The Dark Origin Stories Of Beloved Institutions


In this episode of Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know, Ben Bowlin and Matt Frederick take a deep dive into the deeply disturbing origins of some highly-respected institutions. These institutions might have done a lot of good since their founding, but along the way they made some serious mistakes, and their paths to success are quite literally lined with bodies. Take James Marion Sims, the father of gynecology. He’s credited with innovating the entire field of women’s health, inventing the speculum which is still in use today, and creating surgical techniques to correct a range of difficulties. His impact on women’s health is hard to overstate. But Dr. Simms experimented with his surgical techniques on enslaved women. He also thought black people couldn’t feel pain, a line of thinking that persists in the medical field today.

Georgetown University was going to shut down in 1838, so it financed its operations with the sale of 272 enslaved people to Southern plantations. Some priests of the Jesuit-run organization objected, but not because of the slavery part: They were worried that the black people sold to the South would be taught Protestant values, rather than Catholic ones. Many conservationists, intent on protecting the environment, took a hard line against all immigration, saying it led to overpopulation, “overbreeding,” and pollution – including the founder of the Sierra Club, one of the largest organizations dedicated to conservation efforts (and he wasn’t a big fan of Native Americans, either). And Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, was a eugenicist. 

There’s some light at the end of the tunnel, Ben says; the Sierra Club board unanimously voted in 2013 for some pro-immigration policies that represented a hard break with their past, though many members found that hard to swallow. And Georgetown University students voted in 2019 to impose a student fee onto their tuition to go directly towards the surviving descendants of the 272 enslaved people. And Planned Parenthood has issued statements denouncing Sanger’s eugenics, saying those views are “diametrically opposed” to their mission today. But it’s worth knowing about our pasts so we can better shape our futures. Listen to the episode for more details on Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know.

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