Alexandra Minna Stern, Ph.D. is Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, American Culture, and History at the University of Michigan. She is a Researcher in the Program on Sexual Rights and Reproductive Justice and a core faculty member in Latina/o Studies. Her research has focused on the uses and misuses of genetics in the United States and Latin America. She is the author of Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America (University of California Press, 2005), which won the American Public Health Association’s Arthur Viseltear Award for outstanding contribution to the history of public health. Her latest book Telling Genes: The Story of Genetic Counseling in America was published by the Johns Hopkins University Press in 2012. She has held numerous grants for her work in medical history and health policy, including from the National Endowment for the Humanities, National Institutes of Health, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
My research has centered on the intersections of science, medicine, and society, with temporal focus on the nineteenth century to today, and regional concentration on the Americas, above all the United States and Mexico. I was trained as a social historian and historian of science and medicine at the University of Chicago where I acquired foundational skills in archival research, historical narrative reconstruction, and critical analysis. Over the course of my career, I have built upon these core methods to incorporate a variety of qualitative and quantitative skill sets into my research portfolio. Thus, my current research approach and agenda are interdisciplinary with a steady anchor in social history and the history of science and medicine.
My research projects, both individual and collaborative, have been supported by a wide range of external funders, including but not limited to the National Endowment for the Humanities (Faculty Fellowship and Digital Preservation and Access Grant), the National Institutes of Health (Publication Grant and Ethical, Legal, and Social Dimensions of the Human Genome Project Grant), the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (Health Policy Investigators Award), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A large portion of my research has focused on the history of eugenics and genetics in the United States. My first book, Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America (University of California Press, 2005) examines the development of eugenics -- theories and practices of better breeding -- in the United States, with sustained attention to the American West, particularly California. This book contributes to the growing literature on eugenics, and its nuanced expressions, across the globe and makes two significant interventions: 1) it is the first monograph to explore in detail the emergence of eugenics in California, which was intertwined with other social formations including scientific racism, forced sterilization in state institutions, and the early environmental movement; and 2) Eugenic Nation challenges the conventional wisdom that eugenics ended by the mid-1940s during the aftermath of World War II. Instead, I show how eugenic laws and practices, including immigration restriction and forced sterilization, continued into the 1960s until seismic social changes including the civil rights and women’s movements dismantled decades-long eugenics laws and organizations.
For this book, I conducted research in a wide range of historical archives across the United States and contacted organizations and individuals who were kind enough to share personal or uncatalogued collections with me. Eugenic Nation draws from the Ph.D. dissertation I completed at the University of Chicago that compared eugenics in Mexico and the United States, but concentrates regionally on the American West and the U.S. side of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. I published the portions of my dissertation focused on Mexico in English and Spanish in historical and public health journals in the United States, Mexico, and Argentina. The research for these publications, conducted in archives in Mexico City and Veracruz, demonstrates that eugenics in Mexico revolved not around principles of racial exclusion but rather around the concept of "cosmic race.” However, this scholarship also shows how hereditarian ideas of population improvement insinuated themselves into educational programs, maternal and infant care, and state instruments such as the census.
My interest in understanding the relationship between eugenics and genetics undergirds my second monograph, Telling Genes: The Story of Genetic Counseling in America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012). This book explores the emergence of the field of genetic counseling out of the eugenics movements of the mid-century and its transformation in the 1970s into an allied health profession informed by contemporary tenets of bioethics and patients' rights. Highlighting salient topics such as race, genetic risk, disability, and prenatal testing, Telling Genes demonstrates the centrality of medical genetics and genetic theories of disease and difference to understanding the intersecting experiences and meanings of family, identity, and the normal body in twentieth-century America. This book also shows why knowledge of the past, including the ugly dimension of eugenic biases, is relevant to genetic counseling today.
For Telling Genes, I carried out research in archives across the United States, and conducted 46 oral history interviews with leading genetic counselors, medical geneticists, and other key figures. One of my aims in this book was to interweave these voices into the narrative to emphasize that this is a living and evolving history with relevance for Americans whose lives have been influenced in profound and subtle ways by genetic testing and human genomics. In a related vein, I sought to include the experiences of patients seen at genetic counseling and prenatal clinics; to do so required receiving IRB approval to consult medical files according to HIPAA and confidentiality guidelines.
In addition to my two monographs, I have engaged in a variety of research projects as a sole investigator and in collaboration with colleagues in and outside of the University of Michigan. Much of this work has had an impact on health policy and public scholarship.
Most prominently, I have produced original research on eugenics in Indiana, the first state in the country (and the world) to pass a eugenic sterilization law in 1907. While I was completing Eugenic Nation I became very interested in exploring the "softer" side of eugenics, specifically the Better Babies contests that were immensely popular in the United States in the early twentieth century. Initial contacts with archives in the Midwest, where such contests were held at country and state fairs, yielded several boxes of untapped materials at the Indiana State Archives. Delving into these files, I was able to reconstruct the history of the Better Babies Contests that took place at the Indiana State Fair from 1920 to 1932 and analyze how these events combined public health, eugenics, and maternal and infant care in significant ways.
Interest in this research from colleagues in Indiana eventually resulted in my collaboration in a project that revolved around the centennial of Indiana's 1907 sterilization law. As part of this project, I produced several more articles on various aspects of eugenics in Indiana, and guest-edited the publication of three original articles as part of a special journal issue. Most originally, by examining ledgers and patient files (accessed in accordance with the archive’s confidentiality guidelines) I was able to reconstruct patterns and experiences of eugenic sterilization in Indiana’s homes for the “feebleminded” from the 1920s to the 1950s. With assistance from the Center for Statistical Consultation and Research (CSCAR) at the University of Michigan, I conducted basic statistical analysis on a collected dataset of approximately 500 sterilizations in order to ascertain associations among variables such as age, gender, race, and diagnosis. Furthermore, I worked closely with colleagues at the Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis to produce an exhibit, Fit to Breed, which was installed at the State Museum and later transferred to digital format, to organize a one-day symposium, and to coordinate with state legislators to erect a plaque remembering the close to 2,500 people forcibly sterilized in institutions for people with disabilities.
I was involved in a similar, though smaller-scale, project in California that included a research symposium, an exhibit, and the creation of some basic digital materials. Recent interest in the issue of potential monetary reparations for sterilization victims in North Carolina has galvanized a new group of scholars and advocates interested in the history of eugenics in California. I have been at the forefront of this, co-founding the Network to Address California's Eugenics History, with which I have shared ongoing research findings and am developing a proposal for a large-scale digital archive to be created by me and colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley.
In addition to these public scholarship projects focused on eugenics, I have also produced a great deal of research on other areas of public health including pandemic influenza and tropical medicine. Over the course of several years I worked closely with colleagues at the University of Michigan and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to systematically examine the history of the 1918 influenza pandemic in the United States, a project that resulted in numerous articles, that employed both qualitative and quantitative analysis. This research served as the resource for a digital archive funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities "We the People Grant" for which I serve as PI. Employing historical methods in a much more contemporary context, I also served as co-PI on a federally funded project exploring public health responses to the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic in the United States, Mexico, and Argentina, publishing several articles based on this work. Following public health along another avenue, I have also conducted historical research on the history of yellow fever and malaria during the early twentieth-century construction of the Panama Canal, exploring how public health and disease management programs emerged alongside colonialism and racism.
In my first book I explored the misuses of genetic science in the context of the eugenics movement; in my second book, this story became more complicated, as medical genetics became more scientific and explicitly guided by enshrined bioethical principles. For my third book, currently in progress, I am examining genetics through the angles of adoption and identity. My aim is to provide a historical and analytical road map to understand how social identity has become deeply intermeshed with genetics and genomics, whether through the increasing popularity of racial ancestry testing or through the awareness of the genetic bases of a wide array of chronic and common diseases and conditions. Tracing changing practices and values around adoption and non-biological family making will allow me to explore important aspects of the complex relationship between identity and genetics.
This project will situate my own family history of three generations of adoptive families in a global context that reaches from Germany to Guatemala and from Berkeley, California to Buenos Aires, Argentina. I have already conducted one month of research in Argentina, examining how genetics worked in the service of human rights by helping to reunite grandchildren of parents killed during the Dirty War with their extended biological kin. Argentina played a formative role in establishing DNA identification for reunification of families disarticulated by the dictatorship, and provided models for similar programs of forensic genetics in other post-conflict societies. In addition, DNA identification has become a standard safeguard in international adoption and the regulation of child trafficking. I am in the early stages of this new research project, for which I am drafting research proposals and seeking intramural and extramural funding.
In addition, I am very interested in combining historical research with digital humanities, as demonstrated by my leading role in the creation of digital open-source archives related to the history of public health and eugenics. I will continue to pursue this dimension of my research, primarily through the proposed collaborative digital archive on eugenics in California. Working with colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley and the non-profit Center for Genetics and Society, I intend to apply to one of the NEH digital preservation grants to support this project.
Selected, 2010 to present
Stern, A.M.: Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).
Stern, A.M.: Telling Genes: The Story of Genetic Counseling in America (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).
Stern, A.M, Markel, H., Cetron, M.S.: “1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic in the United States: Lessons Learned and Challenges Exposed: Guest Editorial,” Public Health Reports 2010; Supplement 3 125: 6-8.
Stern, A.M, Reilly, M.B, Cetron, M.S, and Markel, H.: “’Better off in School’: School Medical Inspection as a Public Health Strategy during the 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic in the United States,” Public Heath Reports 2010; Supplement 3 125: 63-70.
Stern, A.M.: Improving Hoosiers: Indiana and the Wide Scope of American Eugenics. Indiana Magazine of History 2010; 106(3): 1-4.
Ravin, J., Stern, A.M.: Lucien Howe (1848-1928), Hereditary Blindness, and the Eugenics Movement. Archives of Ophthalmology 2010; 128(7): 924-930.
Stern, A.M., Koreck, M.T., Markel, H.: Assessing Argentina’s Response to H1N1 in Austral Winter 2009: Presidential Lethargy and Local Ingenuity. Public Health Reports 2011; 126(1), 9-12.
Stern, A.M.: ‘The Hour of Eugenics’ in Veracruz, Mexico: Radical Politics, Public Health, and Latin America’s Only Sterilization Law, Hispanic American Historical Review 2011; 91(3), 431-443.
Stern, A.M.: Compilando y extendiendo la historia de la eugenesia en el mundo latino: avances y ausencias, Revista Estudios (Argentina) 2012; No. Especial, 210-211.
Stern, A.M. “Prenatal Testing: In the Name of Eugenics?” (invited essay), Historical Studies of the Health Sciences, forthcoming 2013.