Eugenics at the University of Virginia


The University of Virginia was the southern center of the eugenics movement in the United States. Eugenics, a pseudoscience that promoted the idea that humans could be selectively bred like plants or animals for the betterment of society, is part of a long history of race science dating back to antiquity. Thomas Jefferson, the founder of UVA, was immersed in the thinking of intellectuals and philosophers who espoused race science. Jefferson’s views on the inferiority of Black people helped lay the groundwork for eugenics thought at the university, which was carried through the nineteenth and into the twentieth century by influential faculty. Robley Dunglison, UVA’s first professor of medicine, used comparative anatomy to attempt to quantify supposed racial differences. Paul Brandon Barringer, who joined the faculty in 1888, advanced eugenic ideas that shaped education and research and oversaw construction of UVA’s first hospital, which segregated Black patients. Under the leadership of Edwin Alderman, who became the first president of UVA in 1904, faculty who espoused eugenics were recruited to positions across the university, including Harvey Jordan, Robert Bennett Bean, and Lawrence Royster in the medical school and Henry Heck and George Ferguson in the school of education. Ivey Foreman Lewis joined the faculty in 1915 as the chair of biology and worked with Alderman to turn the university into the southern leader of the eugenics movement. Like other UVA faculty, Lewis supported public policy measures designed to put eugenics into practice, including laws that allowed eugenic sterilization and a ban on interracial marriage. Eugenics flourished at UVA well into the 1950s, supporting a culture of discrimination and white supremacy.

Eugenics and Race Science

Eugenicists believed that mental illness, crime, sexual promiscuity, and poverty were linked to defective genes and that social problems could be ameliorated by limiting the reproduction of genetically undesirable individuals. Eugenics is part of a long history of race science dating back to antiquity. Race science, or biologic racism, is the belief that there are biologically separate races with traits that are inherited and immutable and that these races that can be ordered hierarchically from superior to inferior. Influenced by Greek culture in which Blacks were both foreigners and slaves and the work of Plato in ordering nature, Aristotle created scala naturae (the “Natural Ladder”), a ranking of all living things. This was incorporated into the medieval idea of the Great Chain of Being, a hierarchical structure of all life believed to have been decreed by God. From these roots emerged a belief that there was a gradation of humans, with Blacks, enslaved people, and other non-white persons at the lower end.

Other physicians and scientists elaborated on the idea of a hierarchy of race. Galen, the most famous Roman physician, whose works influenced 1,400 years of medical and scientific thought, wrote between 122 and 155 AD of Black people having defective brains and inferior intelligence. His ideas traveled throughout the world during the Middle Ages when Greek and Roman medical texts were translated by monks at leading universities. An anti-Black scholarly tradition also flourished throughout the medieval Islamic world. The great Islamic physician Avicenna regarded Blacks as inferior and designed by God to serve the rest of mankind as slaves.

Classifying races based on physical characteristics became a dominant theme of race science during the Enlightenment and well into the nineteenth century. Craniometry—the measurement of the size and weight of skulls—became predominant in scientific attempts to prove biological determinism, with the belief that the skulls and brains of white people were larger and heavier than those of Black people. Alongside this emerged a pattern of associating higher cognitive function, more advanced social development, and greater political freedom with whiter skin. In 1795, Johann Friedrich Blumenach used craniometry to create an influential classification of mankind into five varieties or races: Caucasian, Mongolian, Ethiopian, American, and Malay. Blumenbach associated psychosocial characteristics with each race and emphasized the biologic superiority of Caucasians.

Race Science at the University of Virginia

The intellectual roots of the University of Virginia laid the groundwork for race science—and later eugenics—to flourish. Medicine was a cornerstone of UVA’s curriculum due to Jefferson’s love of science and the natural world. Jefferson was immersed in the writings of the intellectuals and philosophers who espoused race science. In Notes on the State of Virginia, he describes the enslaved laborers at Monticello in language consistent with the physicians and scientists of the time:

“In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection…Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the white; in reason much inferior … and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless and anomalous. I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstance, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” 

Jefferson’s views on the inferiority of Black people, and the danger presented by the interbreeding of white and Black people, were widely read and helped lay the groundwork for eugenics thought. As he asked in Notes on the State of Virginia, “The circumstance of superior beauty, is thought worth attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man?”

Robley Dunglison, a young English physician, was recruited to UVA in 1825 for the position of both professor of anatomy and of medicine. Dunglison stayed at UVA for only eight years, but he set in motion the practice of using comparative anatomy to quantify supposed racial differences between white and Black people and, with it, the later dissection of Black bodies in UVA’s anatomical theater. In Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson had advanced the idea of experimentation on Black people to confirm their supposed inferiority in “faculties of reason and imagination,” noting that to “justify a general conclusion requires many observations, even where the subject may be submitted to the Anatomical knife, to Optical glasses, to analysis by fire, or by solvents.”   

Pre-Eugenic Professors of Medicine

In 1837, James Lawrence Cabell, who was a student of Dunglison’s at the UVA and University of Maryland medical schools, became UVA’s third professor of anatomy, physiology, and surgery. He held the position until 1889 and rose to preeminence as a physician, surgeon, administrator, and public health leader with the adoption of innovative ideas about sanitation and the sterilization of surgical instruments. Cabell’s major work, The Testimony of Modern Science to the Unity of Mankind (1859), joined the debate on the origins of mankind that dominated discussions of race science in the nineteenth century. Unlike other race scientists, Cabell argued that all of humankind, even people from supposedly inferior races, were descended from a single creation but that environmental pressures created immutable, inherited differences that distinguished the races. He supported the university’s pro-slavery position, advancing the idea that slavery may have been “intended, in the merciful and wise providence of God, as the only means of extricating [Black people] from their otherwise inevitable destiny and of bringing them under the tutelage of a superior race.” 

Cabell left his mark as a physician and as a teacher, serving more than fifty years on the faculty of UVA’s medical school. He helped found the Medical Society of Virginia, was the first president of the Virginia State Board of Health, and in 1879 became president of the new National Board of Health, which was a forerunner to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He influenced the ideas of UVA students, including his successor Paul Brandon Barringer, who considered Cabell his greatest mentor, as well as alumni who would move into leadership roles in the U.S. Public Health Service.        

Barringer assumed Cabell’s chair as professor of comparative anatomy and physiology in 1888, five years after Francis Galton popularized the term “eugenics.” In Inquiries into human faculty and its development (1883), Galton had defined eugenics as the “science of improving stock … to give to the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable.” Barringer rose to become chair of the faculty and have a profound impact across the university by overseeing the construction of the university’s first teaching hospital and advancing ideas that shaped the development of eugenics education and research. Having grown up on a large plantation  in antebellum Virginia, Barringer had a lifelong belief in the inferiority of African Americans and a deep-seated disdain for Black people—especially after his family’s enslaved laborers left their plantation following emancipation. Barringer used his role as a public health leader to promote ideas that made him a spokesman for scientific racism and white supremacy. He amassed reams of statistics to argue that young Black men were especially predisposed to crime and were, without the constraints of slavery, “reverting through hereditary forces to savagery.” He argued that higher rates of diseases such as tuberculosis and syphilis among Black people were caused not by poverty and poor living conditions but by genetic inferiority. He asserted that this higher incidence of illnesses and supposed predisposition to criminality—particularly regarding the rape of white women—combined with the threat of intermarriage constituted a public health risk to white people. The solution, according to Barringer, was the segregation of Black people from white society, along with disfranchisement and limits on the education and employment of Black people to create a class of “law abiding laborers and artisans.” His influential speeches, such as “The American Negro: His Past and Future” (1900),  were published and widely distributed to educators, physicians, scientists, religious and academic leaders in the North and South.

When UVA’s hospital opened in 1901 under the direction of Barringer, Black patients were segregated in basement wards, an arrangement that would exist for more than fifty years. The segregation of Black patients from white patients facilitated the practice of denying or limiting treatment for African Americans. For instance, no Black patients were offered a surgery for tuberculosis that was one of the few therapies for the disease at the time.

Twentieth-Century Eugenics at UVA

UVA dominated higher education in the southern United States as a center of eugenic teaching, research, and policy during the first half of the twentieth century. Under the leadership of Edwin Alderman, a southern progressive who became the first president of UVA in 1904, faculty who promoted the emerging “science” of eugenics were recruited to positions across the university, first in the school of education and the medical school, then in biology, psychology, and sociology. Alderman’s leadership was critical to turning the University of Virginia into the “epicenter of eugenics teaching in the state,” as detailed by Gregory Michael Dorr in Segregation’s Science: Eugenics and Society in Virginia (2008). University faculty collaborated not only internally but nationally and internationally on eugenics research and educational programs. They moved into senior administrative positions in the university and throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia, reinforcing a culture of scientific racism and white supremacy.

Two professors who would be influential in introducing eugenics into the university’s curriculum joined the faculty following Alderman’s arrival. In 1905, William Henry Heck joined the Curry Memorial School of Education after a sabbatical at Columbia University, which had emerged as a center of eugenics thought. Heck introduced the first eugenics course into the undergraduate curriculum, “C1: Evolution, Heredity and Education.” 

Harvey Jordan was hired as a professor of histology, embryology, and genetics after working with Charles Davenport, a pioneer of the eugenics movement who founded what would become the Eugenics Record Office. Jordan made UVA medical school a leader in eugenics research to promote what he termed the “rearing of the human thoroughbred.”  In a 1913 lecture given to UVA faculty, students, and white residents of Charlottesville, Jordan asserted that eugenics “was needed to preserve the Anglo-Saxon race” from “the grossly defective, alarmingly fertile, anti-social class” of Black and poor white people. Jordan described two arms of eugenics: “Positive” eugenics, which encouraged more childbearing among the supposedly fitter stock of the white upper classes, and “negative” eugenics, which prohibited parenthood among the “obviously and grossly unfit.” Within a decade of joining, Jordan was promoting the idea of state-sponsored sterilization of these “unfit” populations as “public and racial health measures.”

Jordan integrated eugenics into classroom instruction for UVA medical students and promoted the inclusion of eugenics in medical education at the First International Congress of Eugenics in 1912. Jordan’s involvement in national summer eugenics institutes brought eugenics scientists to Virginia to conduct research he anticipated would deepen the understanding of the differences between elite Virginians and the genetically unfit groups that he believed most threatened the integrity of the white population. Jordan also gave lectures on what he termed the promise of eugenics to public organizations such as the Civic Club of Charlottesville and to professional organizations like the State Society of Charities and Corrections. He had leadership roles in national eugenics organizations, including the American Eugenics Society.

Jordan was one of the most prolific faculty members, publishing 177 articles and three books, including Eugenics: The Rearing of the Human Thoroughbred (1912). His A Textbook on Embryology, coauthored with James Kindred, included a chapter on eugenics in each edition beginning in 1926 through the fifth edition published in 1948. In it, Jordan advanced the “scientific” framework for eugenics with research using family inheritance studies, IQ and psychological testing, comparative measurements, and his work attempting to associate skin color with personality characteristics. In 1939, Jordan became dean of UVA’s medical school, a position he held until 1949.

Jordan believed that UVA alumni, including medical school graduates, had a responsibility to lobby for eugenics legislation, asserting that the “science” of eugenics differed from the “art” of eugenics—its application in the real world. He promoted laws that allowed the sterilization of the genetically unfit and the disenfranchisement of Black voters. Like other UVA faculty, Jordan participated in the Virginia education committee of the American Eugenics Society, which was charged to “do propaganda and legislative work in the state.” As a result of such advocacy, Virginia passed two major eugenics laws: the 1924 Sterilization Act, which allowed the state to sterilize people confined to state institutions who were deemed unfit, and the 1924 Racial Integrity Act, which prohibited interracial marriage and defined a white person as someone “who has no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian.”

Jordan had long been interested in codifying what he believed to be biological differences among white, Black, and Virginia Indian populations. He sent Arthur Estabrook of the Eugenics Record Office to investigate a group of mix-raced Virginians in the Blue Ridge Mountains, which became the influential book Mongrel Virginians: The Win Tribe (1926), which was used to further justify segregation and limits on intermarriage.

Other faculty with similar eugenics interests joined UVA. George Ferguson, an expert on rural education and the use of the emerging science of psychometric testing, joined the Curry School of Education in 1919. In The Psychology of the Negro (1916), his study of the supposedly differential intelligence of white, mixed race, and Black children, Ferguson argued that it was impossible to raise the scholastic attainment of Black students, discounting socioeconomic differences and vastly unequal public education. Ferguson proposed educating Black children for the manual labor and service jobs he believed they were suited for.

In the medical school, Robert Bennett Bean became chair of anatomy in 1916. Bean studied the brains of white, Black, and mixed-race people and concluded that white people had larger brains and, therefore, were innately biologically superior—although later studies were not able to duplicate his findings. Through articles like “Training of the Negro” for Century Magazine (1906) Bean spread the idea that Black people were not “capable of mental development” in the same way as white people, which he argued justified limiting educational opportunities and the vote for African Americans. Like other medical school faculty, Bean argued that the Black population was more susceptible to communicable diseases and posed a threat to the white population that justified segregation and control.

Lawrence Royster, who studied under Paul Brandon Barringer, became chair of pediatrics in 1923 and pursued eugenics teaching, research, and policies. His research interest was in “wayward girls,” who he asserted contributed to the unfit population through promiscuous sexual activity. Like other eugenicists, he emphasized the cost to taxpayers of caring for generation after generation of unfit or criminal families that he believed resulted from indiscriminate relationships. He advocated measures to control morally delinquent girls, including their commitment, with as scant due process as possible, to juvenile reform institutions, as well as the use of eugenic sterilization. Royster collaborated with Henry Heck in the eugenic evaluation of Virginia school children and with Robert Bennet Bean on several anthropological and eugenical studies.

Ivey Foreman Lewis  

One of the most influential promoters of eugenics at UVA was Ivey Foreman Lewis, who was recruited by Alderman in 1915 to modernize the Miller School of Biology. Lewis was born in North Carolina, and, like Alderman, was eager to make UVA the southern bastion of the eugenics movement. He graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a PhD in biology in 1908, was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1914, and worked with prominent eugenicists at the Woods Hole Laboratory. Lewis oversaw the biology curriculum until 1953 and was the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences from 1946 until 1953. All biology majors were required to take Lewis’s courses “Evolution and Heredity” and “Heredity and Eugenics.” More than 900 undergraduate students, along with 138 graduate students, trained in biology during Lewis’ tenure. Term papers written by his students focused on eugenics topics such as miscegenation, sterilization, and the inheritance of “feeblemindedness.”

Lewis asserted that “all men are created unequal in their hereditary equipment and potentialities.” He dismissed the idea that environment had anything to do with an individual’s development or potential, calling it “sheer nonsense.” He believed that social organization was determined by the laws of biology and that it was a biological imperative for the white race to be kept pure. He supported immigration restrictions, the Racial Integrity Act, and the strict segregation of Black Americans from white society. He traveled around the South lecturing educators about the promise of creating a physically and morally improved society through eugenics.

Along with Harvey Jordan, Lewis regularly participated in summer eugenics institutes at Woods Hole and Cold Spring Harbor, where eugenicists from around the country shared teaching strategies and research initiatives and debated policy initiatives. Like Jordan, Lewis advocated the passage of the 1924 Racial Integrity Act. Lewis established a chapter of Sigma Xi, the scientific research honor society, with Robert Bennett Bean and welcomed eugenics speakers to address this distinguished group of students and faculty several times in the 1920s. 


The effects and disparities created by UVA’s promotion of eugenics reverberated long after this pseudoscience was discredited and fell out of favor in the second half of the twentieth century. The U.S. Public Health Service’s infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which treatment for syphilis was withheld from 399 Black men with latent syphilis to study the effects of the disease, was designed and administered by graduates of UVA’s biology and medical programs. Well-documented health disparities between white and Black Charlottesville residents in the 1930s and 1940s provide evidence that Black patients at UVA’s hospital received less and, in many cases, no care when appropriate treatments existed. Less easy to document is the unconscious bias of White supremacy resulting from eugenics, which led to educational, housing, and income disparities, as well as the continued persistence of health disparities.

In 2020, UVA’s biology department acknowledged its role in disseminating eugenics, noting that Ivey Lewis and colleagues “built the Department of Biology and the University into a nationwide leader in eugenics, which misapplied the biological understanding of inheritance to support state and federal laws encouraging forced sterilization and the prohibition of ‘race-mixing’ in the US. Their work was further used as a justification for race purification in Nazi Germany and elsewhere.”

In 2016, UVA’s Jordan Hall, which was named for Harvey Jordan, was renamed Pinn Hall in honor of Vivian Pinn, MD, who in 1967 was the only woman and only African American to graduate from the UVA School of Medicine. Pinn went on to become the first full-time director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health at the National Institutes of Health.


In Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson describes enslaved laborers at Monticello as “inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind” and suggests paying attention to the breeding of humans.

January 25, 1819

Thomas Jefferson founds the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.


Robley Dunglison joins the University of Virginia faculty as its first professor of medicine, beginning a tradition of using comparative anatomy to support the belief that Black people are biologically inferior to white people.


James Lawrence Cabell joins the University of Virginia faculty as its third professor of anatomy, physiology, and surgery.


James Lawrence Cabell publishes The Testimony of Modern Science to the Unity of Mankind, which argues that all men were created equal but that environmental pressures created immutable, inherited differences that distinguished one race from another.


Paul Brandon Barringer assumes his mentor James Lawrence Cabell’s position as professor of comparative anatomy and physiology at the University of Virginia. He argues for the segregation and disenfranchisement of Black people because of what he said was their genetic inferiority.


The University of Virginia Hospital opens under the leadership of Paul Brandon Barringer with Black patients segregated in basement wards.


Edwin Alderman becomes the first president of the University of Virginia and begins recruiting eugenics faculty to positions across the university.


William Henry Heck joins the faculty of the Curry School of Education at the Curry School of Education.


Harvey Jordan joins the faculty of the University of Virginia School of Medicine.


William Henry Heck introduces the first formal eugenics course into the University of Virginia undergraduate curriculum: “C1: Evolution, Heredity and Education.” 


Harvey Jordan publishes Eugenics: The Rearing of the Human Thoroughbred.


By this year, Harvey Jordan is promoting the idea of state-sponsored sterilization of
“unfit” populations.


Ivey Foreman Lewis is recruited by Edwin Alderman to modernize the Miller School of Biology at the University of Virginia and works with Alderman to make the university a southern center of the eugenics movement.


Robert Bennett Bean joins the University of Virginia’s medical school as chair of anatomy and popularizes the idea that differences in brain size between Black people and white people show that Blacks are not capable of the same mental development as white people.


George Ferguson joins the faculty of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia following publication of The Psychology of the Negro, his study of the supposedly differential intelligence of white, mixed-race, and Black children.


Lawrence Royster joins the University of Virginia’s medical school as chair of pediatrics and spreads alarm about the social and financial costs of “wayward” girls, who he argues should be committed to state-run institutions and sterilized if necessary.


Virginia passes the Sterilization Act, allowing the state to sterilize people confined to state institutions who are deemed unfit.


Virginia passes the Racial Integrity Act, prohibiting interracial marriage and defining a white person as someone “who has no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian.”


Mongrel Virginians: The Win Tribe is published.


 Harvey Jordan coauthors A Textbook on Embryology, which includes a chapter on eugenics.

May 2, 1927

The U.S. Supreme Court upholds Virginia’s Sterilization Act in Buck v. Bell.

October 19, 1927

Carrie Buck becomes the first patient sterilized under the Sterilization Act.


Harvey Jordan becomes dean of the University of Virginia School of Medicine.


Ivey Foreman Lewis becomes dean of the University of Virginia College of Arts and Sciences.


The fifth and last edition of A Textbook on Embryology, coauthored by Harvey Jordan and including a chapter on eugenics, is published.


Harvey Jordon retires as dean of the University of Virginia School of Medicine.


Ivey Foreman Lewis retires as dean of the University of Virginia College of Arts and Sciences.


The Racial Integrity Act is overturned in the U.S. Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia.


The Virginia State Board of Mental Health officially bans eugenic sterilization.


Virginia repeals the Eugenical Sterilization Act, although a small number of “therapeutic” sterilizations are performed at the Lynchburg Training School until 1979.


Virginia becomes the first state to issue a formal statement of regret for its past support of eugenics and involuntary sterilization.


The University of Virginia renames Jordan Hall, which was named for Harvey Jordan, Pinn Hall in honor of Vivian Pinn, MD, who in 1967 was the only woman and only African American to graduate from the UVA School of Medicine.


The University of Virginia Department of Biology apologizes for its role in disseminating eugenics.

  • Byrd, W. Michael and Linda Clayton. An American Health Dilemma, Vol. 1: Race, Medicine and Health Care in the United States, Beginnings to 1900. New York: Routledge, 2000.
  • Catte, Elizabeth. Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia. Cleveland, OH: Belt Publishing, 2021.
  • Coleman, Arica L. That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans, and the Predicament of Race Identity in Virginia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013.
  • Dorr, Gregory Michael. Segregation’s Science: Eugenics and Society in Virginia. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008.
APA Citation:
Reynolds, Preston. Eugenics at the University of Virginia. (2023, July 25). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/eugenics-at-the-university-of-virginia.
MLA Citation:
Reynolds, Preston. "Eugenics at the University of Virginia" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (25 Jul. 2023). Web. 19 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2024, May 03
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