Dr. Corwin is looked at from two different points of view, one that is thankful for all the good that he did for Southern Colorado, and the other is his association with Eugenics. In this report I try to explain how so many Intellectuals of his time got caught up in the Hubris of a perfect society that so easily discounted those that may not have been perfect. It is not an excuse, but an acknowledgement that man is prone to foolish attempts at Utopia.
Dr. Richard Corwin was born May 24th 1852 in Binghamton New York, and received his Medical degree from the University of Michigan in 1878. In 1881 after interning at St. Luke’s Hospital in Chicago he was offered a position as chief surgeon at Colorado Coal and Iron, later to become Colorado Fuel and Iron (CF&I). His contributions to Pueblo, and in fact all of southern Colorado over the next forty five years were immeasurable.
When he first came to Pueblo Colorado Coal and Iron ran a small nineteen bed hospital converted from a single house. In 1882 when a typhoid epidemic filled that small hospital beyond capacity he convinced the company to build a newer hospital that he helped design that had eighty beds and would be constantly expanding. That would become Minnequa hospital and would service all of the CF&I employees and their families in the Pueblo area. Seeing a need for health services in the other communities that were related to CF&I, he had a doctor or nurse and an infirmary in all the mining towns that serviced CF&I. Realizing the importance of health of not only employees, but also their families to the overall benefit of the company, he felt a responsibility to the all those that worked for the company. In 1902 under the leadership of DR. Corwin, CF&I started their Sociological Department that supported kindergartens and eventually schools in all the mining towns. Dr. Corwin intrinsically understood that good health was important not only for employees, but also their families, and that good living conditions was in fact good for the community.
In Pueblo itself Dr. Corwin was on the school board for almost forty years and was a big proponent of education for all children. CF&I sponsored the YMCA in Pueblo and built smaller versions in the mining towns, as Corwin thought that physical activity was a way to insure good health in the community. He encouraged the benefit of local teams to give youth a sense of community and keep them active in productive activity. These were often run out of the YMCA, but often CF&I would sponsor teams.
Dr. Corwin was always researching and learning about the latest medical breakthroughs and often authored articles about the observations and new medicine that was being discovered. During World War I he went to see the latest medicine being practiced on the front. He was keenly aware of the relationship and similarities between industrial accidents and war related injuries. When he came back he shared these observations with the staff at Minnequa hospital, making Minnequa hospital one of the most advanced in the state.
Dr. Corwin did have a dark side, especially looking back with our twenty first century values and moralities. That dark side was enthusiasm and interest in eugenics. Eugenics was a byproduct of Charles Darwin’s book On The Origin Of Species, published in 1859, which gained a large following in the gilded era amongst the intellectuals of the time. The word eugenics was coined by Darwin’s cousin, Sir Francis Galton in 1883 derived from the Greek word eugenes, meaning well born, or of noble race. Defined by Anglo Saxon culture as “the study of or belief in the possibility of improving the qualities of the human species or a human population, especially by such means as discouraging reproduction by persons having genetic defects or presumed to have inheritable or undesirable traits. Corwin was not alone in this thinking as many of the brightest minds in the world at this time believed in it also, including Teddy Roosevelt, H. G. Wells, Winston Churchill, Woodrow Wilson, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., family planning pioneer Marie Stopes, and even Helen Keller. All of them thought that they could improve society by limiting the diseased and disabled and under class of poverty if they controlled the reproduction systems of those that they saw as undesirables; it was an elitist attitude spawned from Darwin’s theory of evolution. It definitely had a racial element to it, as many thought that it would be a way to control all races that were not of northern European descent. Corwin was not the only scientist who endorsed eugenics, as Linus Pauling, a two time Nobel Prize winning Chemist, also endorsed this philosophy, and Francis Crick, the Nobel Prize winning discoverer of DNA.
This was a dangerous solution to poverty and disease that would be presented in all its brutality to the world by Adolph Hitler and the Holocaust in the late 1930s and early 1940s. This would change many peoples thinking drastically, as they came to terms with what eugenics looked like in its most cruel form. As historians look back and tell the story of eugenics they must be careful to not insert twenty first century ideals into the early 1900s. The explosion of eugenics thoughts had to go through its own evolution and ethical search for its legitimacy. Ironically some of Dr. Corwin’s solutions that he proposed here in southern Colorado, early education and good medical care for all were the solution to many of the problems of the poor and the underclass. There is no doubt that eugenics and the elitist attitude that came with it was in direct conflict with all that he did well. Eugenics is a testament to the hubris of educated man and new science that allows for man to imagine utopian ideas. Sometimes our imagination over reaches and we have to think through the unintended consequences.