Good Blood, Bad Blood is a landmark publication in the history of the treatment of people with disabilities in this country. Written in a compelling narrative style, it tells the story of the impact of the American eugenics movement – the pseudoscience that claimed to improve “racial hygiene” through selective human breeding that excluded people perceived as “feeble-minded” or defective in some other way – through the lens of a notorious and false eugenic narrative, The Kallikak Family, published in 1912 by the psychologist Henry Herbert Goddard. That book, focused on the life of a woman institutionalized as a child for allegedly being feeble-minded, was purported to be a natural experiment proving that feeblemindedness and degeneracy were exclusively the result of “bad” heredity. Good Blood, Bad Blood tells the true story of the impact on the woman in Goddard’s book, who had been given the pseudonym Deborah Kallikak, and who became the poster child for the cultural fear generated by American eugenicists, such as Charles Benedict Davenport. They, in turn, provided the Nazi regime with the “evidence” to take the eugenic horror to its ultimate conclusion.
Smith and Wehmeyer follow the development and increasing influence of the ideas of the eugenics movement, concurrent with Goddard’s rise in the new field of intelligence testing. The theories of other scientists at the time, including the “born criminal” assumptions of Cesare Lombroso and others, are also woven into the events surrounding the eugenics movement and the misuse and misinterpretation of the primitive intelligence tests in use at the time. Smith and Wehmeyer follow these movements throughout the 20th century, including the sterilization of people with intellectual disability, which continued nearly to the present. They end this history with the real story of the woman called Deborah Kallikak, whose real name was Emma Wolverton, and who lived in an institution until her death in 1978 at the age of 89. Although she was institutionalized, she was literate, well-read, worked in a variety of jobs, and had many interests and friends.
In looking at these events over the span of a century, Smith and Wehmeyer point out the dangers of naive attribution of causality to any single event, circumstance, or factor -- for example, explanations of human behavior as exclusively caused by nature or nurture. Combined with this were the multiple contexts of the time, including the emergence of psychology as a discipline and societal fears and cultural stereotypes concerning immigrants, immigration, women, people with disabilities, and the poor.