Forgotten Stories of the Eugenic Age #4, Part 1: The Short Life and Eugenic Death of Baby John Bollinger
by Natalie Oveyssi on September 24th, 2015
[Forgotten Stories of the Eugenic Age is a blog series exploring the lesser-known ways that eugenics affected and engaged American lives during the first half of the twentieth century.]
In November 1915, Chicago physician Harry Haiselden decided to let newborn John Bollinger die.
Baby Bollinger, as he was called in the many press reports of the time, was born paralyzed on the left side of his body, missing his left ear altogether and the ear drum of his right ear. His right cheek was connected to his shoulder, and he had a curved spine and closure of the intestinal tract. His only chance of survival was immediate surgery.
Obstetrician Climena Serviss called in the hospital’s chief surgeon, Dr. Haiselden, to consult. A firm believer in the doctrine of eugenics, he examined Baby Bollinger and arrived at the conclusion that even if surgery was successful, the child would grow up to be a mental and moral “defective” who would burden his family and society and taint the human race. Indeed, Haiselden believed that it would be morally wrong to allow the baby to live. As he later recounted, he wondered, “Would his mind be clear? Would his soul be normally alive? That I do not know, but the chances are against it.” Haiselden informed the baby’s parents that, in his estimation, the child would be better off dead. In due course, Mr. and Mrs. Bollinger came to agree.
Having made this decision, Haiselden contacted a reporter to share the story, believing that shedding light on such practices would make the case for the betterment of society through eugenics. Journalists from other newspapers latched onto the story, reporting it as one of the first cannon shots of the eugenic movement.
Haiselden was not the first prominent figure to voice the belief that certain children’s lives should not be preserved. In 1912, D. H. H. Goddard—respected eugenist, author of The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness, and coiner of the term “moron”—argued, ironically at a Philadelphia “baby saving show,” for the extermination of children with intellectual and physical disabilities who are “calculated to grow up to increase the race of thieves and paupers.” But Haiselden’s decision in the case of Baby Bollinger pushed this concept from the hypothetical realm into reality.
As newspapers printed the story, a firestorm erupted. While the baby lay in the hospital dying of starvation, calls poured in, with some people begging Haiselden to reconsider, and others urging him to remain steadfast in the course he had chosen. Threats to kidnap the child and take him elsewhere for care led the hospital to station a guard at his bedside.
When the baby finally died on November 18 at five days old, the controversy intensified. Members of the public thirsted to hear Haiselden’s reasons for refusing to operate so they could decide whether to praise his ideals or excoriate his callousness. Some took to the papers to demand that the state open an inquest to formally settle the matters of whether Baby Bollinger would have lived with operation, whether the baby was truly mental or morally “damaged,” and whether a doctor had the right to determine “defectiveness” in an infant, and, once done, decide if that baby should live or die. They wanted, too, to pass their own judgments on Baby Bollinger’s fitness to live.
Coroner Peter Hoffman had initially believed that an inquest was unlikely, since “the case is not different from many others” and “the physician knows the cause of death,” but the extensive public attention prompted police to open an official investigation. Hoffman’s office was asked to perform an autopsy, and a coroner’s jury was to determine whether Haiselden would be charged with any crime.
At the hearing, Haiselden testified that he had consulted with fifteen other physicians over the fate of Baby Bollinger, fourteen of whom had agreed with his decision. However, when pressed to give names, he could only provide two: Dr. Climena Serviss, who had initially called him for consultation, and Chicago Health Commissioner Dr. John Dill Robertson, who had publicly denounced Haiselden’s actions and who testified against him at the hearing.Haiselden further stated that he had told these fifteen physicians that if any wished to operate, he would not prevent them from doing so. They all declined his offer, he said, until one asked for permission about two hours before the baby died. Haiselden denied the request on the grounds that it was “against [his] ethics to operate on a dying person.”
Haiselden’s testimony included a series of contradictory statements. “I did not believe the life prospects of the child were good.” “He might have lived for a number of years.” “A dangerous surgical operation would have gained nothing for the child.” “Without [an operation], the baby could not live.” “I did not wish to operate lest, if it should die on the table, I should be accused of killing the baby.”
He argued that the parents had been fully informed about their baby’s health problems and had not been pressured to accept his decision. He recounted telling the father that, in his professional estimation, the baby would be disturbingly deformed, mentally and morally defective, a burden to himself and society, and doomed to a life of pain and suffering. The mother had never seen the child, and the parents had not been informed that Dr. Robertson supported an operation. Mr. and Mrs. Bollinger had agreed to allow the doctor to treat their baby as he thought best.
He protested in his defense that it was common practice among Chicago doctors—and indeed doctors everywhere—to allow “hopelessly defective” babies to die. In fact, he said, at least one baby a day in Chicago is secretly left to die, a statement that no one at the hearing contradicted. He concluded, “If I am to be jailed, I am ready to take my medicine. My conscience is clear.”
John Dill Robertson was Haiselden’s strongest critic at the hearing. He testified that he had examined the baby, and had expected his problems to be worse than they were. Robertson thought that if the infant had received a timely operation, he would have had a chance of survival. He expressed concern about the dangerous precedent of not working to the fullest extent to save a life, and of relegating to a single doctor judgment over worthiness to live. “If our civilization has reached a stage where the life or death of infants is to be determined on the grounds of fitness,” he said, “then, like the ancient Spartans, we should establish a legal tribunal to pass upon the babies that are to live and those that are to be exposed to death.”
After the autopsy and hearing, the jury declared in a statement, “We find no evidence from the physical defects in the child that it would have become mentally or morally defective. Several of the physical defects might have been improved by plastic operations.” The jury also expressed the belief that a “prompt operation would have prolonged and perhaps saved the life of the child.”
The jury agreed that “morally and ethically, a surgeon is fully within his rights in refusing to perform any operation which his conscience will not sanction.” However, it hinted that it was uncomfortable with the idea of any one doctor making a decision to withhold a potentially lifesaving operation. It recommended that at least two doctors be consulted in such matters. In its strongest criticism of Haiselden, the jury concluded, “We believe that the physician’s highest duty is to relieve suffering and to save or prolong life.”
This was indeed the strongest formal censure Haiselden would receive; the coroner’s jury decided not to charge him.
Even after the verdict, the state of Illinois considered indicting Haiselden for criminal carelessness due to a faulty diagnosis in the Baby Bollinger case. In December, the Illinois Board of Health pursued an inquiry and examined the testimony from the inquest, but chose not to pursue further action. Haiselden had been the consulting and not the attending physician in the Bollinger case, they reasoned, and so could not be held responsible for the baby’s death.
Professional organizations issued a range of responses to the Baby Bollinger case. Before the child’s death, the Medico-Legal Society of New York passed a resolution commending Haiselden for allowing the baby to die, thus “not only saving the child misery, but saving society the responsibility of caring for it.”
On the other hand, after long deliberation, the Chicago Medical Society expelled Haiselden on March 14, 1916. Even so, the society sidestepped addressing the morality of Haiselden’s actions, and explained that their decision was based not on the doctor’s actions in the Bollinger case, but for “seeking newspaper notoriety and gaining financially” from it. As Independent magazine later observed, Haiselden’s offense, then, “at the worst is not a question of ethics at all, but merely a violation of trade union rules.”
Other organizations deliberately ignored the case. The New York Academy of Medicine held its regular meeting on the evening of December 2, two weeks after the baby’s death. Earlier that same day, another baby had died due to similar inaction from her doctors, whom some maintained had been emboldened by Haiselden’s precedent. However, the president of the organization said that it would be against the association’s rules to discuss the two cases at the meeting.
In spite of his expulsion from the Chicago Medical Society, Haiselden continued to practice at the German-American Hospital where Baby Bollinger had been born and died, and the case continued to bring him his notoriety and financial benefits in the following months and years. In fact, debate raged long after the legal and professional consequences were put to rest. And the public was soon to receive more fodder, as Haiselden’s eugenic legacy was not yet complete.
Previously on Biopolitical Times:
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