Accepted paper:

The "Inheritance Coefficient:" Harry Laughlin and the Eugenics Record Office's Obsession with Thoroughbred Horses


Brian Tyrrell (University of California, Santa Barbara)

Paper short abstract:

Harry Laughlin, the superintendent of the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) at Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, USA, developed a mathematical model of inheritance in the 1930s. Calling his model the "inheritance coefficient," Laughlin used thoroughbred horse pedigrees and race results as his data.

Paper long abstract:

The Eugenics Record Office (ERO) at Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island opened in 1910 with a major gift from Mary Harriman, the widow of railroad tycoon E.H. Harriman. The Harrimans, like many members of the US upper class, devoted considerable time to breeding and racing thoroughbred horses. Coinciding with an increase in immigration and the rediscovery of Mendelian genetics, the idea that careful breeding of thoroughbreds would result in improved horses resonated with Americans worried about racial degeneration. But the interest in thoroughbred horses was not limited to the benefactors of the ERO. In the 1900s scientists moved their gaze from the laboratory to the breeding farm to understand the mechanics of heredity. Thoroughbred breeders maintained extensive pedigrees for their animals, and scientists committed to racial ideologies used this data to advance their cause. Harry H. Laughlin, the superintendent of research at the Eugenics Record Office developed a mathematical model of inheritance based on a thorough reading of thoroughbred breeding charts and race results. Laughlin labeled his finding the "inheritance coefficient," and he believed thoroughbreds provided a fruitful line of research to develop breeding rules to apply to humans. Laughlin's research legitimized knowledge gained on the breeding farm, and horse racing's popularity helped diffuse his ideas. This paper analyzes the role of thoroughbred breeding and racing in the formation and popularization of racial ideology by situating breeding farms as sites of knowledge production and racecourses as places that exhibited performances of racial science for large audiences.

panel T047
The field and the farm in the production of biomedical knowledge