişinău, Craiova and Iaşi).

Exploring these contexts meant exploring archives that had until recently been inaccessible, and locating new holdings (commonly considered destroyed). So far, we have been working with a number of hitherto-unknown sources discovered in the archives of the Ministry of Health, the Securitate (secret police), the Institute of Hygiene, the Institute of Legal Medicine and the Romanian Academy of Sciences.

Our preliminary results point to the existence of a vibrant eugenic movement and culture in Romania between 1918 and 1944, embodied by a host of eugenics societies and organisations, including: the Eugenics and Biopolitical Section of the ‘Astra’ Association in Cluj, established by the physician Iuliu Moldovan in 1927; the Anthropological and Demographic Section of the Romanian Social Institute, established by the demographer Sabin Manuilă in 1935; and the Romanian Royal Society of Eugenics and Heredity, established in 1935 by the neurologist Gheorghe Marinescu. In 1939 these societies formed the Union of the Eugenics Societies in Romania under the presidency of the neuropsychiatrist Constantin Parhon, at the time also president of the International Latin Federation of Eugenics Societies. During the 1940s there was also a Bio-Anthropological Section of the Central Institute of Statistics directed by the racial anthropologist Iordache Făcăoaru and a Section on Eugenics, Protection of Mothers and Infants of the Romanian Academy of Medicine (members included the eugenicists Gheorghe Banu and Făcăoaru and the anthropologist Francisc Rainer). Moreover, we have discovered that the Royal Society of Eugenics had two sections in the provinces: one in Craiova, in the region of Oltenia in western Wallachia (president Ion Vasilescu-Bucium) and the other in Chişinău (president I Lepşi). Like Cluj, Chişinău became part of Romania in 1918.

Considering the broad range of eugenic movements in Romania between 1918 and 1944, it soon becomes apparent that eugenics was an intrinsic part of a broad spectrum of new nation-building agendas, ranging from public health and social welfare to racial research. Eugenics, moreover, widely served as a vehicle for transmitting medical, social and cultural messages, reflecting modernity’s relationship with state-sponsored policy initiatives. Sometimes these initiatives transcended political differences or served opposing ideological camps. Romanian eugenicists classified and utilised national identities in a political climate where different biological and cultural definitions of the nation competed for legitimacy.

A more nuanced historical and critical approach is needed to study eugenics from a local and regional perspective. Histories of western and eastern European eugenics must be explored together in order to retrace the experience of eugenics between regions and states as well as within multi-ethnic boundaries. The reinterpretation of the eugenic experiences in Romania is a fine example of how the history of eugenics can be comprehensively investigated and contextualised as the transnational phenomenon it undoubtedly was.

Dr Marius Turda is Deputy Director of the Centre for Health, Medicine and Society at Oxford Brookes University. Dr Tudor Georgescu is research assistant for the ‘Romanian Eugenics and its International Dimension, 1918–1944’ project.

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