Research Seminar: Karen Mahar

Research Seminar: Karen Mahar

"Eugenics and the Creation of the Business Executive, 1900-1920"


Virtual Event

Time: 12:00 p.m.

The term “business executive” was uncommon in American usage until 1900, when it appeared in nearly every issue of System magazine, a forerunner to Business Week. System’s mission was to proselytize the efficiencies of systematic management, and "business executive” emphasized the functional responsibility of managers to execute the goals of the firm down a chain of command. By this definition, all managers were executives, even foremen. System de-mystified executive work, interviewing successful executives who shared the minute details of their tasks, schedules, and habits.

Once in print, though, “business executive” escaped these functional boundaries, swiftly becoming a popular description used by and for white-collared businessmen of all kinds. It suggested an elite status and clear-headed decisiveness. But even corporate leaders who embraced systematic management rejected a purely functional definition of the business executive. Engineers could not measure the traits that made executives effective: “personality” and “the ability to control men.” But another science might: eugenics. Eugenicists believed that evolutionary theory could be applied to sort living humans by desirable and undesirable hereditary traits. Eugenic research in anthropology, sociology, and psychology claimed that clues to ability and personality could be found in outward physical traits, allowing employers to swiftly and “scientifically” match candidates to jobs and prevent inefficient “misfits.”

This paper will examine three eugenically-informed methods used by firms to identify executive talent during this period: 1) Katharine M. H. Blackford’s Character Analysis, a series linking physical features to abilities, 2) Enoch Burton Gowin’s The Executive and his Control of Men, an academic survey correlating executive power to physical “engine,” and 3) the Man-to-Man Rating System devised by industrial psychologist Walter Dill Scott that rewarded candidates who best matched men currently excelling in the same position. These methods assumed the fitness of current executives and validated traditional homophily—the preference for candidates who resembled themselves—by defining it as a beneficial racial instinct supported by science. This paper is a draft of the second chapter of “Corner Office: A History of the American Business Executive,” which examines how executive culture, management theory, and American history consistently linked executive competence to white masculinity for over a century.

Wendy Gamber, Robert F. Byrnes Professor and Chair, Department of History, Indiana University, will provide introductory comments.

Attendees are encouraged to read Mahar’s paper, ‘"Eugenics and the Creation of the Business Executive, 1900-1920," which may be obtained by contacting Carol Lockman at

Registration for this event is via Eventbrite.