A Science Odyssey
People and Discoveries

Charles Davenport
1866 - 1944

The Brooklyn Heights home where Charles Davenport and his ten siblings grew up was dominated by his strict, puritanical father. Before the Civil War, his father had been an abolitionist and an elder in the Congregational church. A former teacher, he had found financial success in real estate and insurance and was a zealous temperance promoter. Charles was his office-boy and was educated at home until he was 13 years old. Charles' mother, by contrast, was affectionate, easy-going, and self-confident. Still, young Davenport's early life was not filled with childhood games and pranks, but with work, study, and religion.

At school, Davenport took an interest in natural science and engineering. He went to Harvard after working for nine months as a surveyor according to his father's wishes. In 1892, he received his PhD in biology and in 1894, married Gertrude Crotty, a graduate student in zoology. She was very ambitious, encouraging Davenport's career and helping him with research.

In 1904, he became director of a biological research station at Cold Spring Harbor, New York. The 1866 work of Gregor Mendel had recently been unearthed, and a scientists sought a quantitative study of evolution. Overall, the research done in Davenport's labs added to basic knowledge of genetic variation, hybridization, and natural selection.

But Davenport wanted to know about human evolution. Since experiments with humans were out of the question, he began a long term project of collecting family histories from as many people as he could, as far back as they could remember. He believed that by studying these family records, he could trace traits through generations and determine a mathematical way to predict the occurance of certain traits. These traits could be anything from hemophilia to having six fingers to being a criminal or being "feebleminded." He felt nationality was closely linked to the distribution of such traits as well, with people of different countries being biologically different from one another. These data were at the heart of his lifelong promotion of eugenics.

He settled in Cold Spring Harbor with his family and became very active in local affairs. He kept stern control of his laboratory and the lives of his assistants. Although he hired both male and female researchers, he frowned on too much fraternization between them. Like his father, he was demanding and suspicious, impatient with a lack of seriousness. Yet in his scientific work he bounced from topic to topic, only shallowly investigating one thing before setting off on something else. His passion for eugenics blinded him to the fact that it muddled science with social philosophy. His passion also blinded others to this fact.

"The idea of a 'melting pot' belongs to a pre-Mendelian age. Now we recognize that characters are inherited as units and do not readily break up."

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