At the dawn of the Nazi era, a prominent Minneapolis physician sent a letter to Adolf Hitler, praising his "plan to stamp out mental inferiority among the German people."

At the time, Dr. Charles Dight was an influential public leader, a former city alderman who had founded the Minnesota Eugenics Society. As such, he believed that the "feebleminded" were unfit to have children. He didn't hide his admiration for the German chancellor.

"I trust you will accept my sincere wish that your efforts along that line will be a great success," he wrote on Aug. 1, 1933, "and will advance the eugenics movement in other nations as well as in Germany."

Dight died before he could see where that movement would lead.

The lure of eugenics -- the idea that science could improve on humanity by weeding out "undesirable traits" -- is the focus of "Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race," an exhibit opening tomorrow at the Science Museum of Minnesota.

The traveling collection of books, artifacts, posters, historic newsreels and interviews with survivors was produced by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and runs through May 4 in St. Paul.

It explores how highly educated people on both sides of the Atlantic, such as Dight, were swept up in the eugenics movement of the early 20th century. In the United States, that led to forced sterilizations in mental institutions, including thousands of Minnesotans.

In Nazi Germany, mass sterilization was just the beginning.

"This exhibition was designed to answer one of the big 'how was the Holocaust possible' questions," said Susan Bachrach, curator of the exhibition at the Holocaust Museum. "One of the answers has to do with the role of physicians and scientists."

"Deadly Medicine" documents how doctors ended up committing barbaric acts in the name of science.

Today, people such as Margot de Wilde of Plymouth still bear the scars. This week, she will share her story at an exhibit preview for local teachers.

Surviving Nazi experiments

De Wilde, now 86, fled her native Berlin in the early 1930s, just as the Nazis were coming to power.

Her parents, who were Jewish, thought the family would be safer in Amsterdam. That changed when Germany occupied Holland in World War II.

De Wilde, 21, was arrested with her first husband, Lodewyk Meyer, and his family while trying to escape to Switzerland. By the summer of 1943, she was on a cattle car to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Arriving at the notorious Nazi concentration camp in Poland, she heard someone call for young married women to step forward. She did.

De Wilde ended up in a barracks for women used in medical experiments. She never saw the doctors, who sent other prisoners to do their work.

"You were just called by number down to the room," she said. "They took X-rays and then inserted fluids into the vaginal area, and we didn't know what it was. We thought either artificial insemination or sterilization. And this was indeed the sterilization." To this day, she has no idea what the fluid was.

"It didn't hurt," she remembers. "But I never had children. So it must have worked." She witnessed even more brutal experiments, where many women died.

The Germans, she later learned, were searching for ways to sterilize mass numbers of people. Somehow, she knew she would survive. Her husband did not.

Breeding better humans

The idea of eugenics in the early 1900s was that science could "improve the human race," said Stephen Feinstein, director of the University of Minnesota Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, which is sponsoring the exhibit. The assumption was that certain people were fitter than others by birth, and if well matched, would produce the fittest children.

The theory had a certain rational appeal, said Bachrach. "If you could breed better animals, why couldn't you breed better human beings?"

But scientists quickly turned to the flip side: What about the "least fit"?

"Once you identify the good genes, then almost by logic you were starting to define what's bad for human beings," said Feinstein. "That sort of creates a mentality of, it's 'life unworthy of life' and you can dispense with it."

American eugenicists argued for mass sterilization of the mentally retarded. Minnesota joined the bandwagon in 1925, with a law permitting forced sterilization of patients in mental institutions.

"If you listen to eugenicists, they definitely talk over and over again about relieving the financial burden of the state," said Mark Soderstrom, a historian who studied the Minnesota eugenics movement as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. They argued, he said, that "one defective," if allowed to reproduce over generations, could eventually "bankrupt the state." The U.S. Supreme Court upheld forced sterilizations in a 1927 case, Buck vs. Bell, famously declaring "three generations of imbeciles are enough."

The exhibit traces how those same ideas took hold in Nazi Germany, along with the notion of "racial hygiene," or racial purity. It shows how German doctors and scientists followed a path from mass sterilization to mass murder, as the list of "inferior people" grew to the millions: Jews, Gypsies, blacks, deformed children, the mentally retarded, the mentally ill, the deaf, the blind.

"What they wanted to do was sort of cleanse the nation and create a healthy German people," said Feinstein. "The [belief] was that mixing races with other races diminished the stronger race. That was the concept of eugenics."

The exhibit is somber and thought-provoking, said Joanne Jones-Rizzi, a Science Museum program director. It's also a bit of a departure for a museum known for capturing the fun side of science. "We think it's really important to look at science from all perspectives, even when it's not necessarily fun," she said. Jones-Rizzi cautioned that parents might want to see this exhibit before taking their children.

The museum has assembled a lecture series to coincide with the exhibit, including speakers on medical experimentation on black Americans and Minnesota's eugenics past, as well as a survivor of the infamous twin experiments at Auschwitz.

De Wilde, who moved to Minnesota and remarried after the Holocaust, knows it's difficult for other generations to understand what happened. But she hopes it holds a message for children. "They should not judge from the outside, but look for the good parts of each other."

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384