Charles Matthias Goethe (1875-1966) was a prosperous local Sacramento businessman who was directly involved in the development of the capital and the CSUS campus, which received the largest portion of his estate including his personal residence and library. When he died in Sacramento on July 10, 1966, the Sacramento Bee celebrated CM Goethe as a "philanthropist, author, scientist, civic leader, and world traveler" and especially noted his devotion to nature preservation. Recognizing a "great loss to California and the nation," Governor Edmund G. Brown eulogized: "This marvelous man dedicated most of the waking moments of his life to the betterment of mankind. The results of his efforts are evident throughout the length and breadth of mankind."
CM Goethe was a highly influential public figure over much of the twentieth century who is best remembered for his dedication to nature conservation. Through the Save-the-Redwoods Foundation, Goethe used his substantial wealth to establish a number of memorial redwood groves in Northern California. Goethe’s enthusiastic support of nature study instigated the interpretive parks movement, which was responsible for the development of the educational aspects of the nation’s modern parks system.
Goethe was also a significant, and largely overlooked, advocate of eugenics both in California and beyond. He founded the Eugenics Society of Northern California in the 1930s, and was a lifelong advocate of "better breeding" principles, including restrictive immigration policies and the adoption of sterilization laws. For Goethe, nature conservation was an essential component of his complex eugenic vision of "human betterment." As historian Alexandra Minna Stern argues in her new book:
Goethe’s passion and zeal were rooted in an eccentric and expansive eugenic philosophy that integrated nature preservation, immigration restriction, and selective breeding. Goethe invested in what he understood as the comprehensive betterment of the biota, a grand total that could be attained through the enlightened management of the earth’s multitudinous and interrelated species, particularly those he deemed hardy, supple, and righteous. As a young man, Goethe coined two adages that became his lifelong mantras: ‘learn to read the trailside as a book,’ and ‘reduce biological illiteracy.’ The former applied directly to his conservationism. In addition to reading about plants, animals, and rocks in the library, Goethe was adamant that people should learn about evolution in nature’s laboratory. The latter slogan took this a step further to patterns of human reproduction and fitness, which Goethe thought could be grasped only by mastering biology and the health sciences, and above all the rules of heredity. 1
Goethe's legacy at CSUS was contested even before his death. In 1965, the May Second Committee, a radical student organization, protested plans by the administration to name the campus's new science building in Goethe's honor; suggesting that such a move endorsed Goethe's "SCIENTIFICALLY, HISTORICALLY, AND MORALLY BANKRUPT" ideas. While these protests were not immediately successful, the administration eventually decided not to name the science building after Sacramento's most well-known eugenicist.
How best to remember and address the complex legacy of Charles M. Goethe at Sacramento State remains an unresolved issue. Until recently, only the CM Goethe Arboretum (renamed the University Arboretum) on the edge of campus bore a physical reminder of Goethe's influence. This website, along with a Special Collections exhibit on Goethe, is motivated by the belief that only a thorough and honest examination of Goethe's eugenic vision, as well as his accomplishments, will lead the campus to an appropriate reckoning with the Goethe legacy.
|1.||Alexandra Minna Stern, Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), pp. 134-135.|
|Center for Science, History, Policy, and Ethics||California State University Sacramento|