The Nobel announcements always get people buzzing here at CSHL. This week was particularly exciting because Carol Greider, one of the Physiology or Medicine winners, graced the Lab campus for some years. As another example of science leaked into the mainstream, I learned about a NOVA dramatization on Charles Darwin, as well as a theatrical movie that initially didn’t make it to the US due to its controversial inclusion of the creationism debate.

As someone who only has one foot in this science world, I’ve wondered how those outside it look on at the celebrations and science story telling. Do they see a connection to their lives, or just presume that it doesn’t relate to them? Maybe one of the televised award shows – Academy Awards, Tonys, Emmys, Grammys – is easier to fold into one’s life. Perhaps “I saw that movie, love that song, or watch that show” is more commonplace than “My chromosomes are protected by telomerase”?

I recalled some images in the Eugenics Archive, so there I went, and searched “Darwin” and “Nobel.”

Charles Darwin Signatures

Charles Darwin Signatures

You may know that Darwin’s first cousin, Francis Galton, is the “Father of Eugenics,” and originally coined the term eugenics, defined as “well-born.” In the Archive, I rediscovered Galton’s will, written when he was eight, in which he left Darwin all of his parchment. Maybe young Galton anticipated a groundbreaking publication was in his cousin’s future. Also in the archive is a pair of Darwin “autographs” provided by Emma Darwin.

The “Nobel” search only returned one surprising document. It was a letter written by Harry Laughlin nominating the American Father of Eugenics, Charles Davenport, for a Nobel Prize in Medicine at the end of 1936. He argued, “Doctor Davenport has already received many of the highest honors for basic discoveries in biology. The one remaining honor to which he is undoubtedly entitled for his discoveries, particularly in the application of the rules of organic evolution to human kind, is the Nobel Prize in Medicine.” He went on, “Sir Francis Galton and Doctor Davenport are co-founders of eugenics as a biological and a medical science.” At that time, interest and support for eugenics in America was quickly fading, but Hitler was fully implementing race hygiene strategies. By 1939, the Eugenics Record Office was permanently shut down and Hitler had sterilized 400,000 feebleminded, mentally ill, epileptic, and alcoholic people.

I handled and photographed each and every one of the 2,400+ items in the Archive. The feelings these documents evoked then and now illustrate that science has had a huge impact on me. Laughlin’s misdirected letter was chilling, but when I photographed Darwin’s signatures, I felt a little like a rock-star groupie and jumped in both feet first with the thrill. Rock on Laureates!

In addition to exploring the Archive, visit the Chronicle section in our DNA Interactive site: