Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and the Place of Science in U.S. History 

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Eugenics Record Office, interior with workers, circa 1921. Three women sit at desks surrounded by filing cabinets and books.
Eugenics Record Office, interior with workers, c. 1921 

Courtesy of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Eugenics Archive 

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) is a scientific research facility located on Long Island, New York. Listed as a national historic district in 1994, CSHL remains open as a private non-profit educational organization. Scientists there have achieved Nobel Prize-winning breakthroughs in medicine and genetics. However, CSHL's story also includes one of the darkest chapters in the history of science: the eugenics movement.

Between 1910 and 1939, the laboratory hosted the Eugenics Record Office (ERO). The ERO's leaders aimed to prove that some racial groups were superior to others. They conducted hundreds of studies based on false claims and research. The studies were not only deeply flawed but were also rooted in racist assumptions and prejudices. Nevertheless, they proved to be influential. ERO staff used them to support their policy goals. They sought to restrict immigration based on race. They also urged the government to sterilize people it deemed "unfit" to have children. Today, this research is now thoroughly discredited. Yet the bad science produced by the ERO harmed some of the most vulnerable people living in the United States.  

As an agency committed to scientific inquiry, the National Park Service honors the achievement of scientists and researchers. Yet the NPS also acknowledges the difficult histories embedded in historical places and events associated with its own history. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory represents both present-day innovation and historic injustice in the field of science. This brief article examines the role of US science and politics in perpetuating bias, racism, and xenophobia in the early twentieth century. [1]

The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Historic District includes the campuses of three scientific research facilities: the Cold Spring Harbor Fish Hatchery, the Biological Laboratory, and the Station for Experimental Study of Evolution (SEE). The facilities shared a waterside campus on Cold Spring Harbor, just west of New York City on Long Island. The hatchery, founded around 1880, remains an independent institution. The Biological Laboratory was established in 1890 and was one of the earliest independent centers for biology research in the United States. In 1904, Charles Benedict Davenport established SEE to conduct research in genetics and heredity. Scientists there focused on studying the evolution of plants and animals. In 1910, SEE established a new office on the campus, the Eugenics Record Office (ERO). The ERO applied flawed research methods to the study of heredity in human beings. 

The ERO provided institutional support and prestige for eugenics. Davenport secured grants from the prominent Carnegie Institution of Washington. The philanthropist Mary Williamson Harriman also helped to fund the institution. [2] In 1910, Davenport hired a young biology teacher from Iowa named Harry Laughlin to serve as his deputy. According to historians, Davenport and Laughlin held rigid worldviews and an unshakeable belief that eugenics was the key to solving social problems.  

Davenport and Laughlin convened high-profile supporters of the movement, including Stanford president David Starr Jordan; inventor Andrew Graham Bell; and conservationist Madison Grant. Grant, an important figure in the early history of the National Park Service, was a close ally of Laughlin and the ERO. 

The ERO and the Pseudoscience of Eugenics  
Davenport and Laughlin studied how physical traits like eye color and hair type were passed down over generations. They believed that they could identify people and families that showed traits like "criminality," "feeblemindedness," or "rebelliousness." Their mistaken ideas convinced them that, with enough data, lawmakers could solve social problems by eliminating “bad genes” from the US population. Davenport, Laughlin, and other eugenicists claimed that their research was objective. But it was rooted in prejudices against people of color and people with disabilities.  

The office trained fieldworkers nationwide to track supposed patterns in families. Workers visited psychiatric hospitals and immigration entry stations. The ERO claimed its methods were scientific. In reality, they were deeply flawed.

Despite these problems, the ERO was well-known and respected by many researchers and politicians. In 1921, it was merged with SEE into the prestigious Carnegie Institution's new Department of Genetics. With this merger, ERO staff hoped to control and predict human evolution.   

The ERO and Eugenics Policy  

The Eugenics Record Office was not only a center of research. Its leaders, especially Laughlin, also successfully shaped matters of law. Laughlin befriended members of Congress who were sympathetic to his views. One of them was Representative Albert Johnson, a Republican from Washington State. Johnson openly shared his racist and anti-Semitic beliefs, and he earned the support of the Ku Klux Klan.    

In the early 1920s, Johnson led efforts to draft a new law that would limit immigration to the US. He invited Laughlin to present his eugenics “research” to Congress. Using ERO data, Laughlin argued that immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe were of bad genetic stock. He warned that allowing immigration from these regions would lead to “race-mixing” with white Americans. Laughlin defined white Americans as descendants of Anglo-Saxons and western Europeans. This race-mixing, he argued, would weaken the future of the nation.  

These conclusions were based on flawed science and beliefs. Hatred and fear toward Jews and non-white people motivated Laughlin. But he presented them as legitimate science. Further, they emerged from a respected research institution. Funding from the Carnegie Institution and Laughlin's ties to leaders at major universities increased his prestige. The findings made a deep impression on the committee members as well as the public. The resulting law, the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, used Laughlin’s work as its foundation. It set strict quotas based on national origin. The quotas effectively slammed shut the fabled “golden door” of American immigration.   

Laughlin also campaigned for sterilization laws. Sterilization refers to the removal of a person’s ability to have children. For Laughlin and other eugenicists, it was not enough to bar “inferior” groups of people from entering the country. Laughlin argued that the nation’s health needed laws that kept “unfit” people from having children. Laughlin drafted a model law for states to implement forced sterilization. Eighteen states adopted and used it to prevent people from having children. Most of these people had disabilities or were deemed “criminals.” One of the people sterilized under the new law in Virginia was a young woman named Carrie Buck. Her challenge to the law resulted in the Supreme Court decision Buck v. Bell (1927), which upheld forced sterilization.  

Aftermath and Legacy   

In the late 1920s, scientists began to reject eugenics. Geneticists publicly questioned the ERO’s “research.” These scientists pointed out the flawed research behind eugenic claims. The eugenics claims were exaggerated. They lacked proof. The theories behind them did not stand up to scrutiny. The ERO, scientists argued, did not use quality data, and their findings were subjective. In other words, their research was invalid.   

In the 1930s, the Carnegie Institution convened outside experts to evaluate the ERO. Its members agreed that the ERO research was “unsatisfactory” and “futile.” By that time, the ERO defined traits like “self-respect” and “holding a grudge” as measurable. Despite lack of proof, they argued these traits were inherited. The committee recommended that the ERO stop mixing research with propaganda and politics.  

Laughlin rejected the committee’s findings. Yet his support of the “race hygiene movement” in Germany’s Nazi party was undeniable. The Nazi party, which came to power in 1933, drew on American eugenic propaganda. Laughlin also wrote for German eugenics journals. Shortly after, it came to light that American eugenic research inspired the Nazis. The rising tide of eugenics research in the US quickly dissipated—at least publicly. The Eugenics Record Office closed in 1939.    

The Carnegie Institution's Department of Genetics formally merged with the Biological Laboratory in 1962, taking on the new name Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. The CSHL remains open and conducts accredited and verifiable research on life sciences. CSHL maintains and shares the records of the ERO to expose the dark history of eugenics and acknowledge the institution's role in it. 
This article was researched and written by Ella Wagner, PhD, consulting historian in the NPS Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education, and Perri Meldon, fellow in the NPS Park History Program. 

[1] For a sampling on the histories of science, eugenics, and racial bias, read Evelynn Hammonds, Dorothy Roberts, Stephen Jay Gould, Angela Saini, and Rebecca Herzig. See also Madison Grant (U.S. National Park Service) (

[2] The Administration Building of the Carnegie Institution of Washington was designated a National Historic Landmark for architecture, engineering, science, and social/humanitarian areas of significance on June 23, 1965 and added to the National Register of Historic Places on Oct 15, 1966.  The Administration building housed the Carnegie In­sti­tu­tion for Sci­ence, a phil­an­thropic sci­en­tific re­search or­ga­ni­za­tion founded in 1902 by An­drew Carnegie.


ERO Finding Aid -;query=eugenics%20records%20office;brand=default/    

Eugenics Archive -   

Garland, Allen E. “The Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, 1910-1940: an Essay in Institutional History.” Osiris 2 (1986): 225–64.   

Minna Stern, Alexandra. “Forced Sterilization Policies in the US targed minorities and those with disabilities—and lasted into the 21st century.” IHPI News, University of Michigan (September 23, 2020).   

Last updated: May 9, 2023