Joseph Spencer DeJarnette was born on September 29, 1866, in Spotsylvania County. He was the son of Elliott Hawes DeJarnette, formerly a captain in the, and Evelyn May Magruder DeJarnette. His uncle, Daniel C. DeJarnette, served in both the and House of Representatives. After the (1861–1865), his mother wrote stories, many in the then-popular Negro dialect genre, for national periodicals, including Century Illustrated Magazine and Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly. She educated DeJarnette and prepared him to enter the Medical College of Virginia, from which he graduated in 1888. He considered himself the genetically gifted descendant of and practiced at Richmond’s R. E. Lee Camp Confederate Soldiers’ Home for a year before joining the staff of Western Lunatic Asylum (after 1894 Western State Hospital) in Staunton. On February 14, 1906, he married a colleague and fellow physician, Chertsey Hopkins. They had no children. She discontinued practicing medicine after their marriage and died on December 7, 1947.
DeJarnette became the first president of the Augusta County Medical Society in 1904, and in 1906 he was appointed superintendent of Western State Hospital. Reflecting the reform ethos of the Progressive period, he revamped the hospital’s therapeutic standards, banned physical restraints, unlocked many patients’ rooms, and instituted more sympathetic treatment. During his administration the hospital expanded in size, including a number of buildings and additions DeJarnette designed himself and one of which bore his name. In 1932 adjacent to Western State he opened a self-supporting, semiprivate mental hospital for middle-income patients, which two years later the General Assembly renamed the DeJarnette State Sanatorium.
DeJarnette was in the vanguard of Virginia’s eugenic sterilization movement. In his 1908 annual report he recommended that the state prohibit marriage among the insane, alcoholics, epileptics, syphilitics, people with tuberculosis, and the feebleminded. DeJarnette argued that mentally disabled people should be sterilized because it amounted to a crime and a burden on society to allow them to procreate. He relentlessly demanded that the state pass a sterilization statute, and building on the eugenic theories of the country’s most prominent scientists he gained recognition as a leading authority.
After sixteen years of lobbying, during which DeJarnette spoke before medical societies, social workers, university students, and reformers, the General Assembly authorized eugenic sterilization in 1924. He then took part in arranging a court case to test the statute’s constitutionality. DeJarnette testified in support of the state’s involuntary sterilization of, an allegedly feebleminded eighteen-year-old Charlottesville woman. In Buck v. Bell (1927), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Virginia’s sterilization statute, a ruling that authorized the sterilizations of about 8,300 Virginians and 60,000 other Americans before 1980 in the more than thirty states that enacted similar laws. DeJarnette performed many of the 1,200 operations that occurred at Western State during his tenure.
The vigorous implementation of Virginia’s eugenic sterilization statute (Virginia trailed only California in the total number of people sterilized) did not satisfy DeJarnette. By May 1930 he had sterilized thirty-three women by tubal ligation, sixty men by vasectomy, and five people by x-ray exposure. He remarked in the January 1931 issue of Virginia Medical Monthly, “We are just getting into good working trim, and expect to sterilize 500 per year in the five hospitals” that the state operated. Beginning in 1933, when Nazi Germany instituted the world’s most ambitious sterilization program, DeJarnette closely watched its progress and in his published annual reports reported favorably on Germany’s programs. In 1934 he implored the General Assembly to broaden the scope of Virginia’s sterilization law; “the Germans,” he complained, “are beating us at our own game and are more progressive than we are.” DeJarnette never wavered in his advocacy of eugenics, not even after the revelation of the Nazi Holocaust, and he often recited or appended to his publications on eugenic sterilization a poem that he had composed,
DeJarnette defended eugenic sterilization and unrelenting racial segregation until his death at his home in Staunton on September 3, 1957. He was buried beside his wife in the Hopkins family section of Warm Springs Cemetery in Warm Springs, Bath County.