The Eugenical Sterilization Act
Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s half-cousin, coined the term eugenics in 1883 to describe what he called “the science of improving stock—not only by judicious mating, but whatever tends to give more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing over the less suitable.” By the early twentieth century, eugenicists increasingly focused on what they believed to be a linkage between genetics and undesirable social outcomes such as poverty and crime. Henry Goddard’s influential 1912 study The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-mindedness argued that the trait that Goddard labeled “feeblemindedness” to describe the developmentally disabled was inherited. He further argued that it was the cause of crime, alcoholism, prostitution, and sexual promiscuity. In 1915, the Virginia Board of Charities and Corrections issued a report entitled Mental Defectives in Virginia that further defined a feebleminded person as someone who is “permanently, expensively, and often-dangerously anti-social.” Taking a cue from eugenic propaganda, this definition focused on the supposed burden to society from excessive reproduction by the feebleminded. The report argued that “approximately 80% of mental defectiveness is transmitted from parent to child, and for reason of lack of self-restraint, the high-grade feeble-minded are producing 7 children to the normal family’s average of 4 children.”
The state sought to identify feebleminded persons by using intelligence tests and to control them by confining them to industrial workhouses where they could be occupied “every hour of the day” and “fitted for a life of usefulness.” In 1916, the General Assembly passed an act to define feeblemindedness as “any person with mental defectiveness” and allowed these persons to be committed to a state institution for the feebleminded. It also empowered superintendents of such institutions to administer “such medical and surgical treatment” that would “tend to the mental and physical betterment of such patients.” By the end of 1916, twenty women at the Lynchburg Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded had been sterilized for “chronic pelvic disorder”—sometimes as a condition of their release—by Superintendent Albert S. Priddy, an enthusiastic backer of the eugenics movement. Priddy halted performing such sterilizations, however, after he was sued by the husband of a patient who claimed that she had been sterilized without consent.
Priddy and other backers of eugenic sterilization such as Joseph DeJarnette, superintendent of the Western State Hospital in Stanton , and University of Virginia medical school dean Harvey Jordan lobbied for a law that would clearly sanction the compulsory sterilization of those considered genetically unfit. Indiana had passed the nation’s first eugenic sterilization law in 1907, targeting “confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles, or rapists,” but the law had not withstood constitutional scrutiny. Advocates for a similar law in Virginia utilized research provided by the Eugenics Record Office, a pro-eugenics organization based in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, that sought to establish the scientific credibility of eugenics through data collection and research, to avoid similar missteps in language and scope. In 1924, the General Assembly passed the Eugenical Sterilization Act with overwhelming support. The law provided for the compulsory sterilization of persons confined at state institutions who “if now discharged or paroled would likely become by the propagation of their own kind a menace to society.” DeJarnette praised the law as “humane and economical … destined to save millions in dollars” by allowing sterilized patients to return to their communities, where they could function as “hewers of wood and drawers of water” without having their labor interrupted by children.
That same year the General Assembly passed the Racial Integrity Act, which prohibited interracial marriage, made misrepresentation of race a crime, and officially defined a white person as someone who had “no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian.” Virginia lawmakers utilized eugenic beliefs about the inferiority of non-white people in the creation of these laws, which sought to protect white racial purity. Like their beliefs about “feebleminded” people, eugenicists argued that Black and Native peoples had reached the innate limits of their biology and could harm society by intermixing with whites of European descent, who they claimed were inherently genetically superior to non-whites.
Implementing the Law at State Hospitals
Virginia’s sterilization law was not formally implemented until 1927, when the Supreme Court ruled in Buck v. Bell that it was constitutional. The first legal sterilization in Virginia was performed on Carrie Buck on October 27, 1927, at the Lynchburg Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded. Buck’s unsuccessful appeal effectively authorized other states to enact similar laws. By 1979, an estimated 60,000 people had been sterilized against their will under such laws in thirty states.
The Eugenical Sterilization Act allowed the sterilization of people committed to five state psychiatric institutions: Western State in Staunton, Eastern State in Williamsburg, Southwestern State in Marion, Central State in Petersburg, and the Lynchburg Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded.
The largest number of sterilizations were performed at the Lynchburg Colony, which housed white feebleminded patients and people with epilepsy. According to statistics from the state Department of Mental Health and Hospitals collected by Julius Paul, 2,781 sterilizations were carried out there between 1927 and 1964. The second largest number of compulsory sterilizations were at Western State, which performed 1,701 sterilizations in the same period. (Paul’s statistics are considered the most reliable, although there are some discrepancies, and they do not include sterilizations that were performed between 1965 and 1979.)
Central State Hospital, which was the only mental hospital for Black patients when the sterilization law was passed, carried out 1,634 sterilizations between 1927 and 1964. The Petersburg Training School and Hospital, which was opened by the state in 1938 as the Petersburg State Colony for the Negro Insane, performed 246 sterilizations between its opening and 1964. Finally, there were 393 sterilizations at Eastern State and 364 at Southwestern State between 1927 and 1964.
The peak of eugenic sterilizations in Virginia was between 1933 and 1944. By World War II era, eugenics had fallen out of favor with the scientific community and the public due to its flawed scientific underpinnings and its association with Nazi Germany’s eugenics practices. The General Assembly tried by failed to pass laws in 1956 that would have required the sterilization of any unmarried woman on public welfare support who gave birth to more than one child.
Virginia mental hospitals entered an era of deinstitutionalization in the 1960s as part of a national trend that saw a sharp reduction of patient populations in mental hospitals. This correlated to a reduction in sterilizations, as the law required commitment to a state facility. Changing attitudes about autonomy and sexuality also contributed to the decline of the practice. Compulsory sterilization officially ended in Virginia in 1972 after it was banned by the state Board of Mental Health. In 1974, the state repealed the Eugenical Sterilization Act, although a handful of “therapeutic” sterilizations were performed at the Lynchburg Training School (the former Lynchburg Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded) between 1974 and 1979.
All told, it is estimated that approximately 8,000 women and men were forcibly sterilized in Virginia between 1927 and 1979. Most patients who were sterilized were poor, and historian Gregory Michael Dorr estimates that just over 60 percent were women, largely under the age of twenty-five. African Americans, who comprised about 24 percent of the state’s population, accounted for approximately 26 percent of the sterilizations that occurred between 1930 and 1960.
While Virginia repealed the Eugenical Sterilization Act, the Supreme Court has never overturned Buck v. Bell. In 1967, the Supreme Court found the prohibition of interracial marriage unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia and struck down the Racial Integrity Act. In December 1980, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued Virginia on behalf of four plaintiffs sterilized at the Lynchburg Colony and an anonymous class action of all other patients, arguing that the operations had violated their constitutional rights. The case, Poe v. Lynchburg, was part of a larger and ultimately unsuccessful effort by the ACLU to overturn Buck v. Bell. Virginia settled the case in 1985 by agreeing to open a temporary help center to assist patients formerly institutionalized at state mental hospitals to obtain their medical records. This was due to evidence presented by the ACLU that some patients were misled about the nature of their operations, which resulted in a potentially significant number of people who were unaware that they had been sterilized. The case triggered broader public interest in Virginia’s eugenics movement and led to new scholarly research and journalistic investigations that publicized the widespread nature of the practice.
In 2002, the General Assembly passed House Joint Resolution No. 299, an official “statement of regret” honoring the memory of Carrie Buck. That same year, Governor Mark Warner offered the “Commonwealth’s sincere apology” for “the shameful effort in which state government never should have been involved.” This coincided with the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Buck v. Bell decision and marked the first public apologies connected to eugenics in the United States. The state held commemorative ceremonies in Charlottesville, where Carrie Buck was born, and placed a historical marker about Buck’s life and the impact of Buck v. Bell near the Venable School, where Buck’s daughter, Vivian, whom she was separated from after her institutionalization, was a pupil. In 2015, the General Assembly agreed to create a compensation fund for victims of eugenic sterilization following a similar effort in North Carolina. The agreement allowed individuals sterilized at one of the five state mental health facilities to pursue financial compensation up to $25,000. TheVirginia’s compensation plan for the “insulting” amount offered to victims, noting that North Carolina offered victims $50,000. Virginia also expected a smaller pool of claimants, as most of the sterilizations occurred sixty to seventy years ago. As of 2019, twenty-eight individuals had successfully claimed compensation through the program.