A Breed Apart: A Long-Ago Effort To Better the Species Yields Ordinary Folks
August 17, 1999
Pioneer Fund Tried to Spread
Of Top Air Force Fliers
`Sound and Desirable Stock’
The Wall Street Journal
By Douglas A. Blackmon
WARE, Mass. — Tomorrow, Ward and Darby Warburton, twin brothers born on Aug. 18, 1940, will celebrate their 59th birthdays with cake and a crowd of grandchildren gathered at the home of their 86-year-old mother near this picturesque New England mill town.
The brothers’ shared birthday marks something more than another milestone in the lives of two World War II-era babies. It also marks the start of their involvement in an odd experiment six decades ago of which the Warburton family was a mostly unwitting subject.
Long before cloned sheep, egg donors and sperm banks, a group of wealthy Northeastern conservatives embarked on an experiment with the help of the U.S. Army Air Corps to find a way to improve the human race. The group, formed in 1937, called itself the Pioneer Fund. As is spelled out in hundreds of pages of documents and letters by its founders and their associates, the Pioneer Fund, alarmed by the declining U.S. birth rate and rising immigration, was at the forefront of the eugenics movement. Like many other prominent leaders of the time, the fund’s directors were particularly concerned that “superior” Americans were not reproducing enough to pass on their “natural endowments.”
So they set out to spur procreation among a group they regarded as superior indeed — military pilots and their crews. With the support of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of war, Harry H. Woodring, the group offered $4,000, about $46,000 in today’s dollars, for the education of additional children born during the year 1940 to any officer who already had at least three offspring.
The Air Corps — precursor to the U.S. Air Force — promoted the program and provided the fund’s psychologists extensive records on its officers, including training, parentage, race and religion, according to various memos and letters written among Pioneer Fund leaders and records of the experiment. By the end of 1940, a dozen qualifying infants — seven boys and five girls, including two sets of twins — had been born. The Pioneer Fund had expected bigger numbers. Looming war clouds seemed to have trumped the fund’s financial incentives. The Pioneer Fund quietly made arrangements for the children to receive their scholarships, and never contacted the families again.
The Pioneer Fund, which today remains a controversial funder of research into the roots of intelligence, says the 1940 effort was a legitimate experiment to gauge attitudes toward family size, and nothing more. The Air Force declines to comment.
But how did the kids turn out?
The Wall Street Journal was able to track down eight of the 12 born in 1940. One died as an infant. But the other seven grew up to be moderately successful citizens. Some didn’t know the background behind the payments received long ago and were vaguely troubled to learn the details. Among the seven children who survived into adulthood, there are no ranking generals and no war heroes. No criminals, either.
“My dad told me they were trying to create more fighting men,” jokes Ward Warburton. “Well, I did get into a lot of fights coming up. And I could always take care of myself pretty well.”
Today, the Warburton brothers are air-conditioning repairmen, each with his own successful small business here in Ware, a town of 10,000 about 25 miles from Springfield, Mass.
“I doubt we’re superior,” says John F. Rawlings, an affable Seattle homebuilder, whose father became one of the first four-star generals in the Air Force and later the chairman of General Mills Inc. The younger Mr. Rawlings joined the Air Force but was too nearsighted to fly. He says he inherited the bad eyes from his mother.
The stories of the Pioneer Fund children and the largely routine lives they have led underscore the naivete of such a clumsy effort to sculpt the human race. But they also are reminders of sinister racial assumptions prevalent in mainstream America just a generation ago.
All officers in the Air Corps were white; African-Americans were barred from the Air Corps until 1941, and even then were shunted into all-black squadrons. Many early genetic researchers believed that race-mixing would damage the white race’s “germ plasm” — a human component that early scientists believed carried a race’s hereditary traits. Leaders in Nazi Germany fervently embraced such eugenic theories.
The pilot procreation plan was endorsed by an array of high-ranking military and political leaders, including Mr. Woodring, one of President Roosevelt’s top aides. Moreover, many U.S. states had laws in that era authorizing the sterilization of mentally retarded people. Conventional wisdom held that whites almost certainly were born smarter than blacks.
“Hitler thought that, too,” says Michael Skeldon, another of the Pioneer Fund children. Now a supervisor at a San Antonio air-conditioner factory, Mr. Skeldon was troubled to learn what was behind the mysterious payments his family received long ago. “I find real odd this Pioneer group trying to mold people.”
As it turns out, creating a better race was more complicated than the Pioneer Fund and its allies thought back in 1938. John C. Flanagan, a young researcher who became one of the most famous behavioral psychologists in the U.S. in the ensuing 50 years, supervised the 1940 experiment. (He died in 1996.) Nonetheless, scientists today say the test was fundamentally flawed; subsequent scholarship has shown that highly successful parents don’t necessarily give birth to highly successful children. And indeed, counter to the hopes of the Pioneer Fund’s directors in 1940, the lives led by the children born that year bear out precisely that idea.
The project was launched in the spring of 1937. Frederick Osborn, secretary of the Pioneer Fund and a leading proponent of racial eugenics, met at least twice with Mr. Woodring; the secretary of war encouraged the project and hooked the fund up with top military leaders, including famed aviation commander Gen. H.H. “Hap” Arnold. “Secretary Woodring is really interested,” Mr. Osborn wrote to other fund directors in May 1937. A few months later, Gen. Arnold gave the fund’s experiment the green light.
At the time, the fund was new, created just months earlier with a promise of financial support from its principal founder, Wickliffe Preston Draper, heir to a Massachusetts manufacturing fortune. Mr. Draper, who died in 1972, and his support for southern segregationists were the subject of a front-page article in The Wall Street Journal on June 11.
The choice of pilots and their crews was logical enough. Military aviators were the astronauts of their day. Charles Lindbergh’s heroic 1927 crossing of the Atlantic was a fresh memory. Moreover, Mr. Draper was a veteran of World War I and an admirer of military officers. He used the title “colonel” most of his adult life. Clearly, aviators were “of sound and desirable stock,” a Pioneer Fund memo asserted at the time.
Indeed, many of the fathers of the dozen children born in 1940 were high achievers. Several were among the pioneering military pilots who in the 1920s created what would become the modern U.S. Air Force. During World War II, they rose to distinction as pilots and generals. Later, some excelled as businessmen or teachers. The six who could be identified by the Journal are now dead. None of the parents appear to have known about Mr. Draper’s backing of the Pioneer Fund. Some did know vaguely that the fund sought to breed better humans; they or their children say the parents never shared the fund’s racial views. Instead, most appear to have considered the scholarships to be some kind of short-lived government benefit for high-achieving fliers.
To foster replication of such men, the Pioneer Fund first financed a detailed study in 1938 of the attitudes of about 400 Air Corps officers and their wives toward family size. It concluded that financial worry was a major reason why the military men often limited themselves to three children or fewer.
Armed with the results, the Pioneer Fund’s board met a few weeks before Christmas 1938 and approved a plan for the scholarship program. The following May, brochures outlining the project were distributed at air bases around the country.
After a qualifying child was born during 1940, the father would fill out a simple application form and mail it in. Once the fund had confirmed the birth of the child and size of its family, an “educational annuity” was established. The families were to begin receiving payments of $500 a year when the child turned 12 and continue for eight years, for a total of $4,000.
The whole thing looked dubious to some Air Corps families even then. “We just kind of chuckled about it,” says Helen Ryan, an 87-year-old Air Force widow who remembers the program but had no children then and couldn’t participate. “We all thought it was kind of a big joke.”
Still, a no-strings-attached grant that was bigger than most officers’ total annual pay looked good to some. And as winter lifted in 1940, word of new arrivals began trickling into the Pioneer Fund.
Mr. Skeldon was born on March 2, in a military hospital in Panama, where his father was stationed. The son would follow his father’s footsteps into the Air Force in the 1960s, but worked as a mechanic, not a pilot. Born to Maj. John J. Morrow was a son named Robert. He’s an electrician in Pennsylvania, according to his son. He couldn’t be reached.
On Aug. 18, the Warburton boys were delivered at a hospital near Dayton, Ohio. Their father, stationed at a nearby airfield, was one of the Air Corps’ most dashing “scout pilots” — the term then used for the men who flew fighter planes.
Two months later, on Oct. 17, came John Rawlings, the fourth child of Edwin Rawlings, a fast-rising officer who had been quietly hoping for a daughter. (He already had three sons.) Less than two weeks later came another set of twins, this time at Barksdale Air Force Base outside Shreveport, La., to John P. Ryan. Mr. Ryan, a future general, developed high-altitude bombing tactics used in the war. A 1943 Pat O’Brien movie, “Bombardier,” was based partly on his life. The twins were girls; the first to arrive looked like her mother, Anna, so she was named Anne Marie. Her twin looked like her paternal grandmother, Mary. She became Maryann.
Today, Maryann Russo is a former teacher who for the past 17 years has worked on the factory line in a photo-processing plant in Baltimore, cutting and inspecting thousands of glossy prints. She gave up teaching elementary school because the pupils were too unruly. “The belt doesn’t talk back,” she notes.
Her sister, now Anne Marie Bricker, is a nurse practitioner in Arizona. Ms. Bricker, recently divorced, moved this summer from Sedona to Phoenix, abandoning a private practice to work in a clinic. “I want to have more time for doing fun things for myself,” she says.
The Warburton babies were certainly good candidates for the Pioneer Fund project. Their father, Ernest K. Warburton, was a young pilot who would soon be Brig. Gen. Warburton and the most famous test pilot of the era, flying more than 400 different allied and captured enemy aircraft. In 1945, he and the airmen under his command were the first U.S. troops to land in Japan after its surrender. Later, he commanded all air operations for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The Warburton family heard about the Pioneer offer after Anna Warburton realized she was carrying twins, her fourth and fifth children, Mrs. Warburton says today. “I remember him coming home all” excited about the scholarship, says Mrs. Warburton, now 86. “All we really knew was that it was . . . for the children’s education, and it was intended to propagate a superior group.”
Ward and Darby grew up in the classic life of military children, moving often between Air Force bases in the U.S. and Europe. Both finished high school and signed up as military reservists, though they never saw active duty.
For more than 30 years, the brothers have kept refrigerators, air conditioners and washing machines running in this bucolic corner of Massachusetts, the family’s home territory. Darby works on commercial cooling units. Ward is a jack-of-all appliances repairman. Their other siblings — including two doctors — are scattered from Hawaii to North Carolina.
On a grassy hilltop just outside Ware, Ward lives in a comfortable gray frame house overlooking the small tree-lined lake on which his future wife was skating the first time he saw her. His mother-in-law’s home sits across the water from theirs. A collection of used washers and other appliances scavenged for spare parts protrudes from the woods behind the house.
Before venturing out a decade ago to start repairing appliances in his garage, Mr. Warburton was a fix-it man for Sears, Roebuck & Co. for 28 years. “I loved the job,” he says.
Just down the highway lives Ward’s fast-graying twin, Darby, in a rambling white farmhouse. Out of a barn behind the home, Darby runs a two-man commercial air-conditioning service business, which he bought in 1962. He wants to retire next year. So in June, his 26-year-old son, Ernest, started working in the family business with plans to take over.
Ward is a member of Ware Lions Club. Darby is a Rotarian. Darby, who attended the University of Michigan but didn’t graduate, is financially the more successful brother. He keeps two vintage Corvettes as hobby cars, driving them to Rotary meetings every week and on other special occasions. Over a recent dinner at the Salem Cross Inn — where Darby maintains the walk-in cooler — the brothers banter about their decades of mostly friendly competition.
“I try to steal as many of Darby’s customers as I can,” Ward says. “Darby gets mad when I do.”
“I do not get mad,” huffs Darby, partly serious.
Darby says he doesn’t recall ever knowing anything about the Pioneer Fund program before a reporter contacted the family recently, though his brother and mother insist that he was told. For his part, Ward clearly recalls the day more than 40 years ago that his father told him about the Pioneer Fund plan.
“I was the slow one in the family,” says Mr. Warburton, recalling his days as an academically frustrated teenager. “Just kidding around one day . . . to cheer me up, he said, `Ward, come out of it, you’re the master race.’ ”