Facts of the Case
The appellant in Buck v. Bell was Carrie Elizabeth Buck.petitioned a court in Charlottesville to have Buck committed, which it did on January 23, 1924. She remained in Charlottesville with another foster family until the birth of her child, Vivian Alice Elaine Buck, on March 28, 1924. Then, with the Dobbs family taking custody of the infant, Carrie Buck joined her mother at the colony on June 4, 1924.
In March of that year, the General Assembly passed a law that allowed for the state-enforced sterilization of those deemed genetically unfit for procreation. On September 10, the colony’s board approved a list of sixteen candidates recommended by Superintendent Albert Sidney Priddy for sterilization, including Buck. Before he performed the surgeries, however, Priddy, a firm supporter of sterilization but also a cautious and methodical administrator, determined to test the law’s constitutionality in the courts. To do this, he tabled all of the sterilization orders except for Buck’s.appealed the sterilization order to the Amherst County Circuit Court. Priddy hired Aubrey Strode, who had drafted the sterilization law, to defend the colony. Irving P. Whitehead, an experienced lawyer, a former colony board member, and a sterilization supporter, agreed to defend Buck. On November 18, 1924, Judge Bennett T. Gordon heard testimony in the case of Buck v. Priddy. Strode began by calling to the stand a Charlottesville nurse, three teachers, the superintendent of an Albemarle County orphanage, a welfare office clerk, and a man who claimed to be the brother-in-law of Buck’s dead biological father. Only two of the witnesses had ever met Buck, and only one of them had interacted with her recently. A social worker stated that Buck was “obviously feebleminded” and that her baby “had a look about it that is not quite normal.”
Strode then called several expert witnesses who testified about the controversial science of eugenics. Dr. Joseph Spencer DeJarnette, superintendent of the Western Lunatic Asylum in Staunton, explained, “feeblemindedness runs in families.” Asked by Buck’s attorney whether he had ever “trace[d] back along the lines of heredity to find out what was the beginning of the thing,” he replied, “No, sir. Adam, I think, was a little off himself on some things.” Arthur H. Estabrook, a eugenics researcher who had spent a single day interviewing and photographing Buck, her mother, and her child, concluded that they all were likely the product of “a defective strain.”
The legal historian Paul A. Lombardo has noted that Whitehead did not aggressively cross-examine any of the witnesses. He failed to exploit significant weaknesses in their testimony, conceded contentious facts, and at times seemed to testify himself on behalf of sterilization. When Strode rested his case, Whitehead did not call a single witness. “A bystander might reasonably have reached the conclusion that there were two lawyers working for Dr. Priddy and none for Carrie Buck,” Lombardo wrote in his history of the case, Three Generations, No Imbeciles (2008).
Priddy died of Hodgkin disease on January 13, 1925, and the following month Judge Gordon ruled in the colony’s favor. The written judgment, released on April 13, 1925, found that Buck was “feeble-minded and by the laws of heredity [was] the probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring”; as such, she should be sterilized. John Hendren Bell, the colony’s new superintendent, was named to the suit in Priddy’s place and the case was forwarded to the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.
Legal and Scientific Background
Enthusiasm for eugenics coincided with the Progressive Movement, which assumed that society could be improved through laws that encouraged better human behavior. Although eugenic assumptions suggested that such reforms were futile, many Progressives nevertheless embraced the new field, seduced by its modern, scientific connotations. Eugenicists believed that African Americans, American Indians, poor people, criminals, prostitutes, and alcoholics all suffered from inferior genes, a theory that lent scientific credibility to widespread assumptions about white supremacy and informed Virginia’s Act to Preserve Racial Integrity (1924).Virginia—had laws authorizing medical procedures on the institutionalized.
While Virginia’s 1916 legislation did not explicitly authorize sterilizations, it did authorize medical procedures that “tend to the mental and physical betterment of said patients,” and sterilization sometimes resulted. This was especially true for the treatment of “chronic pelvic disorder,” a procedure that Priddy claimed required cutting the fallopian tubes and that he performed most often on female patients of childbearing age who were about to be paroled, sometimes as a condition of their release. Twenty such women were sterilized by the end of 1916. Some of them were married and some were not immediately told that they could no longer bear children.
In 1917, George Mallory, of Richmond, sued the colony for $5,000 in damages following the sterilization of his wife, Willie Mallory. He contended that Willie Mallory and one of their children, Nannie Mallory, had been detained, diagnosed as feebleminded, and committed to the colony without the due process required by the 1916 law and that the sterilization procedure had been performed against the patient’s will. In 1917 a jury accepted Priddy’s argument that he had operated only out of medical necessity, and in 1918 the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals upheld that decision but freed all members of the Mallory family yet detained.
The case had the result of making Priddy and other superintendents more cautious about following the letter of the law. In 1920, Aubrey Strode drafted two successfully passed bills designed to protect Priddy: one that required the state to cover legal costs for superintendents in cases such as Mallory, and another that retroactively deemed legal the commitments of all current inmates at state mental institutions. The 1924 law, meanwhile, explicitly authorized sterilizations and outlined a series of legal safeguards intended to insulate it from a successful legal challenge. With the Buck case, Priddy hoped to finally clear the way for an ambitious sterilization program founded on eugenic principles.
Appeals Process and Supreme Court
Whitehead’s brief was less than half as long as Strode’s. It conceded that Carrie Buck was feebleminded while implying the same about her child. Citing the Fourteenth Amendment, he argued that sterilization deprived Buck of due process by violating “her bodily integrity” and of equal protection by targeting only a portion of the state’s feebleminded population. Finally, he suggested that the procedure’s benefits to the patient remained unproven and, in fact, may have been a smokescreen intended to hide the government’s intention “to rid itself of those citizens deemed undesirable according to its standards.”
It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.
Referring to the fact that various courts had found Emma Buck, her daughter Carrie Buck, and her granddaughter Vivian Buck all to have been feebleminded, Holmes concluded, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
On October 19, 1927, John H. Bell, the colony’s superintendent, performed a salpingectomy, sterilizing Carrie Buck. She was released from the institution a month later.
In England, where the eugenics movement had started, sterilization laws never took hold. “I do not say that the law ought not, at some future time, to be extended more widely,” the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote in Marriage and Morals (1929). “I say only that our scientific knowledge at present is not adequate for this purpose, and that it is very dangerous when a community allows its moral reprobations to masquerade in the guise of science, as has undoubtedly happened in various American States.” Pope Pius XI, in an encyclical dated December 31, 1930, also opposed those who would “put eugenics before aims of a higher order.”
Eugenics had been popular in Germany before World War II (1939–1945), and at the Nuremberg Trials in 1945–1946, prosecutors took aim at sterilizations performed in concentration camps “in the guise of scientific research.” Multiple Nazi defendants cited Buck v. Bell and Holmes’s decision in their own defense.
In the United States, meanwhile, Buck v. Bell was never overturned. In Skinner v. Oklahoma (1942), the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed sterilization as a punitive measure, something the Virginia law already was careful to repudiate. Virginia finally repealed its sterilization law in 1974, and on December 29, 1980, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Lynchburg Training School and Hospital (previously the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded) on behalf of the men and women who had been sterilized there. In Poe v. Lynchburg Training School and Hospital (1981), the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia ruled that while the sterilizations had been legal, there was cause to believe that correct procedure had not always been followed. The plaintiffs later settled with the state out of court, with the state agreeing to attempt to locate all living persons who had been sterilized, to inform them of the consequences of the operation, and to provide them with counseling and medical treatment.state historical highway marker was dedicated to Buck v. Bell in Charlottesville on that day.