Reed’s First President and Eugenics…Is There A Connection?

Willam Trufant Foster, the namesake of the Foster dorm, was the first president of Reed College, appointed by Thomas Elliot in 1910 during the college’s founding and remaining in the position until 1919. Foster’s contributions to Reed in its early years remain vital; however, recently, it has come to the Quest’s attention that Foster had ties to the eugenics movement in Oregon during this time. Prior to the rise of Nazism post-World War I, the eugenics movement looked slightly different that what initially comes to mind. A great deal of those involved in the movement in early 20th century America were part of organizations called social hygiene societies, which promoted sexual education against STDs and warned against sexual deviancy. On the surface, these groups do not seem to have bad intentions. However, this was not the case as they also advocated for race betterment, control of sexuality, and anti-immigration sentiments. 

Foster had a leadership position in one of these groups, Oregon Social Hygiene Society(OSHS) during his time at Reed College. Working with the organization, he participated in discussions about race betterment and advocated for the control of sexuality. The most dramatic actions he committed with OSHS involved the persecution and forced shutdown of “quack doctors” and non-Western medicine practices. This involved legal action and even sheriff raids against apothecaries across Portland, a move that specifically targeted the cities’ Chinese community, as many of these establishments were owned and operated by them. 

Knowing this, the harm that Foster caused to the Chinese community in Portland during his time with OSHS is undeniable. However these actions are only the tip of the iceberg of what OSHS was capable of doing. By the late 1910s, OSHS was advocating for a bill that would force sterilization against Oregon prison inmates, which ended up passing, resulting in the forced sterilization of over 1000 prison inmates by 1935. To get some clarification on these topics, the Quest talked with historian and Reed alumni Paul Edison-Lahm about Foster’s links to social hygiene in general. He mentioned that he could not find significant evidence that linked Foster to this legislation, or even that he advocated for it. During the time when OSHS began to advocate for this bill, Foster left the organization and then Reed College shortly after, following his service in the Red Cross during World War I. 

Regardless, Foster’s participation and role in OSHS is a well known fact, but several questions still remain. What exactly motivated him to join such an organization? Did he believe in the facade they promoted or was it because he was a fan of the works and beliefs of Woodrow Wilson? How deep did Foster spread the ideas of social hygiene within Reed? He definitely advocated for the control of sexuality at Reed, and other professors agreed with him. Perhaps most importantly, what are the effects of Foster and his ties to eugenics and social hygiene on Reed today? The answers to these questions certainly require much more research and exploration, as even in the 100 years since Foster worked at Reed his positive effects are still felt, and his negative effects are as well.

By Finn Girvan.

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