Charles Goethe

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Charles Matthias Goethe (March 28, 1875 – July 10, 1966[1]) was an American eugenicist, entrepreneur, land developer, philanthropist, conservationist, founder of the Eugenics Society of Northern California, and a native and lifelong resident of Sacramento, California.

Nature guide movement[edit]

Goethe (German pronunciation: [ˈɡøːtə] and occasionally incorrectly as "Gaytee" ) wrote admiringly of California’s Forty-Niners, the State’s giant redwood trees, and loved the outdoors. He and his wife have been called the "The father and mother of the Nature Guide Movement,' initiating interpretive programs with the U.S. National Park Service.[2] This was motivated by their experience with nature programs in Europe and desire to educate visitors in the U.S. National Parks.[3] His motto was "Learn to Read the Trail-side as a Book."

Founder of Sacramento State College[edit]

Goethe founded California State University, Sacramento (Sacramento State College at the time), which in turn treated Goethe with the reverence of a founding father, appointed him chairman of the University's advisory board, dedicated the Goethe Arboretum to him in 1961, and organized an elaborate gala and 'national recognition day' to mark his 90th birthday in 1965, when he received letters of appreciation - solicited by his friends at CSUS - from the president of the Nature Conservancy, then-Governor Edmund G. Brown, and then-President Lyndon B. Johnson. As a result, in 1963, Goethe changed his will to make CSUS his primary beneficiary, bequeathing his residence, eugenics library, papers, and $640,000 to the University.[4]

When Goethe died, CSUS received the largest share of his $24 million estate.

Eugenics controversy[edit]

Goethe also recommended compulsory sterilization of the 'socially unfit', opposed immigration, and praised German scientists who used a comprehensive sterilization program to 'purify' the Aryan race before the outbreak of World War II. Goethe also funded anti-Asian campaigns, praised the Nazis before and after World War II, and practiced discrimination in his business dealings, refusing to sell real estate to Mexicans and Asians.

Goethe believed a variety of social successes (wealth, leadership, intellectual discoveries) and social problems (poverty, illegitimacy, crime and mental illness) could be traced to inherited biological attributes associated with 'racial temperament'.

Working with the Human Betterment Foundation in Pasadena, California, Goethe lobbied the State to restrict immigration from Mexico and carry out involuntary sterilizations of mostly poor women, defined as 'feeble-minded' or 'socially inadequate' by medical authorities between 1909 and the 1960s.[4][5]

Upon return from a trip to Germany 1934, which at the time was sterilizing over 5,000 citizens per month, Goethe reportedly told a fellow eugenicist, "You will be interested to know that your work has played a powerful part in shaping the opinions of the group of intellectuals who are behind Hitler in this epoch-making program. Everywhere I sensed that their opinions have been tremendously stimulated by American thought...I want you, my dear friend, to carry this thought with you for the rest of your life, that you have really jolted into action a great government of 60 million people."[5] The Nazi eugenics movement eventually escalated to become The Holocaust, which claimed the lives of well over 10 million 'undesirables', including 6 million Jews.

In Sacramento, during Goethe’s life, the advocacy of eugenics -the social philosophy of attempting to 'improve' the human population by artificial selection - was considered a progressive issue. Though it was opposed by many scientists who thought the understanding of human heredity was too shallow to create solid policy, and by religious leaders who opposed birth control of any form, in the years after the Holocaust it was not considered to be as radical as it is today.[5] Around 20,000 patients in California State psychiatric hospital were sterilized with minimal or non-existent consent given between 1909 and 1950, when the law went into general disuse before its repeal in the 1960s. A favorable report by Human Betterment Foundation workers E.S. Gosney and Paul B. Popenoe, touting the results of the sterilizations in California, was published in the late 1920s, which in turn was often cited by the Nazi government as evidence wide-reaching sterilization programs were feasible and humane.[6] When Nazi administrators went on trial for war crimes in Nuremberg after World War II, they justified their mass-sterilizations by pointing at the United States as their inspiration.

CSUS attempted to name a new science building after him in 1965, but that effort was rebuffed by students and teachers.[4] In 2005, the university changed the name of its arboretum and botanic garden from the Charles M. Goethe Arboretum to the University Arboretum without fanfare because of renewed attention to Goethe's virulently racist views, praise of Nazi Germany, and advocacy for eugenics.

On June 21, 2007, the school board of the Sacramento City Unified School District voted to rename the "Charles M. Goethe Middle School" to the "Rosa Parks Middle School".[7]

On January 29, 2008, the Sacramento Board of Supervisors stripped his name from one of Sacramento County's busiest parks.[8] On April 25, 2008, the Sacramento Bee reported that, with a nod from Internet voters and the county parks commission, the park will be renamed River Bend Park.[9]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Burke, Chloe. "Eugenics in California: Charles Matthias Goethe". Center for Science, History, Policy and Ethics, California State University, Sacramento. Retrieved 21 April 2016. 
  2. ^ "The World's Largest Summer Camp," Yosemite Nature Notes 37(7):89-94 (July 1958) by Charles M. Goethe. Traces the origin of nature guiding in National Parks; reprinted from Nature Magazine
  3. ^ "Nature Study in National Parks Interpretive Movement," Yosemite Nature Notes 39(7):156-158 (July 1960) by Charles M. Goethe
  4. ^ a b c Platt, Tony (February 29, 2004). "Curious historical bedfellows: Sac State and its racist benefactor: After receiving honors aplenty from university, C. M. Goethe left most of his big estate to it". The Sacramento Bee. Archived from the original on 1 July 2004. Retrieved 21 April 2016. 
  5. ^ a b c - 'Darkness on the edge of campus: University’s philanthropic 'godfather’ was mad about eugenics', Chrisanne Beckner, Sacramento News and Review (February 19, 2004)
  6. ^ - 'Eugenics and the Nazis -- the California connection', Edwin Black, San Francisco Chronicle (November 9, 2003)
  7. ^ - Search Results
  8. ^ News - Goethe name is gone from park -
  9. ^ - River Bend favored as new name for Goethe Park -

External links[edit]