Date of Award

Spring 5-9-2019

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts in History


History & Political Science


College of Arts & Humanities

Committee Chair

Dr. David Blanks

Second Committee Member

Dr. H. Micheal Tarver

Third Committee Member

Dr. Michael Brodrick

Program Director

Dr. Peter Dykema

Dean of Graduate College

Dr. Jeff Robertson


During the late 1800s, the people of England grew anxious about hereditary degeneracy. That anxiety was rooted in the medical literature of the Victorian period. Nature predetermined individuals to be either healthy or unhealthy. Unhealthy individuals were marked by degenerative mental or physical characteristics such as epilepsy. Medical professionals, including Henry Maudsley, emphasized reversion and its hereditary nature as a threat to individuals and society. All based their works and arguments on Charles Darwin’s idea of inheritance. Darwin, in turn, had adopted and modified Lamarckian inheritance to make up for the absence of an inheritance principle in his theory of natural selection. His embracement of a modified Lamarckian principle became widely influential to physicians and alienists across England. As shown in his personal letters and relationships, Darwin did not object to prominent medical scholars’ adopting and expanding on his idea of inheritance. Medical professionals used Darwin’s Lamarckian inheritance principle to create a public health threat that influenced much of England’s intellectual culture, including works of literature and legal conceptions of culpability. Hereditary degeneracy, an idea 50 years old, acquired the scientific basis it needed to make it a reality. Degeneracy eventually spread to Europe and America, shaping intellectual cultures, such as legal discourse and literature, until World War II.