Mount Alvernia High School, Newton, Massachusetts

Ralph  Ellison

Esperanza  Wilson 
Nazi Eugenics and Human Experimentation

Ralph Ellison: The Influence of Past Experiences and Role Models on Personal Development

Eugenics is pseudo-science that aims to “cleanse society” of all the inhabitants deemed to possess “bad blood.” During the mid-twentieth century, German Nazis employed this process, driven by the desire to create an Aryan race in Germany. Eugenics, according to Sir Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin, was the process of encouraging healthy habits for the “fit” in society, while discouraging the same habits for the poorer people. Over time, the Nazis radicalized this idea with the use of execution and torture. Nazi doctors used human experimentation to develop cures for certain diseases such as typhus and malaria. These remedies were used to preserve the “Aryan race” and eradicate illnesses for this group of people. During this process, doctors injected humans with viruses; the subjects of these experiments died as a result. Josef Mengele, an infamous Nazi doctor, performed these violent and gruesome experiments. Concentration camps were used to exterminate large numbers of people deemed to possess this “bad blood.” In order to prevent the procreation of these handicapped individuals, sterilization laws and marriage laws were developed and enforced.

During the same time period as these experiments and legislative developments, Ralph Ellison published his first works, Invisible Man and Flying Home and Other Stories. Ralph Ellison’s works imply that role models are not critical in personal development, but rather one’s past experiences enable internal growth. Ellison uses the fictional characters in the novel, Invisible Man, to illustrate how role models can be deceiving. Rather than depending on the influence of role models, Ellison implies that an individual must value his own past experiences in order to develop a stronger sense of self. The narrator’s grandfather advises him that, “[he] was [his] experiences and [his] experiences were [him]…” (508). His grandfather emphasizes the importance of past experiences on one’s personal journey to identity. Ellison’s memoir, Shadow and Act, reveals that he experienced similar difficulties with literary role models who he discovered were less than deserving of his praise. Ultimately, he encourages his readers to look inward to identify themselves.

Major Works Consulted:

Annas, George and Michael Grodin. The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremberg Code. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.
Ellison, Ralph. Flying Home and Other Stories. New York: Vintage, 1998.
---. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage, 1995.
Nicosia, Francis and Jonathan Huener. Medicine and Medical Ethics in Nazi Germany. Montpelier: Berghahn, 2002.
Photo Credit: Rhynes, Martha. Ralph Ellison: Author of Invisible Man. Greensboro: Morgan Reynolds, 2006.