About Me

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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Eugenics and Genetics and The Historians

In my last post I wrote a review of The Historians by Cecilia Ekbäck. The book provoked thoughts on eugenics and genetics for me. I wrote a letter to the author which forms this post. If she replies and agrees I will post her response. For some readers there might be spoilers in this post because of the nature of the information in the post.


To: Cecilia

I just finished The Historians. I am reading my way through the shortlist for the Crime Writers of Canada 2021 Best Canadian Crime Novel. I enjoyed the book and posted a review on my blog, Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan. A link is at the end of this email.

I had not thought about eugenics in a long time until I read last year The Purity of Vengeance by Jussi Adler-Olsen. Reading about the forced sterilizations in Denmark set out in that work of crime fiction prompted me to look at Canada. I wrote a post, a link is below, discussing eugenics in Canada and Denmark.

I had been aware of the thousands sterilized in Alberta but had forgotten how many progressive people of the early to mid-20th Century had promoted and believed in eugenics. Members of the Famous Five and Tommy Douglas were supporters. I appreciate Douglas changed his position later in his life.

In The Historians the plot takes readers into the horrors of applied eugenics in World War II Sweden. I was grateful in your acknowledgements that the extreme actions described in the book did not occur in real life Sweden.

Your book did prompt me to think of a presentation on integrity made by Dr. Robert Boyd of North Dakota State University at a Rotary conference in Winnipeg in 2010. (My wife and I are Rotarians.) 

In that presentation he provided a powerful story on the educated. In my recollections of his address I wrote up the next day I noted:

One day he was flying to Washington D.C. At Minneapolis a significant number of elderly people, in their 80's, got on the plane. A lady sat beside him. He has some hearing loss and says it is not easy for him to carry on a conversation with someone beside him and was not inclined to talk to her. He said she was having none of it and began talking to him. Before they got off the ground she had determined he was an educator. She was excited as she had been an elementary school teacher and loved teaching. She was still enthusiastic about learning and teaching and the importance of education. He said she was the type of teacher every parent hopes his children have as their teacher. When she reached forward to the pocket to take out the flight magazine her sleeve slid up and he saw a number tattooed on her wrist. Not sure what to say he said nothing. He said she asked him if he knew what the number meant and he replied that he thought she had been in a concentration camp. She had been an inmate. The group who had gotten on the plane were on their way to Washington for the opening of the Holocaust Memorial. A little later he heard her cry and moments later she was sobbing. She looked up at him and asked "How could they do It? How could they do it? They were educated people". He said it made him think about the lawyers, accountants, engineers and all the other professions who had made the Holocaust happen.

As I thought about The Purity of Vengeance and The Historians I have reflected on the hubris of the well educated to think they know best and have the knowledge to create a better world and the lengths to which they have gone in the past 100 years.

I believe looking at history honestly is important. I think we have neglected the “scientific” efforts of advocates of 20th Century eugenics to use such measures as forced sterilization to remove and eliminate from society “the mentally defective and incurably diseased” in the words of Tommy Douglas from his 1933 Master’s Thesis.

In our current world I fear genetic knowledge will be used to try to achieve the same goals. I appreciate there are many positive uses of genetic information for individuals but am concerned there will be those who will seek to use that knowledge for negative purposes with regard  to “creating a better society”.

Will “progressive” genetic policies being advanced today be seen as repressive decades from now?

I will be posting this letter on my blog shortly with a note that it may contain information concerning The Historians that some readers would find spoilers.

If you would like to reply to this Facebook message and are willing to have your response posted I would put it up on the blog.

Thanks for a thought provoking story.

Bill Selnes




  1. What an excellent letter, Bill. Once you take the humanity out of science and education, you risk awful consequences like the results of eugenics. It raises a similar question that's been raised at least since Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: Just because we can do something, does that mean we should? In the case of eugenics the consequences should make us all stop and think.

    1. Margot: Thanks for the comment. "Humanity" seems almost lost at university in science. If it does not matter in education I fear the future. I do not see much desire in society today to think about the consequences of technology.

  2. I was shocked to find out that the beginnings of cancer research were rooted in eugenics when I read the Before My Time by Ami McKay (also published as Daughter of Family G) It's a fascinating combination of a memoir and a history of genetic research into cancer. I don't read a lot of non-fiction but this one was worth my time.

    1. Penny: Thanks for the comment. I am startled that the cancer research was rooted in eugenics. I am going to think about reading Before My Time. I believe we need to think more about genetic research.

  3. I agree about eugenics and also, with it, forced sterilizations, which did take place in the U.S. and are still going on, especially in the prisons.
    Adam Cohen wrote a good book about the Buck v. Bell case, wherein Carrie Buck, a poor young white woman sues the state of Virginia for forcing sterilization on her. The case went to the Supreme Court. The vote was 8 to 1 against her, and "liberals" went along with it.
    Also, Margaret Sanger, noted birth control pioneer, became a eugenicist.
    I think genetic research used to prevent horrid diseases, such as Tay Sachs, Huntington's disease abnd other inherited illnesses, is ethical. People die and suffering horrible deteriorating from these and other diseaes.
    A former partner of mine didn't know his sister. She had died at four from Tay-Sachs.
    But to promote eugenics was a key police of the Nazis in the extreme. It started in 1933, along with the anti-Jewish laws in Germany.
    And in the U.S., many women of color were sterilized, especially in the South. But the women's movement opposed this in New York City, when did sterilize poor women of color and pressured many into it.
    So, no, I'm against it, unless it is being used for good, like to prevent the inheritance of deadly diseases.

  4. Wow, my errors. I meant people die and suffer from horrible deterioration from these and other diseases.
    And I meant to say that the women's movement in New York City campaigned against forced sterilization of poor women and Black women and Latinas, and won an end to that in the 1970s.
    I have read of contemporary cases where judges offer prisoners some time off their sentences if they agree to be sterilized. Horrible.

    1. Kathy D.: Thanks for the comment. In The Historians the consequences of applying eugenics is taken to a higher level.