The Dillingham Report, Franz Boas, and the Measurement of U. S. ‘New’ Immigrants, 1907-1911

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The Dillingham Report, Franz Boas, and the Measurement of U.S. ‘New’ Immigrants, 1907-19111

By Tibor Frank

The Dillingham Commission
On February 20, 1907 the U.S. Congress established an Immigration Commission consisting of ten Senators and Representatives. Its influential members included Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, one of the most powerful leaders of the Senate. The timing and selection of the Commission members was in response to a growing anti-immigrant movement as numerous ‘White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant’ Americans were mobilized against the millions of ‘new’ immigrants arriving from the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, Czarist Russia, Romania, Italy, and the Ottoman Empire.2 The newcomers were generally characterized as members of inferior races, biologically unprepared for assimilation or democratic self-government, and were considered undesirable. Americans had never especially welcomed Catholics, Jews, and the Chinese. From the Irish to the Chinese, from the Italians and the Eastern Europeans to the Mexicans, newly arrived unskilled labourers were generally treated with contempt and generated fears that they would become public charges, undermine labour standards, corrupt American morals. Senator John W. Daniel of Virginia declared in 1899: “There is one thing that neither time nor education can change. You may change the leopard’s spots, but you will never change the different qualities of the races...”3

Social Darwinism and its theorists Herbert Spencer and Ernst Haeckel found many followers in American universities and political circles. With Haeckel’s ‘biogenetic law’ lending ‘scientific’ legitimacy to racist theories, educated Americans considered ‘primitive races’ ‘half-devil and half-child’.4 Proponents of scientific racism subscribed to the arguments of Alfred P. Schultz, whose 1908 book, ‘Race or Mongrel’ argued “that the fall of nations is due to the intermarriage with alien stocks; [and]…a nation’s strength is due to racial purity; a prophecy that America will sink to early decay unless emigration is rigorously restricted” (Hankins 1937, 778-79). The leading American Social Darwinist, Yale professor William Graham Sumner preached similar dogmas of inequality and unrestricted competition for nearly 40 years (1872-1909) (Sumner 1963).

The establishment of the Dillingham Commission was a sign of the increasing presence and weight of Social Darwinism and biological racism in American political thinking. President Theodore Roosevelt was himself a Social Darwinist and went so far as to warn the American nation that the declining birth rate of Anglo-Saxon America would lead to what he called the slow death of the Anglo-American ‘race’, writing in 1907 that if the declining birth rate were not halted the future of the ‘white race’ will be taken over by Germans and Slavs.5 Three times presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan was so disturbed by this current in the American social climate that he began to campaign against Social Darwinism and the idea of evolution. After reading ‘The Descent of Man’, he told sociologist Edward A. Ross in 1905 that Darwin’s theories “weaken the cause of democracy and strengthen class pride and the power of wealth”.6

No politician was more active and successful in translating Social Darwinism and biological racism into daily politics than Henry Cabot Lodge (1850-1924) (Munro 1961). In 1908 Senator Lodge traced fundamental changes in the national and ‘racial’ origins of immigration since 1868. He noted that not only had the sum total of immigrants increased tenfold, but that immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, Italy, Poland, and Russia had increased dramatically while those of English, Scottish, Irish, German, and Scandinavian origin had decreased. Expressing the fears of many Americans of English ancestry he wrote: “The problem which confronts us is whether we are going to be able to assimilate this vast body of people, to indoctrinate them with our ideals of government, and with our political habits, and also whether we can maintain the wages and the standards of living among our workingmen in the presence of such a vast and rapid increase of population.”7 Lodge called for a general overhaul of immigration policies and restrictive legislation, thereby becoming a pioneer of the quota system that would be introduced after World War I.8

All this serves as a background to the significance of the Dillingham Commission. Senator William Paul Dillingham of Vermont spent much of his 23 years in the Senate attempting to promote immigration restriction legislation. The most astonishing product of his activities is the Dillingham Report, possibly the most voluminous and far-reaching migration study of all time. The fact that he never succeeded in passing any major legislation before 1921 suggests that there was strong political and public opposition to immigration restriction. Only the wartime anti-alien hysteria and the Red-Scare of 1919 made passage possible. It was the Johnson Act of 1921 that first created national immigration quotas, becoming the culminating effect of Dillingham’s political career and radically curtailing U.S. immigration for nearly half a century. The National Origins Act of 1924 was even more stringent and both laws were especially designed to cut off the ‘new immigration’ (Kline 1959).

The Dillingham Commission consisted of three Senators, three Representatives, and three Presidential appointees. Apart from Senator Lodge, the most influential member of the Commission was Cornell University political economist Jeremiah Whipple Jenks (1856-1929). Jenks convinced the Commission not to conduct regular congressional hearings: instead they commissioned research projects in particular areas. From these projects, Jenks and W. Jett Lauck published ‘The Immigration Problem’ in 1911, which became the basic reference work on the subject for many years (Bidwell 1961).

Jeremiah W. Jenks and Franz Boas
One of the founders of modern anthropology, Franz Boas (1858-1942) was to have a profound impact on the perception of ‘new’ U.S. immigration from East Central and Southern Europe. Born in the Rhineland, Germany and educated in Heidelberg, Bonn, and Kiel, he studied science, mathematics, languages, and the humanities in the best tradition of nineteenth century German higher education. His 1881 doctoral dissertation, Contributions to Understanding the Colour of Water, showed him to be a scientist attracted by interdisciplinary research with an avid interest in new areas and the ability to consider science as a whole. He soon decided that ethnology provided scope for the range of his interests. In 1882 he joined the Anthropological Society and studied anthropometry with the leading German expert Rudolf Virchow. Boas’s first major anthropological study was written as an assistant in the Berlin Ethnology Museum (Boas 1883) while he was also a Privatdozent for natural geography at the University of Berlin. Boas found satisfaction as a scientist in Berlin, but the anti-liberal climate and anti-Semitism of late nineteenth century Germany alienated him. After an Arctic research voyage in 1887 he stopped in New York, took a job as assistant editor of the journal ‘Science’ and settled down in the United States (Lesser 1968).

During his long and prolific American career, Boas had many major achievements. He paid particular attention to the cultures of North American Indians, and wrote basic studies on theoretical issues in anthropology, on the relationship between heredity and environment, on race, anthropometry, and the methodology of ethnology. None of his work found as much general interest or caused such a scientific sensation as his 1911 study of physical changes between the bodies of immigrants from Europe and those of their American children.9 The project had results that astonished Boas himself and which contradicted the expectations of the work’s sponsor, the Dillingham Commission. The results were first published as part of the 42 volumes of the Dillingham Report (1907-1911) (Frank 2000).

Boas had turned to Jeremiah W. Jenks with his project for an anthropological investigation and Jenks brought it to the Immigration Commission.10 Boas felt it would be a good idea to become part of the gigantic Immigration Commission investigation that was under way and the connection seems to have come entirely from Boas’ initiative. Boas’ research plans were ambitious, but his international reputation won him the Commission’s support. Jenks may also have approved of Boas partly because of his own doctoral education at the University of Halle, which made him comfortable with the personality and intellectual background of the German scholar.

Boas knew of some earlier investigations which indicated that there were physical differences between immigrants and their descendants, but which did not identify them in terms of cephalic indices (Bowditch 1877; Peckham 1882, vol. 6; vol. 7; Boas 1916, 713). Boas’ first brief formulation is in a letter addressed to Jenks suggesting the existence of five “racial types, representing the principal divisions of immigrants”. At this point Boas did not give any specific details as to the nature of these groups, but added that these types should be studied first, “as immigrants”, second, “as emigrants”, and third, “after their arrival here. In their descendants” (Boas Papers 1908a). He proposed to investigate 120,000 individuals with 20 observers on 3,000 working days. Within a few days Boas provided Jenks with a much more elaborate plan that identified most of the essential details of his future investigation.

Boas was very explicit about the issues at stake. Instead of the tall, blond, Northwestern Europeans, masses of Eastern, Central, and Southern Europeans were now migrating to America, and many questioned the impact of this on America’s ability to assimilate the new immigrants successfully. The main problems to be investigated, Boas continued, included first and foremost “the selection that takes place by immigration; the modifications that develop in the children of the immigrants born abroad, and the further changes which take place in the children of the immigrants born in this country, and the effect of intermarriages in this country”. In the same letter, Boas raised some of the most fundamental issues and put forward his hypotheses concerning the investigation planned:
A comparison … shows that, on the whole, the American develops more rapidly and more favourably than the European, and it should be investigated whether the immigrants become subjected rapidly to the same influences which have determined the physique of the American.

Furthermore, there are marked distinctions in type between the American and the European of the same nationality [....] the whole investigation should be directed towards an inquiry into:

1. The assimilation or stability of type.

2. Changes in the characteristics of the development of the individual. (Boas Papers 1908a)

Boas had no prejudices against the people whom he was about to investigate. Instead of ‘race’, Boas used throughout his proposal the word ‘type’ or ‘racial type’ as a generic term. “The most important types of Europe are: 1. North Europeans, 2. East Europeans, 3. Central Europeans, 4. South Europeans (particularly Italians of the region south of Rome). As a fifth group should be added either Russian Jews or the inhabitants of Asia Minor and Syria” (Boas Papers 1908a). Before going on to some of the practical problems of the investigation, he raised the basic questions of the study:
1. How does the immigrant type differ from the home type […]?

2. Is the part of the immigrant population returning to Europe in any way different from that part of the population that stays here?

3. In how far and how much does the development of the children growing up in the United States differ from the development of the immigrant race, and does it approach the characteristic development of the American child?

4. Is this tendency to assimilate […] increased and emphasized in the children of immigrants born in this country?

5. Do the descendants of immigrants differ from the home type, and do they tend to become similar to the American type? Do children of Americans and immigrants form a new type, differing from either, or do they tend to revert to either the American type or the foreign type, and to which? What is the fertility of the mixed marriages? (Boas Papers 1908a).
For Boas this last question seemed to have particular relevance for the basic dilemma he sought to resolve and he compared the problem of the mixture of ‘new’ immigrants and the existing American ‘type’ with the mixture of the Native Americans and the white population. Speaking to this, Boas explicitly stated the issue the Immigration Commission was about to face: “The question […] is, how strong is the power of assimilation of the present American type when intermarrying with types of southern and eastern Europe?” (Boas Papers 1908a). Boas closed the letter on an optimistic and self-confident note concluding that “the practical results of this investigation will [. . .] settle once for all the question whether the immigrants from southern Europe and from eastern Europe are and can be assimilated by our people” (Boas Papers 1908a). Jenks asked for further information and Boas was quick to answer – and in great detail. He again used some of his earlier research on Indians to make his point clear and proposed an investigation of the children:

In our cities […] the children of Italians, Russians, and North Europeans […] live approximately in the same conditions; and I anticipate that the most important contribution to the solution of the problem will be the ascertaining of data showing whether children of the first and second generation of the various types mentioned show an increasing degree of similarity in [. . .] their physical and mental development, or whether the differences that have been observed are really of racial character (Boas Papers 1908a).

Boas received the approval of the Commission in May 1908 and started work at Ellis Island on the different physical characteristics of different immigrant groups. Others began an investigation in the New York City schools and Boas enthusiastically reported to Jenks “I find everywhere a very cordial willingness to co-operate” (Boas Papers 1908a). Boas also planned to involve the Board of Health, the YMCA, and private schools, and he developed a plan for similar investigations in Italian and Austrian schools if he could interest those in charge of the schools.

Even at this early stage, Boas found some surprising though ‘entirely provisional’ results: “It appears very clearly that the children of American-born parents pass through school much more rapidly than the children of foreign-born parents, and that this is due essentially to the social conditions that prevailed during the early childhood of the children” (Boas Papers 1908a).

Boas traveled to Europe later in the summer of 1908 and discussed his investigation in Lemberg (now Lviv), Rome, Dresden, and Berlin. There he explored possibilities for cooperation, investigated comparable research samples, and searched for special instruments of measurement. His European report to Jenks from Berlin reconsidered both his U.S. research strategies and the schedule of his planned comparative investigations in Europe. Some of his results already anticipated the conclusions of his final report which would be submitted to the Dillingham Commission some two years later, and he also raised some entirely new questions as well. Boas distinguished three different ‘races’ among the European immigrants, “Eastern”, “Centre [sic] European”, and “South European” “races”, to which he added “that of the East European Jews”.

Boas was already aware of some of the issues and findings that were to make his investigation so controversial in its final form. “Much to my surprise, an important change in type may also be noticed in the East European Jews, which race was particularly the subject of our inquiry; the race is very short headed, but there is a decided tendency toward increase in length of head” (Boas Papers 1908a). By the end of 1908 Boas had extended the scope of his research by including the parents of the schoolchildren being investigated.

Throughout the investigation, Boas stayed in constant touch with the Commission. In addition to Professor Jenks’ support, he won that of Senator Lodge and William S. Bennet, another influential member of the Commission. Jenks’ correspondence shows considerable understanding of and cooperation with Boas and his investigation. Boas had to get approval for every observer he engaged, however temporarily, and Jenks remained the ultimate supervisor of the whole operation. Boas also needed Jenks’ assistance to use census reports. Their relationship became very close and they often met when Jenks came to New York City.

The work of the Commission depended on funds appropriated by Congress, which were occasionally cut drastically. By March of 1909 Boas seems to have gained almost all the information he was to gather. To get more money from the Commission, he submitted a summary of his work that presented the history of the investigation and the main findings. The first effort in 1908, had been to collect measurements in high schools, and measurements of East European Jews. Boas reported:

1. Descendants from the immigrants are better developed and developed earlier than the immigrants themselves.

2. The effect of American surroundings is the stronger, the more time has elapsed since the immigration of the parents before the birth of the child in this country.

3. The changes in the second generation are not confined to changes in the rapidity of development, but we find also a change in type indicating apparently an approach to the American type (Boas Papers 1909a).

The next round “extended to grammar schools for the purpose of investigating the effect of social environment upon the development of children here” (Boas Papers 1909a). Boas proudly listed the results of the second research period:

1. The children of East European Jews born in America and attending [elementary] schools are better developed than foreign-born children of the same race.

2. The children attending high school are much better developed physically than the children attending [elementary] school.

3. The difference is partly due to an acceleration in development, partly to a general better development (Boas Papers 1909a).
Boas also detailed some of his comparative findings concerning the children of East European Jews and Italians, and noted “American-born children who have grown up in the congested districts of New York are much more unfavourably developed than children born abroad” (Boas Papers 1909a). His 1909 report to Jenks carried some of the most astonishing results to be published in the final report. He described his comparative findings regarding the head-forms of the immigrants’ descendants and concluded “so far as the head-form is concerned, the exceedingly short-headed East-European Jew and the exceedingly long-headed South Italian converge to the same form even in the first generation of descendants of immigrants” (Boas Papers 1909a).

Boas had also added material regarding the third generation from thousands of previous observations he had made in Toronto, Milwaukee, and Oakland “which I am willing to place at the disposal of the Commission”. He had found there “a reduction in the number of children, and improvement of the physical type” (Boas Papers 1909a). This reference to his earlier work on the subject makes it very clear that the original initiative for the investigation came from Boas and that he had taken the establishment of the Immigration Commission as a welcome opportunity to develop and complete some of his inquiries.

By the end of 1909 Boas received word regarding the preliminary report he had submitted to the Commission. Jenks wrote: “They are very much pleasd [sic]. It will be printed as it stands. I think that I altered two or three sentences slightly, but purely on matters of form” (Boas Papers 1909b). Then rather unexpectedly, the Commission ordered him to discharge all his employees on January l. “Of course this leaves me in such a position that I hardly see my way clear to make any progress at all” (Boas Papers 1909a). Boas was desperate and helpless, and sought both advice and money from Jenks, asking for an annual appropriation of $16,000 for at least three years. Jenks, however, had not much hope or solace to offer:

In case Congress makes an additional appropriation, we shall be able to go on. If Congress does not make a further appropriation, the matter will stand just about where it is now […] I hope that Congress will see us thru in fairly satisfactory shape (Boas Papers 1909b).

Receiving Jenks’ note just before the year came to an end, Boas gave Jenks a sober and formal summary of his investigations and highlighted some of the points of practical importance. He argued for substantial new funds by presenting the basic issues and expectations of his inquiry: “[T]he fundamental changes in anatomical traits must be accompanied by corresponding changes in mental make-up; and […] there may be an approximation of distinct types immigrating into America.” He added: “The second point, and one of more immediate practical importance, is the study of the influence of environment upon each racial type. We can now say with great certainty to the Sicilians that they should stay away from New York” (Boas Papers 1909a).

In a final effort to impress Congress, Boas added one last crucial point touching upon the delicate matter of the mixture of types, particularly between ‘negro’ and ‘white’. “The question before us is that of whether it is better for us to keep an industrially and socially inferior large black population, or whether we should fare better by encouraging the gradual process of lightening up this large body of people by the influx of white blood” (Boas Papers 1909a). Boas felt this justified asking for $18,000 annually for three consecutive years to support his varied researches.

The Boas Project
Boas’ project of anthropometric measurement was mainly carried out in the schools of New York City. Boas established an anthropometrical division employing thirteen ‘enumerators’. Boas and his team subjected entire immigrant families to anthropometric measurements. They always asked for permission from the people concerned, but they were often received with a fair amount of animosity and the support of the local Czech, Italian, and Jewish press was needed to convince immigrants that they should cooperate.

According to his original plan, the Columbia professor intended to investigate only a handful of very different European types. Those were to be measured very thoroughly, in the same kind of environment and in the most densely populated districts of the city. As many European immigrants, however, did not live in those districts, the different immigrant groups surveyed lived in very different conditions (Boas 1911, 82).

Observers were not always able to carry out Boas’ instructions. Among Italians, he had intended to investigate people originating from Sicily and the southern tip of Italy. In New York, however, Neapolitans lived intermingled with Sicilians to such a great extent that separating them was virtually impossible. A similar problem developed with Hungarians who got measured almost by chance:
Unfortunately the district visited by one of the observers was to a very great extent Hungarian and Slovak rather than Bohemian, and before a change could be made, a large body of Hungarian data had been collected. Most of the Slovak and Hungarian material was obtained from the families from north-western Hungary, and for this reason a distinction between the two nationalities was entirely out of the question (Boas 1911, 82-83).
Nevertheless, as he described in a letter to Jenks, Boas considered the Hungarian measurements just as valuable as those referring to Bohemians, Neapolitans, and Scots, and referred to further investigation of those groups as “the first work to be done” (Boas Papers 1910a). Poles also lived in mixed districts that included Lithuanians and Byelorussians as well.

Boas endeavoured to compare three generations, but while it was relatively easy to identify the place of birth of the immigrants’ parents, it was considerably more difficult for grandparents. Immigrants were also uncertain about their exact time of arrival, which was further complicated by the fact that many Central and Southern European immigrants had been multiple migrants – and many gave the date of their first American journey as the year of their arrival rather than that of their last trip. This made the definition of their children’s birthplace extremely confused as some had been born in Europe after the date reported for their parents’ arrival in the U.S. But Boas believed that his observers did not commit the kinds of mistakes that U.S. Census enumerators usually did.

The investigation ultimately included nearly twenty thousand East-Central European and Southern European New Yorkers falling into the following national/ethnic categories:
Males Females
Bohemians 1,648 1,514

Slovaks and Hungarians 415 386

Poles 240 204

Hebrews [sic] 4,105 1,888

Sicilians 1,767 1,746

Neapolitans 1,655 1,332

Miscellaneous Italians 241 53

Scotch [sic] 438 189

Total 10,509 7,312
Source: Boas (1911, 84).
Based on this very extensive research, Boas came to a conclusion that he portrayed as astonishing. In fact, he started his final report by stating:
In most of the European types that have been investigated, the head form, which has always been considered one of the most stable and permanent characteristics of human races, undergoes far-reaching changes coincident with the transfer of the people from European to American soil […] the east European Hebrew, who has a very round head, becomes more long-headed; the south Italian, who in Italy has an exceedingly long head, becomes more short-headed; so that in this country both approach a uniform type […] This fact is one of the most suggestive discovered in the investigation, because it shows that not even those characteristics of a race which have proved to be most permanent in their old home remain the same under the new surroundings; and we are compelled to conclude that when these features of the body change, the whole bodily and mental make-up of the immigrants may change. These results are so definite that, while heretofore we had the right to assume that human types are stable, all the evidence is now in favor of a great plasticity of human types and permanence of types in new surroundings appears rather as the exception than as the rule (Boas 1911, 5).
Boas compared various representatives of one particular human type: those born abroad, those born within ten years after the arrival of the mother in the U.S., and those born ten years or more after that. “It appears that the longer the parents have been here, the greater is the divergence of the descendants from the European type” (Boas 1911, 7). He documented this theory in relation to Bohemians (Czechs), Hungarians, Slovaks, and Poles in a cumulative table that attempted to summarize anthropometric characteristics of the Central-European immigrant population.11

Boas was excited about these results and eager to carry on his research when Jenks officially announced that the Commission’s work was to be completely ended in December 1910 (Boas Paper 1910b). Boas’ first response was to try and continue his work at the Bureau of American Ethnology under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., but found that the Smithsonian did “not want to take up the matter” (Boas Papers 1910a). Boas wondered whether it was worth pursuing the case in any other government departments. He asked for assistance from Jenks, who planned to be in Washington soon and agreed to discuss the matter with Senators Lodge and Dillingham (Boas Papers 1910b).

Boas was eager to speak to Senator Lodge himself about organizing his anthropometric work after December 1910 and with Jenks’ help was able to arrange a meeting with the Senator. Boas outlined for Senator Lodge his blueprint for further research:
I have not by any means exhausted the material and I am exceedingly anxious to make provision for the continuance of the work. The following points should be investigated in relation to the whole question of change of type: Comparison between parents and children in regard to length of head, width of head, width of face, color of hair; and comparison of variability of children of each family according to the corresponding measurements of the parents. (Boas Papers 1910a).
Despite the sweep of his research, Boas was well aware of its limitations. In a 1910 letter to F. W. Hodge, head of the Bureau of American Ethnology, he surveyed the parts of the research as yet undone:
It was impossible to extend the investigation, as ought to have been done, over other parts of the United States, rural as well as city communities; nor has it been possible to make the necessary control investigations in Europe […] It has also been impossible to take into consideration the effect of mixture between different types; and, since the work was directed only towards the inquiry into the characteristics of the immigrants, the investigation of the negro population has not been made at all (Boas Papers 1910c).

‘The New Human Race in America’?

The work of Boas was still underway when American eugenicists launched their campaign “to create a master race”, opening the Eugenics Record Office in October 1910 under Harry Hamilton Laughlin (Black 2004, 51-52). From then on, combating the pseudoscientific movement of eugenics was one of the driving forces behind Boas’ scholarship. Throughout his work and reports about it, Boas tried to avoid using terms such as ‘race’, using instead the term ‘type’, and he insisted that it was the Immigration Commission that introduced the term ‘race’ into his published report.12

Boas also denied attempts to link his work with a ‘new American type’ predicted by Herbert Spencer: “the eventual mixture of the allied varieties of the Aryan race […] will produce a finer type of man than has hitherto existed” (Spencer 1901, 480).13 Other scholars had made similar statements and Boas’ report was interpreted in this context.

Right after his report was published, Boas became the object of heated attacks by the daily press in the U.S. and scholars abroad. Fellow anthropologists such as Paul R. Radosavljevich, Giuseppe Sergi, and Gaston Backman published counter arguments to which Boas replied in a lengthy article in the ‘American Anthropologist’ (Boas 1912; Tanner 1981, 249-51). The most critical attack came in the July-September 1911 issue of the ‘American Anthropologist’ where Paul R. Radosavljevich charged Boas’ work suffered from serious methodological flaws. He claimed Boas had made errors of computation and measurement, that his anthropometric observations were not exact enough, and that he had failed to include other measurements that would have altered his results. Together with other critics, Radosavljevich criticized the statistical methods of the Boas investigation (Radosavljevich 1911; Boas 1912, 551). Radosavljevich concluded: “The differences found by Boas, if they have any real meaning, may be regarded as the normal differences of normal groups, such as are frequently noticed in separate parts of the same people” (Radosavljevich 1911).

In response to his critics, Boas defined the statistical meaning of the term ‘type’, saying that he had used it as merely a descriptive term that implied no theory about its origin. (Boas 1912, 542-43). Boas argued that an exact knowledge of the distribution of frequencies was practically impossible so he regarded the average to be the appropriate basis for comparisons. He argued that giving the average and the deviation effectively expressed the whole distribution and gave “at a single glance a clearer impression of the character of the series than does the inconvenient tabular statement of the observed frequencies” (Boas 1912, 545).

In the ‘Politisch-Anthropologische Revue’, Hans Fehlinger suspected bias in some of Boas’ observations (Fehlinger 1911; Boas 1912, 545-46). Boas categorically rejected the suggestion that his observers had expectations in mind when they started their job. He pointed out that most of them knew nothing about the purpose of their measurements and that the statistics had been analysed by other investigators.

Writing for the ‘Rivista Italiana di Sociologia’, Giuseppe Sergi found the comparison of parents and children unfounded given the small number of cases (Boas 1912, 547; Sergi 1912). Sergi joined Radosavljevich in questioning whether or not it was possible to get meaningful results without knowing the differences between descendants of parents of European versus U.S. origin. Boas took seriously the warning concerning the importance of various cradling customs and their impact on the development of head form. But he noted that there were no changes in patterns of bedding and swaddling among Sicilian immigrants and the Sicilian-American head form changed anyway. He also pointed out that the width of Czech-American children’s faces changed in the U.S. without any mechanical influences (Boas 1912, 554).

Giuseppe Sergi also attacked the biological foundations of Boas’ study by denying the possibility of sudden changes in hereditary traits. Sergi attempted to explain those changes by the varied fertility and death rates of different immigrant types. As Boas saw it, Sergi had tried to “explain the phenomena by natural selection, the success of which […] I consider as extremely doubtful” (Boas 1912, 558). Boas chose a Czech example to refute Sergi’s arguments statistically, pointing out the difference between the cephalic indexes of Czech women born in Bohemia and those born in the U.S., proving in Boas’ estimation his general theory regarding the reduction of the cephalic index (Boas 1912, 560).

Boas’ methods as well as his theories continued to meet with disapproval among many of his scientific contemporaries. Gaston Backman suggested that the reasons behind the changes registered were simple and that Boas went too far in terms of theory:

When Boas wants to maintain that he by his research has proved the plasticity of human races, this conclusion seems to me to carry further than the facts in question will permit. It seems, on the contrary, to me to be quite plain that it is the change from country life to city life … (Backman cited by Boas 1912, 556-57).

In response, Boas maintained that:

as long as we do not know the causes of the observed changes, we must speak of a plasticity (as opposed to permanence) of types, including in the term changes brought about by any cause whatever.14
It is worth noting that the concept of racial plasticity and the possibility of change in cranial indices came from Rudolf Virchow, Boas’ former Berlin professor (Tanner 1959, 103). Though Boas never did another empirical survey in this field, he returned to the subject repeatedly in various books intended for a broader audience, reflecting on critical comments, contemplating theoretical issues, and focusing on a study of the American people. He considered the problem of the descendants of immigrants to be part of this ‘American anthropology’.

Though he did not seem to return to the Hungarian or Central-European material, his later remarks are nonetheless interesting, specifically in his return to the anthropometry of the children of immigrants in what became his most famous book, ‘Kultur und Rasse’ (published in Leipzig in 1914).15 It was from this book and its subsequent editions in many languages that most readers in Europe first learned about the New York investigation. In a chapter on “The Impact of the Environment on Human Types”, Boas discussed the technical details of the anthropometry of immigrants and concluded by informing his German public: “These investigations have demonstrated that the descendants of these human types born in America differ from their parents in form” (Boas 1914, 62).

Speaking about the Czechs, Boas added that a decrease in facial width appeared not only with those born in the U.S. but also with those who came to America before the age of ten. Boas argued that “the impact of the American environment makes itself immediately noticeable and slowly increases as the time period between the immigration of the parents and the birth of the child grows” (Boas 1914, 63). As a final explanation of bodily changes, Boas cited the concept of a plasticity of human types and called attention to environmental influences that may shape mental abilities even more than bodily features (Boas 1914, 66).

Some of Boas’ critics doubted not only his methodology and statistics, but also questioned his integrity. Foremost among them was Madison Grant, whose ‘The Passing of the Great Race’ was published in 1916. This prominent amateur zoologist, geographer, and traveler made it his mission to maintain the ‘white race’ (Williamson 1980, 134-135, 210). His tract became one of the most popular books of the era and in a chapter on “The Physical Basis of Race”, Grant launched a ferocious attack on Boas:

Recent attempts have been made in the interest of the inferior races among our immigrants to show that the shape of the skull does change, not merely in a century, but in a single generation.[…] the Melting Pot was acting instantly under the influence of a changed environment […] As measured in terms of centuries these characters are fixed and rigid and the only benefit to be derived from a changed environment and better food conditions is the opportunity afforded a race which has lived under adverse conditions to achieve its maximum development but the limits of that development are fixed for it by heredity and not by environment (Grant 1916, 17-19).
Grant, together with other American nativists and anti-Semites, endeavoured to portray immigrants and particularly Jews as a public health menace, not fit to stand the test of the American environment and unlikely to assimilate (Kraut 1994, 145-146). Subsequently, Grant became President of the Committee on Selective Immigration of the American Eugenics Society Inc.
The Power of Environmental Influence

Nativist attacks led Boas to continue arguing that living conditions rather than heredity determined ‘racial characteristics’. In many ways, his scholarship became increasingly a weapon to defeat the ‘medicalized prejudice’ embodied in nativist and anti-Semitic arguments (Kraut 1994, 146). It was probably partly because of Grant’s attack, that Boas considered it necessary to publish ‘New Evidence in Regard to the Instability of Human Types’, this time in the journal of the National Academy of Sciences (Boas 1916). To defend his scientific results against renewed criticism, Boas made it clear that:

we can never speak of a genetic type per se, but that every genetic type appears under certain environmental or physiological conditions, and that in this sense we are always dealing with the physiological form of a certain genetic type […] so far as stature, head-form, and width of face are concerned, the differences between the physiological forms of the same genetic type are of the same order as the differences between the races and sub-races which have been distinguished in Europe (Boas 1916, 714).
Boas pointed out that the changes he observed were not necessarily genetic in nature, as he had found nothing to substantiate that they were influenced by the hereditary structure of genes. “It may very well be that the same people, if carried back to their old environment, would revert to their former physiological types” (Boas 1916, 715). Boas’ paper referred to a study by Dr. Hrdlicka reported at the Pan-American Scientific Congress that had supported his thesis. Hrdlicka, who was of Czech origin, compared European and American types based on his own anthropometric research and came to the conclusion that the width of face of fourth generation Americans is considerably reduced. “This conforms strictly with what I found among the descendants of immigrants of all nationalities” (Boas 1916, 715).

Motivated partly by unceasing criticism, Boas published in 1928 the complete database of his investigation, possibly the largest collection of anthropometric data on families ever developed (Boas 1928a). In the same year, and again in the ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’, he reiterated his views on the impact of heredity and environment on family traits (Boas 1928b).

Many years later he published ‘The Effects of American Environment on Immigrants and Their Descendants’, a survey of 17 years of research on the relationship of bodily forms and environmental influences (Boas 1936). He argued that though the human organism is genetically determined, outward influences have a major role in the expression of anatomical and physiological traits. Almost three decades after his primary investigation, he came to the unchanged conclusion that “these changes do not obliterate differences between genetic types, but they show that the type as we see it contains elements that are not genetic but an expression of the influence of environment” (Boas 1936, 523).

In this article, Boas surveyed additional material in regard to the environmental influence on human behaviour, movement, stature, and gesticulation. He suggested that even those behavioural patterns considered genetic in nature, changed in the course of the Americanization of Italian and Jewish immigrants. Discussing changes in motor habits he gave the example of the development of English gesticulation over the centuries from the Elizabethan lack of restraint in bodily expressions to the strict repression of gestures in the Victorian era (Boas 1936, 524-25). As another example of the power of environmental influence, Boas cited changes in the numbers and character of psychiatric cases in the U.S. among Italian, Irish, and German immigrants.16 In the second generation, the nature of psychiatric illnesses moved toward what was recognized as the American standard. In his closing remarks, Boas assured his readers once again that “at least so far as the aspects studied are concerned, the descent of the individual plays an insignificant rôle in his behaviour, that the organism is so plastic that in its physiological, mental, and social behaviour it follows the pattern of culture with which he becomes identified” (Boas 1926, 525).

The Instability of Human ‘Types’
One of the most interesting questions about the Boas study is why the Immigration Commission that intended to promote restrictive legislation had agreed to sponsor his research in the first place and then tolerated his scholarly integrity and helped publish his unorthodox views even though they subverted the Commission’s goals. How did the political opponents of the ‘new immigration’ from Eastern and Southern Europe judge Boas’ humanistic anthropology built on the ‘plasticity of types’ rather than on the theory of immutable races?

It is hard to miss the difference between the political will that created the Dillingham Commission, the anti-immigrant sentiment of the day, and the spirit and outcome of Boas’ investigation (Archdeacon 1984, 163-164; Dinnerstein 1988, 72). In addition, it is interesting that Boas was commissioned to do the study of immigrant anthropology, as it was well known that he refused to distinguish between individuals or groups on the basis of alleged ‘racial’ differences. Boas’ study strikes us today as one of the exceptional volumes in the Dillingham Report, one that influenced the ideology of ‘Americanization’ as well as the notion of a prospective ‘new American race’. To be sure, other volumes of the Dillingham Report also provided treatment that was factual, non-racist, and scholarly, such as Daniel and Elnora Folkmar’s ‘Dictionary of Races or Peoples’ (Frank 1999b).

Throughout his long career, Boas endeavoured to create a body of scholarship to fight against racism. An obituary by Bernhard J. Stern found it symbolic that Boas was in the midst of a scientific discussion of racial theory with French émigré anthropologist Paul Rivet when he died at the age of 84 on December 21, 1942 (Stern 1943; 1959, 208). Stern summarized what Boas did for anthropology with regard to the study of race, stressing: “The human organism is responsive in its development to environmental influences. Among the instable bodily traits are stature, weight, cephalic index and facial index, which are most frequently used as the basis of race classification, under the faulty assumption that they are fixed only by heredity” (Stern 1959, 210). Stern pointed out that the findings of Boas “upset the traditional classification of races, which had been formulated by many anthropologists on the assumption that head-form was stable and unaffected by environmental changes” (Stern 1959, 217).

Boas’ acknowledgement of the enormous impact of the social and physical environment was all the more timely as eugenicists had seemed to carry the day in the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate, and had far-reaching influence both in scientific circles and in the popular literature. As their views created a quasi-scientific foundation for maintaining the social distance between ‘Negroes’ and whites (and the domination of whites over Blacks), the work of Boas not only affected thoughts about immigration, it contributed considerably to changing and democratizing America’s own notion of herself as a nation (Stern 1959, 218).

Franz Boas was a child of the nineteenth century, a time when many scientists as well as the general public believed in the significance of anthropometry and craniometry (Gould 1981, 73-74). In contrast modern biology and anthropology attempt to identify the differences among human groups at more sophisticated levels, drawing on the study of biochemical changes, blood groups, amino acids, leukocytes, and other genetically determined biochemical variants and formations (The New Encyclopaedia Britannica 1990, vol. 18, 848-49; vol. 14, 975; Bibliography, 977). Nevertheless, the scientific impact of Franz Boas has not diminished, his research is generally accepted today as foundational in Anthropology and even introductory textbooks celebrate him for fighting the myth of the stability of the cephalic index (Herskovits 1943; 1960, 140-142; Lesser 1968, 106; Gould 1981, 108; Kottak 1987, 46-47). Later research concerning war, famine, class differences, and the comparative study of migrating and non-migrating groups reinforced the fundamental thesis of Boas in regard to the significance of environmental influences. As J. M. Tanner explained, Boas is the larger part of the bridge between the older notions of physical anthropology and the recent disciplines of human biology (Tanner 1981, 251). The humanistic and egalitarian message of his work is hardly ever questioned by international scholarship (Tanner 1959, 102-103; Holloway 2002; Sparks 2002; 2003; Gravlee 2003a; 2003b; Relethford 2004).


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Method of Analysis of Variance, in: Annals of Eugenics, 8.1937, 74-93.

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–––, Ellis Island követei: Az osztrák-magyar kivándorlás titkos amerikai megfigyelése (1906-1907) [The Secret American Surveillance of Austro-Hungarian Emigration 1906-1907], Valóság, XXXV(7).1992, 77-90.

–––, Olvasztótégely vagy kulturális pluralizmus: ‘másság’ az Egyesült Államokban [Melting Pot or Multiculturalism: ‘Otherness’ in the United States], in: Info-Társadalomtudomány, 25.1993, 55-62.

–––, Amerikai ‘új bevándorlók’ antropometriai vizsgálata, 1908-1911 [The Anthropometric Investigation of American ‘New Immigrants’, 1908-1911], in: Anthropologiai Közlemények, 36(1-2).1994, 69-77.

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–––, Ethnicity, Propaganda, Myth-Making. Studies on Hungarian Connections to Britain and America, 1848-1945, Budapest 1999a.

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