The Secret History of American Eugenics

After a particularly frustrating trip to a fast food joint today, I was riding in the car with a friend discussing how the world would be better off if insufferable idiots were not allowed to reproduce and thus make my life less convenient. We joked at how it should be illegal for dumb people to have kids which seemed funny at first. It quickly morphed into a conversation about how at one point in America’s history this was a law. After I returned home I began to research the facts about this and was overwhelmed at the ugly secret that for the most part is an unknown facet of American History. It was little over one hundred years ago, on March 9, 1907, that Indiana’s General Assembly passed one of America’s first actual compulsory sterilization laws, aimed at “confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles, and rapists”. Indiana also had a number of sterilizations before the law was even passed.  These sterilizations were carried out by a Dr. Harry Sharp in the Indiana State Reformatory on male inmates to “cure” masturbators. More than 30 states would end up passing compulsory sterilization laws that were eventually overturned or repealed. Although other countries have practiced eugenics and in some cases still do the United States was the first to undertake compulsory sterilization programs for that purpose. The main targets of the American program were the mental handicap, but in many states included those with epilepsy, physical disabilities, the deaf, the blind, the poor, and various minorities including Native Americans, and African Americans. African-American women were sterilized against their will in many states, often without their knowledge, while they were in a hospital for other reasons such as childbirth. Some sterilization’s took place in prisons and other penal institutions, in the end, over 65,000 individuals were sterilized in 33 states under state sponsored compulsory sterilization programs. Michigan was the first state to introduce a compulsory sterilization bill in 1897, but the proposed law failed to collect enough votes to be adopted. Eight years later Pennsylvania’s state legislators would pass a sterilization bill that was vetoed by the governor, before Indiana succeeded followed closely by Washington state and California.

In the late 19th century, rising populations in prisons and institutions for the feeble-minded or paupers led to the public perception of a degeneration in society that relentlessly would lead to “race suicide”. The socially inadequate were considered to include:

(1) The mentally diseased, e.g. maniacs and schizophrenics

(2) The dependant members of society, e.g. the deaf, deformed and blind

(3) the delinquents, such as the wayward and criminals;

(4) the mentally deficient, e.g. the morons and idiots

(5) the degenerates, e.g. sadists and drug habitués

(6) the infectious, such as those with tuberculosis, the syphilitics and lepers

Richard Dugdale, a New York prison visitor published a family tree of the Juke family identifying 709 persons descended in five generations from Ada Juke, “the mother of criminals”. Most of the Jukes at some point in their lives could be found in homes for the feeble-minded, alms houses, brothels and prisons – an enormous expense to the state derived from one individual. Using this information, it was argued that “degenerates” bred “degenerates” and these people were reported to be remarkably fertile.Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, coined the term “Eugenics”, meaning “the science which deals with all influences that improve inborn qualities”. It was adopted by a vociferous section of society, keen to diminish “cacogenic” germplasm by segregating defectives in institutions and removing their ability to reproduce. It was suggested that “the wise philanthropist, seeing the millions of dollars now used for caring for the weak and defective help only one generation, will soon be induced to provide large sums for eugenics, with the idea of preventing the production of the imbecile, the insane, the inebriate and the criminal. G. Frank Lydston, Professor of Genitourinary Surgery at Illinois, advocated the medical scrutiny of applicants for a marriage license, with sterilization of the unfit, including consumptives, epileptics, insane, incurable inebriates and criminals. He also argued for sealed apartments with a pipe for the admission of deadly gas “to kill promptly the convicted murderer and the driveling imbecile”. “Sterilization is the only sop that should be thrown to the Cerberus of sentiment”. The surgeon of possibly the highest professional standing to speak in favor of eugenic sterilization was Dr William Belfield, Professor of Surgery at Rush Medical College, who listed factors encouraging crime as: “the farcical maladministration of our medieval criminal laws, the notorious partnership between criminals and many public officials and the maudlin sentiment which has infinite compassion for the prisoner but none for those of us who keep out of jail”. (Quoted and from “The Chequered History of Vasectomy” by M.J. Drake)

American eugenic laws and practices from the first few decades of the 20th century influenced the much larger German Nazi’s compulsory sterilization program, which led to approximately 350,000 compulsory sterilizations between 1934 and 1945 and is considered a beginning to the Holocaust. After the facts of the Nazi sterilization program became more widely known (after World War II) in which the New York Times reported on extensively before its implementation in 1934, sterilizations still did not end in some American states, some states even continued to sterilize people up until the 1980s. Most sterilization laws in the U.S. were divided into three main categories: eugenic, therapeutic, or punitive. Most state run operations worked only to prevent reproduction, though some states did have laws which called for castration. In general, compulsory sterilization was performed under eugenic statutes there was never a federal sterilization statute, although famed eugenicist Harry H. Laughlin, who’s “Model Eugenical Sterilization Law” proposed the organization of one in 1922. After World War II, when public opinion towards eugenics and sterilization programs became more negative. The Oregon Board of Eugenics, later renamed the Board of Social Protection, existed until 1983, with the last forcible sterilization occurring in 1981. Other forcible sterilizations in Oregon, operating outside of Eugenics law, still continue to this day.  A few states continued to have sterilization laws on the books for much longer after 1983, though they were rarely if ever used, California sterilized more than any other state by a wide margin, and was responsible for over a third of all sterilization operations. Information about the California sterilization program was produced into book form and widely disseminated by eugenicists E.S. Gosney and Paul B. Popenoe, which was said by Adolf Hitler to be of key importance in proving that large-scale compulsory sterilization programs were feasible. Popenoe (1888-1979) was an American eugenicist, influential advocate of the compulsory sterilization of the mentally ill and the mentally disabled, and the father of marriage counseling in the United States. He once said “One of the greatest dangers in the use of sterilization is that overzealous persons who have not thought through the subject will look at it as a cure-all, and apply it to all sorts of ends for which it is not adapted. It is only one of many measures the state can and must use to protect itself from racial deterioration.”


California had by far the highest number of sterilizations in the U.S. during the height of the movement, 20,108 people in total were sterilized in the state prior to 1964. The first sterilization law was passed in 1909 where in sterilizations occurred at a steadily increasing rate until around 1950. Prior to 1921, there were 2,558 compulsory sterilizations, after 1950 the rate slowed until only 85 sterilizations occurred after 1960. Some evidence supports that sterilizations may have been performed into the 1970s, although through deception of patients and their guardians. In 1913 the law was expanded to target all inmates in state hospitals or homes for the feeble-minded, as well as all repeat offenders in state prisons. The 1917 amendments greatly expanded the groups targeted even further to include, “those suffering from perversion or marked departures from normal mentality”, and individuals with sexually-transmitted diseases. These two later laws expanded to include virtually any individual deemed unfit. The most commonly targeted groups were those with mental illnesses. These included alcoholics, epileptics, individuals with Down’s syndrome, the insane, and those who were manically depressed.  The range of those targeted was expanded as the result of the laws over the years.  These individuals were excessively female and racial minorities. Women who were seen as sexually promiscuous were often sterilized as a “cure” for their actions. The law was also applied to many others, ranging from alcoholics to paupers to people infected with syphilis. Mexicans and African Americans were also excessively sterilized. Inmates in prisons, particularly those whose crimes were of a sexual nature, were targeted in the early years of the program.  Later, the focus shifted primarily to target those with mental illnesses. Of the total sterilizations, 60% were labeled mentally ill and more than 35% were labeled mentally deficient. Men and women of Mexican decent represented between 7% and 8% of those sterilized, while African-Americans made up 1% of California’s population but accounted for 4% of all sterilizations.

Whereas Germany has taken steps to observe the horrors of its past, regarding compulsory sterilization, the United States has not. For most states, there still are a small number of studies that show how and where sterilizations occurred, such as hospitals, asylums. Other places where sterilizations were performed such as prisons and medical schools have chosen not to document that aspect of their histories. Although in recent years, the governors of many states have made public apologies for their past programs beginning with Virginia and followed by Oregon and California, none have offered to compensate those sterilized. Citing that few are likely still living (and would have had no affected offspring) and inadequate records remain by which to verify cases. There was at least one compensation case filed in the courts on the grounds that the sterilization law was unconstitutional. Poe v. Lynchburg Training School & Hospital in 1981 was rejected because the law was no longer in effect at the time of the filing. However, the petitioners were granted compensation as per stipulations of the law itself (which required informing the patients about their operations), had not been carried out in many cases. Needless to say after learning this I did not think it was funny to joke about preventing anyone from reproducing again. There is a lot more information out there pertaining to specific court rulings both for and against compulsory sterilization. I think this is just the first in a series of articles I will have to write on the subject.

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