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“Revisiting the Three Generations of Imbeciles: The Impact of Buck v. Bell on the American Eugenics Movement” by Hanbee O.


1Figure 1: A Nazi propaganda advocating eugenics.[1]

First coined by Francis Galton in 1883, the term “eugenics” refers to a social movement that seeks to control the physical and mental qualities of the future generations.[2] The concept of eugenics may have had positive connotation in its beginning, but after the atrocities of the Third Reich, eugenics now represent one of the darkest chapters in human history. Figure 1 illustrates one of the propaganda posters used by the Nazis in their eugenic campaign. The German text in the poster means the following: “60,000 Reichsmarks is the cost to take care of this hereditarily flawed person for lifetime. Fellow citizen, that is your money also.”[3]

UntitledFigure 2: A Nazi propaganda advocating eugenics.[4]

While eugenics is most commonly associated with Nazi Germany, less emphasis is on the role of the United States in advocating the movement. Eugenics was very popular in America during the twentieth century – in fact, historian J. David Smith suggests in Breeding Contempt that America’s conquest for a perfect race inspired Nazi Germany to start their own eugenic campaign also.[5] The Third Reich was not afraid to identify its mentor in the eugenics movement. Figure 2 shows a Nazi propaganda that shows the flags of states participating in the eugenics movement. The Nazi poster, proudly claiming “We do not stand alone,” lists the United States as the first and foremost nation in its allies in eugenics, indicating that the United States inspired the Third Reich to develop and execute its own eugenic plans.

The goal of this research project is to investigate the overall scope of the American eugenics movement during the twentieth century. The case study I will use to study the development of eugenics in the United States is Buck v. Bell, a Supreme Court case which authorized compulsory sterilization against the “feebleminded” population in the United States. By tracking the scope of American eugenics before and after Buck, I will argue that Buck had a profound influence in expanding the eugenics movement in the twentieth-century United States.

Carrie Buck was a patient at a Virginia mental institution.[6] In an attempt to settle the question on constitutionality of state sterilization laws, a group of eugenicists decided to issue sterilization order on Buck in order to bring the issue before the Supreme Court and confirm whether Virginia’s sterilization statute would be declared constitutional.[7] Buck did not resent the sterilization order, and the eugenicists appointed Irving Whitehead, an attorney and a supporter of eugenics and sterilization.[8]

When the legal dispute reached the Supreme Court, Buck faced a group of Supreme Court justices, most of whom supported the eugenics movement. The Chief Justice was William Howard Taft, the former president of the United States who believed in eugenic principles.[9] Other Supreme Court Justices demonstrated friendly view toward the eugenics movement also; the only one who resented the decision was Justice Pierce Butler, a devout Catholic who, like most Catholics, opposed the idea of sterilization.[10] In a landslide 8-to-1 decision, Buck’s sterilization order was confirmed. Justice Butler did not write a dissenting opinion.[11]

The Supreme Court justice who wrote the fateful Buck decision, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. had already embraced eugenic principles when the movement was only initiated in the United States.[12] With advice from the former president Taft, Justice Holmes delivered the 1927 decision, which came to be known as Buck v. Bell:

We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens of their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices… in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world if… society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind… Three generations of imbeciles are enough.[13] [14]

Following the Supreme Court decision, a group of doctors performed salpingectomy – surgical removal of the Fallopian tubes – on Buck on October 19, 1927.[15] It is of interest to note that the eugenicists who sought to legalize sterilization laws diagnosed both Buck and Vivian Buck (Carrie Buck’s daughter) as “feebledmined.” Those who knew Buck in later stages of her life stated that there is no way Buck is mentally incompetent; Vivian was an honor student before her untimely death.[16]


Theory, Research Question and Hypothesis

Scholars of history and law who studied eugenics agree that Buck v. Bell was a crucial element in America’s campaign for a perfect population. In his book Three Generations, No Imbeciles, Paul A. Lombardo states that the case presented a foundation for state sterilization laws (Lombardo 219). A Professor of History and Law at Yale University and the author of the book In the Name of Eugenics, Daniel J. Kevles states that courts across the United States declared many state sterilization measures unconstitutional prior to the Buck case (Kevles 110). Diane B. Paul argues in her book Controlling Human Heredity that eugenic sterilization was practiced extensively only after the Buck decision (Paul 83).

With such theoretical background in mind, my research question is as follows: How did the Buck decision impact the size of the American eugenics movement? The hypothesis was that Buck v. Bell increased the size of the American eugenics movement during the early half of the twentieth century through two dimensions: the number of states that adopted sterilization laws and the number of the sterilized population in the United States.



Answering the research question was a three-phase process with analyses of qualitative data. The first phase was literature review, in which I researched primary materials published after 1927 to find works that mention the Buck v. Bell case. If my initial hypothesis is correct, then I would find advocates of eugenics citing the case in their works to support their arguments. To accomplish this, I found published materials written by prominent eugenicists after 1927 to see if the eugenicists included Buck as a part of their arguments. I also researched eugenics-related articles in scientific and legal journals to find ones that incorporate Buck. The research for this phase was done by investigating online article databases and bibliographies in secondary sources on the American eugenics movement.

I proceeded to the second phase, a two-part process by itself, after identifying eugenic publications citing Buck. For the first part, I observed the list of states that adopted sterilization statutes and whether their numbers increased after Buck, hypothesizing that the number of sterilization states would have increased due to the fact that eugenicists acquired a powerful legal precedent to support their cases through Buck. If my hypothesis is correct, then the number of states with sterilization laws after 1927 would indeed be larger than the number before 1927.

The second part for the second phase involved tabulation and analysis of statistics on the sterilized population in the United States. I collected population statistics on cumulative numbers of the sterilized population from 1921 to 1964, both in states and in the United States as a whole. If my hypothesis on the role of Buck as a justification for state sterilization programs is true, then the number of sterilizations operated in the United States would have increased between 1927 and 1945. Constructing this data required population indices that show the reported incidents of sterilization in pre- and post-Buck years. I found the data in publications by the following eugenic organizations: (1) Eugenics Records Office (ERO), one of the most prominent eugenic organizations in its heyday; (2) Human Betterment Foundation (HBF), a private Californian research center that led the largest state eugenics program in America; and (3) Birthright and Human Betterment Association of America (HBAA), organizations that inherited the ambition of their predecessors. After retrieving the needed data, I organized the data into a single chart that illustrates the sterilization trend before and after Buck.

For the last phase, I analyzed sample sterilization statutes. After observing the chart on the cumulative number of the sterilized from 1921 to 1964, I noticed four types of pattern in state sterilization trends. I labeled the patterns with the following criteria:

Pattern I: This pattern includes states whose laws were either ineffective or repealed prior to Buck, and reported no sterilization after the end of World War II (hereby WWII), or 1945. It is the pattern that most closely follows my initial hypothesis.

Pattern II: The second pattern shows a dramatic decline in sterilization occurrences toward the end of WWII; sterilization continued, but the increase is very small compared to pre-WWII years.

Pattern III: States that belong to this category show a moderate decline, or about half the number of people sterilized after 1945.

Pattern IV: The last pattern may be labeled an outlier to my hypothesis, since it depicts the most unanticipated trend. This pattern includes states that show small numbers of the sterilized before 1945, but experiences an explosive growth after 1945.

From each pattern I chose three sample states – meaning states that have either notable traits or sufficient sample sizes, i.e. few hundred at least – and collected their sterilizations statutes. Then I formulated the following four questions to analyze these statutes:

Question 1, Target: Did the sterilization law target only the institutionalized?

Question 2, Executive Agency: Did the agency or board that made the final decision include only those who were appointed by state authorities?

Question 3, Decision: Did a decision require both a committee (i.e. more than one person) and a unanimous decision?

Question 4, Motive: Was the state motive behind the law purely eugenic?[17]

Based on the number of negative responses, I labeled each law with one of the following:

Statute A includes sterilization laws that yielded no negative response. This type of statute provides the most limited sterilization process with the smallest range of targets.

Statute B includes sterilization laws that yielded one or two negative response(s). Compared to Statute A, the sterilization process is more flexible with a wider range of targets.

Statute C includes sterilization laws that yielded three or four negative responses. This type of law aims the widest range of targets, making an efficient sterilization program possible.

My expectation was that a Pattern II, III or IV state would have a sterilization law that belongs to either the Statute B and C category. A negative response to one of the four questions implies that a state was able to target a wider range of potential subjects for sterilization. Hence, the more negative responses a state sterilization law gives, the more people it would have sterilized.


Discussion of Findings

Was Buck v. Bell considered a valid legal precedent?

One can infer that Buck v. Bell was considered a valid precedent by legal authorities from reading Legal Status of Eugenical Sterilization, a book written in 1933 by Harry H. Laughlin. Laughlin, being one of the most prominent advocates of eugenics in the United States, celebrated the Supreme Court decision. In this book, Laughlin presents a brief summary of Buck’s progress to the Supreme Court and the texts from all documents used, including expert evidence which “proved” that Buck’s “feeblemindedness” was the result of her inferior genetic inheritance.

A particularly intriguing aspect about Legal Status is that the book was endorsed by Harry Olsen, the Chief Justice of the Municipal Court of Chicago. In the book, Laughlin triumphantly declares thus:

The Virginia Statute, enacted in 1924, is especially important because it is the first sterilization statute to be carried to the Supreme Court of the United States and to receive a decision of the highest court of the land that the particular statute is constitutional. This means that it is entirely within the police power of any state, unless its own state constitution specifically forbids it, to enact a sterilization statute which will conform to all requirements of the Bill of Rights and at the same time meet its eugenical purposes.”[18]

Judge Olsen supports Laughlin through his introduction to the book (with my emphasis):

It is now held by the courts to be well within the police power of the state to use eugenical sterilization for preventing family and consequently racial degeneracy. The legal procedure is well established… the road is now open for its much wide application.[19]

The emphasized portion in Judge Olsen’s endorsement implies that a legal authority acknowledged Buck as a valid legal precedent. Judge Olsen’s declaration also indicates that at least two authoritative legal institutions were more than willing to use Buck as a legal foundation to authorize state sterilization laws. Judge Olsen’s assertion explicitly signaled eugenicists that they were free to use the case in their arguments for eugenic policies.

Indeed, eugenicists were more than content to incorporate the Buck decision in their publications. Ezra S. Gosney, one of the most influential eugenicists in California, was one of such eugenicists. Gosney argued in Sterilization for Human Betterment that eugenic sterilization should be distinguished from therapeutic and punitive ones to establish sterilization as an effective tool to achieve eugenic objectives.[20] In the introduction to the book, Gosney briefly summarizes Buck and states that the Supreme Court approved the constitutionality of eugenic sterilization laws.[21] In one of the appendices, Gosney explains the eugenic decision once again, but this time spends more effort to explain the case in detail. The particular appendix discusses sterilization laws in through legal perspectives. Gosney spends approximately three pages on the decision, a remarkable length compared to other provisions and statutes, each of which is discussed in a paragraph.[22]

Another prolific California eugenicist who worked closely with Gosney, Paul Popenoe authored Applied Eugenics with Roswell Hill Johnson, another eugenicist. Applied Eugenics enjoyed immense popularity and went through a number of revisions in its career as a college textbook. In the 1933 edition of Applied Eugenics, Popenoe and Johnson added a reference to the infamous ruling by Justice Holmes to call for more research on sterilization.[23]

Popenoe and Johnson also substantively revised their opinion on sterilization’s merits as a eugenic tool. In the first edition of Applied Eugenics, published in 1918, the authors dedicated only seven pages to sterilization and urged eugenicists to advocate segregation as a means to achieve eugenic goals, unless the state was poor and could not afford the policy. Curiously enough, Popenoe and Johnson decided to fundamentally change their opinion on sterilization after Buck. In 1933 edition of Applied Eugenics, the authors did not alter their opinion on segregation and its heavy expenses, but they significantly expanded their discussion on sterilization and wrote an entirely new chapter dedicated to sterilization. They also labeled opponents of sterilization “ignorant” and claimed their arguments against sterilization were constructed on imaginary premises.[24] From the significant tonal shift in Applied Eugenics, one may infer that Buck gave eugenicists confidence and the means to advocate sterilization.

The legacy of Buck on the American eugenics movement in its later stages is evident in a Los Angeles Times column entitled “Social Eugenics.” Fred Hogue, who wrote the column from 1935 to 1941, was a staunch advocate of eugenics. Hogue argued that sterilization was the solution to strengthen the United States.[25] Comparing the “unfit” to mosquitoes in one of his earliest articles, Hogue questioned why the United States was so reluctant to eliminate “human breeders of the hereditary physical and mental unfit” when it achieved an overwhelming success in controlling and removing the disease-transferring insects from its surface.[26] Hogue’s faith in eugenics and its potentials was to the extent he praised the Third Reich and its eugenic atrocities. In an alleged conversation with a student who specialized in “history of international repute,” Hogue claimed that Hitler will remain a respectable figure in history.[27]

A devoted believer in eugenics, Hogue asserted his argument for sterilization as a tool to achieve eugenic goals throughout his column, and Buck was his favorite supporting evidence. In response to enemies of eugenics and sterilization who wrote protesting letters, Hogue copies Buck in its entirety and states that salpingectomy was declared constitutional by the highest court in the nation. In an attempt to humiliate his enemies further, Hogue triumphantly declares in the column that he is citing the case letter to letter to “supply factual material to the social biologists and social eugeni[ci]sts who have to meet the objections from the uninformed and misinformed.”[28]

Hogue also cited Buck in his analyses of legal disputes pertaining to sterilization. In a 1938 column, Hogue provided a summary of a Los Angeles County Superior Court with “a [pregnant] juvenile delinquent,” whose mother and relatives were diagnosed of dementia praecox. The girl and her mother objected her sterilization order, and the judge was reluctant to issue the order because he was worried about popular resentment. Hogue simply cited Buck as the legal justification for the case, questioning the judge’s reluctance to issue the final verdict on the girl’s bodily integrity.[29] In another column from the same year, Hogue briefly mentions Buck in his discussion of state sterilization programs as a means to protect the state. Hogue states that the “celebrated” Buck case is “the strongest argument for the eugenic sterilization of the feebleminded,” indicating the amount of influence Buck exercised as a legal precedent installed by the Supreme Court.[30]

Before concluding this section, it is of interest to note a scene from a television show. The following passage is a part of the script for Judgment at Nuremberg, a film drama composed by the American writer Abby Mann (as cited in historian J. David Smith’s work).[31] In this scene, Dr. Wieck accuses a Nazi war criminal for his involvement in the compulsory sterilization program of the Nazi regime. Rolfe, the defending attorney of the Nazi remnant, refutes Dr. Wieck’s argument that compulsory sterilization and its atrocities pertained only to Nazi Germany with the Buck decision:

Rolfe: Dr. Wieck, are you aware that [compulsory sterilization] was not invented by National Socialism, but had been advanced for years before as a weapon in dealing with the mentally incompetent and the criminal?

Dr. Wieck: Yes. I am aware of that.

Rolfe: Are you aware that it has advocates among leading citizens in many other countries?

Dr. Wieck: I am not an expert on such laws.

Rolfe: (Crisply) Then permit me to read one to you… This is a High Court opinion upholding such laws in existence in another country. [Reads Buck v. Bell decision] Do you recognize it now, Dr. Wieck?

Dr. Wieck: (With emphatic distaste) No, Sir, I don’t.

Rolfe: (Smiles a little) Actually, this is no particular reason why you should, since the opinion upholds the sterilization law in… the United States, and was written and delivered by that great American jurist, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes… Now, Dr. Wieck. In view of what you have just learned, can you still say that this was a ‘novel National Socialist measure?’[32]

Intrigued by this ironic scene, Smith conducted a brief research on the Nuremberg Military Tribunals. Smith could not locate a scene similar to Mann’s drama, but he found another record that attracted his attention in the Nuremberg trial records: defense argument for Otto Hofmann, an SS officer who was heavily involved in the Final Solution.[33] One of the defense exhibits includes a 1937 brief on sterilization laws in different countries. The United States is included among the rank of sterilization states. The brief mentions Buck and notes that it was the higher courts that advocated compulsory sterilization laws when individual states were trying to limit the scope to voluntary sterilizations only:


Although almost all states try to carry out sterilization on a voluntary basis the courts have more than once ordered compulsory sterilizations. In a judgment of the Supreme Court of October 1926 it says, among other things: [cites a part of the Buck decision]… This far from complete enumeration should meet the wishes of our collaborators for some examples.[34]

The Hofmann exhibit bears a crucial significance in regards to the discussion on Buck’s role in the American eugenics movement. Whether individual states supported voluntary sterilization in place of compulsory ones is a matter of historical interpretation; that the highest court in America approved forced sterilization and established a powerful legal precedent for sterilization laws, however, is an undeniable fact. The fact that Buck was the first and foremost case to be mentioned in the defense argument for a Nazi war criminal suggests that the case was accepted as the symbol of the American eugenics movement by Americans and foreigners alike.

In sum, that Buck played a crucial role in the American eugenics movement is a valid argument. The Chief Justice of one of the most influential legal institutions in the United States acknowledged the significance of the Supreme Court, and prominent eugenicists from California triumphantly cited to the case as they asserted their arguments for eugenic sterilization. Buck v. Bell indeed was a crucial victory for the American eugenics movement. Issued by the most prestigious legal institution in the nation, Buck supported eugenicists in their demand for sterilization. The significance and international fame of Buck even led an infamous Nazi war criminal to cite it in his defense at the Nuremberg Military Tribunals. Buck v. Bell was considered a valid and powerful legal precedent for those who supported eugenics.

Did state eugenic programs expand after Buck?

That the public accepted Buck as a valid legal precedent has been argued, so the paper now will now proceed to its second phase. This phase will answer two questions: Did more states adopt sterilization measures after Buck? How did Buck affect the national sterilization trend? The hypothesis speculated that more states would have adopted sterilization measures after Buck, resulting in an increasing sterilization trend until 1945. 1945 was designated as the end of the sterilization movement because the atrocities of Nazi Germany become widely known in the United States, a phenomenon that would have – according to the hypothesis – brought about the demise of the American eugenics movement.

Table 1: List of sterilization states before and after the Buck decision

  Number of states Names of states
States that adopted sterilizationlaws prior to Buck 25 Alabama, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin
States that adopted sterilizationlaws after Buck 30 Alabama, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin

Source: Lombardo, Paul A. Three Generations, No Imbeciles. Page 294.

Table 1 lists the number and names of states that adopted sterilization laws before and after the Buck decision. The bolded states in the “States with sterilization laws before 1927” row are states that repealed their sterilization laws prior to the Buck decision. The bolded states in the “States with sterilization laws after 1927” row are states that passed sterilization laws after Buck. The table illustrates an increase in the number of sterilization states after Buck. Before the Supreme Court case, the number of sterilization states was 25, 23 if states that repealed sterilization laws are included. After the decision, the number increased to 30 with inclusion of Arizona, Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Vermont and West Virginia. The increasing membership of sterilization states is important also because it meant that the South was not a regional exception to state sterilization programs anymore.[35] The changing number thus indicates that legislative and legal authorities who supported eugenic principles interpreted the Buck decision as the Supreme Court’s nod to eugenic state policies.


Graph 1: National cumulative number of sterilized population in the United States, 1921-1964.

Sources: The graph was compiled with data published by ERO, HBF, Birthright and HBAA (from Jonas Robitscher’s Eugenic Sterilization).

Existing population indices on the number of the sterilized in the United States also supports the view that Buck resulted in an expanding eugenics movement in America. Graph 1 depicts an increasing sterilization trend in the United States from 1921 to 1964. The number of the sterilized increased from 3,233 in 1921 to 43,791 in 1945, or an increase by 1355% compared to 1921 over 25 years. This trend appears to support the initial hypothesis that Buck brought about an increase in the number of the sterilized in the United States until 1945.

However, the graph actually challenges the hypothesis, which stated that the reported sterilizations increased up to 1945. Instead, the graph illustrates a rapidly increasing sterilization trend in post-WWII years. The cumulative total number of sterilizations by 1964 is 63,678, or approximately an increase by 150% compared to the number of the sterilized in 1945 and 1970% increase compared to the number in 1921.

Did the terms of a state sterilization law halt or help its respective state’s eugenic policies?

The evidence presented thus far argues that the initial hypothesis is partially true; the rate of sterilizations performed in the United States did decline toward the end of WWII, but the reported occurrences of the operation resumed growing after WWII ended. An unanticipated phenomenon emerged after collecting the data, however, namely the increasing number of the sterilized after WWII. This trend is counterintuitive, for one would assume that eugenics and sterilization would have declined, if not abruptly terminated, after the end of WWII with the widespread atrocities of Nazi Germany. Alexandra Minna Stern, a historian whose research interests include eugenics, states that American eugenicists were busy defending themselves and reframing their eugenic quests.[36] Stern also states that the American eugenics movement flourished until the 1960s, however, suggesting that eugenic crimes of Nazi Germany were not sufficient to halt the eugenics movement.

I formulated an explanation for the unanticipated challenge. The new hypothesis is as follows: sterilization states whose eugenic programs became inactive before 1945 have sterilizations laws that make sterilization easier than the other states. This hypothesis is based on the fact that a number of states that formulated and passed new sterilization laws because previous laws were declared unconstitutional by their state courts; for instance, state sterilization laws of New Jersey and New York were declared unconstitutional in 1920.[37] If some sterilization laws were challenged in the early phase of American eugenics movement, then their provisions would have significantly expanded the spectrum of potential victims, to the extent opponents of eugenics were compelled to challenge and repeal those laws in state courts. If one sterilization law was declared unconstitutional and the other sterilization laws were similar to the repealed one, then a significant number of sterilization laws must also have been declared unconstitutional in other states. However, the majority of sterilization laws did not face legal or legislative challenges until the early 1970s (see Appendix A). Based on these premises, the new hypothesis speculated that sterilizations laws that faced early demise are significantly different from their counterparts.

Pattern I states: New Jersey, New York and Washington

Graphs 2, 3 and 4: Cumulative number of sterilized population in New Jersey, New York and Washington from 1921 to 1964.

Chart 1

Chart 2


Sources: Same as Graph 1.

Pattern I states most closely resemble the initial hypothesis: their sterilization programs completely stopped before the end of WWII. Graphs 2, 3 and 4 illustrate cumulative number of sterilizations from 1921 to 1964 in New Jersey, New York and Washington, respectively. In Eugenical Sterilization, Laughlin reported that sterilization laws of New Jersey and New York were found unconstitutional by their state courts.[38] Washington showed a rapid rise in the number of sterilization victims after Buck, but its reported sterilizations ceased after 1943.

Pattern II states: California, Kansas and Mississippi

Graphs 5, 6 and 7: Cumulative number of sterilized population in California, Kansas and Mississippi from 1921 to 1964.





Sources: Same as Graph 1.

Pattern II includes states whose annual sterilization occurrences declined significantly after 1945. California deserves consideration because it led the largest state eugenics program; California was responsible for 79% of all sterilizations performed in the United States in 1921, and the state maintained its dominance until the end of the American eugenics movement. Kansas is another state whose sterilization policies dwindled after WWII ended. Mississippi was included for the sake of geographical diversity.

Pattern III states: Michigan, North Dakota and Virginia

Graphs 8, 9 and 10: Cumulative number of sterilized population in Michigan, North Dakota and Virginia from 1921 to 1964.




Sources: Constructed from same sources as Graph 1.

States that belong to Pattern III have post-1945 sterilization rates that are larger than Pattern II but smaller than Pattern IV; their numbers of the sterilized after 1945 are approximately 40-50% of pre-1945 numbers. Both Michigan and North Dakota have appropriate sample sizes. In addition to its number of the sterilized, Virginia was included because its sterilization statute was the first law to survive the legal challenge and gain the national Supreme Court’s approval through the Buck decision.

Pattern IV states: Georgia, Iowa and North Carolina

Graphs 11, 12 and 13: Cumulative number of sterilized population in Georgia, Iowa and North Carolina from 1921 to 1964.




Sources: Constructed from same sources as Graph 1.

With their unusual sterilization trends, Pattern IV states may be considered outliers. Sterilization programs in these states showed increased efficiency in post-WWII years, a period during which reported sterilizations in other states continued to decline. Georgia, Iowa and North Carolina are the only states that demonstrate such a pattern.

Did terms of a state sterilization law halt or help its respective state’s eugenic policies?      Analysis of sterilization statutes took place after selection of the twelve sample states. Through the four questions outlined in the Methodology section, the following result emerged:

Table 2: Sterilization laws from sample states and their types.

Statute Type States and Patterns
Statute A Type I: New Jersey
Statute B Type I: New York
Statute C Type I: WashingtonType II: California, Kansas, MississippiType III: Michigan, North Dakota, VirginiaType IV: Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina

Table 2 categorizes sample sterilization laws into three types of sterilization laws, as discussed in the Methodology section. Contrary to the new hypothesis’ speculations, sterilization statutes that suffered early repeals were the statutes that provided physicians and surgeons with the most limited procedures and targets for sterilization. Also, except for Washington, states with Statute C laws successfully maintained their sterilization programs beyond the end of WWII. The later phenomenon is understandable, since flexible laws would have made more targets available for sterilization, leading to larger numbers of the sterilized.


For my analysis of sterilization statutes, I did not use original sterilization statutes but instead used summaries found in primary and secondary sources. I had to use summaries because: (1) the nature of this program allowed me little time to search and organize my findings; and (2) the sources did not provide citations for the sterilization laws they analyzed. The analyses I used do not necessarily alter the nature of sterilization laws, but looking at the original laws may have provided more interesting aspects for discussion.

Also, there are a number of limitations with the sterilized population indices. Each population index has its own standard for categorizing the sterilization population up to the year it represents. This phenomenon may be related to the fact that no single organization was responsible for categorizing sterilization data; as I mentioned in the Methodology section, organizations that compiled the data include: (1) Psychopathic Laboratory of the Municipal Court of Chicago; (2) Human Betterment Foundation; (3) Human Betterment Association of America (also known as Association for Voluntary Sterilization); and (4) Birthright. The Psychopathic Laboratory of the Municipal Court of Chicago and the Human Betterment Foundation attempts to categorize each case by gender, but the Human Betterment Association of America and Birthright list only the number of the sterilized in each year.

Perhaps the most outstanding limitation with the population indices is the discrepancies in the calculated number of the sterilized. For instance, the number of the sterilized in Nebraska is 308 in 1928, but it decreases to 229 in 1933 and recovers to 333 in 1938.[39] [40] [41] Given that no other state shows such trend, this fluctuation in the number of the sterilized is highly questionable. The most likely cause for this phenomenon is human error: the researchers in charge of compiling sterilization data may have miscalculated or entered 308 instead of 208.

Also, the final cumulative numbers for Georgia, Utah and Wisconsin in 1964 are larger than they are supposed to be, given the number of the sterilized people in each year. The possible causes for the Nebraska case also apply to this phenomenon, but there is another possibility: the author of the book, from which I obtained post-1940 sterilization data, may have made his own errors in the process of organizing the data. Because the goal of this project is to discuss the influence of Buck on the American eugenics movement as a whole, accuracy of the data is not as significant as capturing the national sterilization trend. However, one must keep in mind that the sterilization data available are not very accurate, questioning their accuracy as he or she uses the data for research purposes.

The final problem I would like to address is the nature of sterilization. Sterilization is a private process between the patient and the physician. Public authorities may try to regulate sterilizations, but their attempts may not prove very successful. There is a possibility that the reported numbers of the sterilized in each state and in the entire nation may not be the most accurate data possible.

During the past summer, I visited the historical archives at the California Institute of Technology for my departmental thesis. The archives contained a number of correspondences between Popenoe and authorities of state hospitals. To each recipient, Popenoe asked for the numbers of patients sterilized and the effects sterilization had on their health. Popenoe showed a remarkable lack of scientific rigor; not only did he not require documents that would support the stated total number of patients, but he stated that estimated numbers are fine.[42] Also, historian Mark Largent notes that a number of states did not adopt sterilization laws but performed sterilizations on their residents. These states include: Colorado; Illinois; Pennsylvania; Texas; and Ohio.[43] The fact that there are unrecorded sterilizations makes the American eugenics movement an interesting historical topic for investigation.

Implications and Conclusion

What does the American eugenics movement, still shrouded in uncertainty, mean in today’s world? It certainly has left a lasting dark legacy in biotechnology, which is deeply concerned about repeating the historical mistake of the eugenics movement. Topics discussed in the National Symposium on Genetics and the Law (hereafter National Symposium) clearly reflect this concern. James R. Sorenson the scientist commented that scientists should be more than aware of the fact that academic experts and physicians were heavily involved in the eugenics movement during the first National Symposium.[44] A professor of neuropsychology, Nancy S. Wexler asserted that people should find balance between the desire to have the perfect offspring by removing genetic defect.[45]Arnold S. Relman, a medical professor, urged scientists who attended the meeting to remain unbiased in their judgments and commit themselves to public interest to maintain the confidence and support of the public, which have been declining due to the eugenics movement.[46]

Some may argue that today’s biotechnology bears little resemblance to the eugenics movement. However, today’s biotechnology seeks to alleviate human suffering by removing genetic defects before an individual is born. The ability to eliminate undesirable genetic traits – along with wishes of some parents to have the best children possible – bears a disturbing resemblance to eugenics, whose goal was to remove “harmful” genes from the society’s gene pool. Thus, one implication of this research is that the contemporary biotechnology must continue to contemplate over its own power, lest it becomes the tool to invoke the second coming of eugenics.

There is another lesson. Even in their heyday, eugenicists were not very concerned with scientific rigor in their researches. The most obvious example for this statement would be Paul Popenoe’s correspondence, discussed in the Limitations section. Charles B. Davenport, one of the founding fathers of eugenics in the United States, was known for his casual methodology. For instance, in a project testing the validity of the Mendellian heredity model with yellow canaries, Davenport selected canaries just on their body colors, and did not care to investigate the ancestry of the canaries he bought.[47] Eugenicist Frederick Osborn was another prominent American eugenicist who worked at the Carnegie Institution. Osborn was able to secure a Carnegie grant with his proposal for a social science project, but the grant was not granted based on merit or scientific validity. Osborn secured the grant only because he was one of the fourteen trustees of the Carnegie Institution.[48]

These eugenicists and their reckless adventures conducted in the name of science carry another historical lesson. In today’s world, science continues to influence almost every aspect of human life. Politics, public policy and law are also facing increasing interactions with science. In response to such phenomenon, the value of properly and ethically conducted scientific research continues to escalate because they are used as evidence to decide policies that have lasting effects for years at least.

Take Buck as an example. Careless eugenicists accused a competent individual of being “feebleminded” in a Supreme Court decision, and the decision resulted in countless people around the world being sterilized. As demonstrated in the Discussion of Findings section, the sterilization policies remained in effect for a long time after the end of WWII, even with revelations of stunning Nazi atrocities. If one may argue that Buck v. Bell was a decision involving scientific evidence regarding Buck’s intelligence, then the significance of proper, meticulous scientific researches in today’s world becomes clear.

In sum, Buck v. Bell, aside from its implications for the need for more research on the American eugenics, carries two powerful lessons. Contemporary biotechnology should seek to distance itself from eugenics; scientific research should be conducted in a meticulous and valid manner. The politician may increase funding for science, but the scientist themselves should respond to the people’s demands and expectations for ethical research.




[1] “Action T4,” Wikipedia, Wikipedia, 13 November, 2012, <>.

[2] Daniel J. Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 37.

[3] I took the rough translation from an email correspondence with Professor Theodore M. Porter, my supervising professor for the departmental thesis.

[4] Witchy & The Genie, “Forced Sterilization in Nazi Germany,” FUN TO BE HAD, Witchy & The Genie, Blogspot, 27 November, 2012. <>.

[5] J. David Smith, The Eugenic Assault on America: Scenes in Red, Blue, and Black (Lanham: George Mason University Press, 1992), 6.

[6] Paul A. Lombardo. Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 105-6.

[7] Ibid., 107.

[8] Ibid., 107.

[9] Ibid., 158.

[10] Ibid., 171-3. Page 171 contains samples of Catholic views on sterilization, and Pages 172-3 contain the biased views of the other 6 Supreme Court Justices.

[11] Lombardo, 171-2. Justice Butler’s lack of a dissenting opinion is a confusing question, and a number of historical works attempt to understand his reasoning. Lombardo himself presents a spectrum of possibilities from Pages 171 to 172, one of which is that Justice Butler was not in habit of writing dissenting opinions, even when he felt a strong urge to do so.

[12] Ibid., 163.

[13] Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., “Buck v. Bell,” Google Scholar, Google, 2 May 1927, Google, 27 November 2012, <,9>.

[14] Kevles. 111. The words “three generations of imbeciles” originate from the fact that Buck’s mother and daughter were diagnosed as imbeciles as well.

[15] Lombardo. 185.

[16] Smith, 5-6.

[17] Ezra S. Gosney and Paul Popenoe, Sterilization for Human Betterment: A Summary of Results of 6,000 Operations in California, 1909-1929 (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1929), 68-9. A prominent Californian eugenicist and the founder of the HBF, Ezra S. Gosney identifies three main motives for a state sterilization program in Sterilization for Human Betterment: eugenic, therapeutic and punitive. Eugenic sterilization refers to a sterilization performed “for the benefit of the state.” A therapeutic sterilization is a sterilization performed out of the belief that the operation would improve the sterilized person’s health (one of the favorite arguments of eugenicists in California was that sterilization improved mental and physical health of an individual). Punitive sterilization is intended for criminals who, by the virtue of their criminal careers, were to be sterilized in order to remove their “dangerous” genes from the society’s gene pool.

[18] Harry H. Laughlin, Legal Status of Eugenical Sterilization: History and Analysis of Litigation under the Virginia Sterilization Statute (Chicago: The Fred J. Ringley Co., 1930), 7.

[19] Ibid., 5.

[20] See Footnote 1.

[21] Gosney and Popenoe. ix.

[22] Ibid., 169-71.

[23] Paul Popenoe and Roswell H. Johnson, Applied Eugenics (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1933).

[24] Diane B. Paul, Controlling Human Heredity: 1865 to Present (Amherst: Humanity Books. 1998), 83-4.

[25] Alexandra Minna Stern, “Sterilized in the Name of Public Health: Race, Immigration, and Reproductive Control in Modern California,” US National Library of Medicine, July 2005, National Institutes of Health, 28 November 2012, <>.

[26] Fred Hogue. “Social Eugenics.” Los Angeles Times July 5, 1936. 20.

[27] Fred Hogue. “Social Eugenics.” Los Angeles Times February 9, 1936. 31.

[28] Fred Hogue. “Social Eugenics.” Los Angeles Times Angust 4, 1940. 118-9.

[29] Fred Hogue. “Social Eugenics.” Los Angeles Times May 22, 1938. H23.

[30] Fred Hogue. “Social Eugenics.” Los Angeles Times July 24, 1938. H23.

[31] Smith. 7-8.

[32] Judgment at Nuremberg, Dir. Stanley Kramer and writ. Abby Mann, Movie film, Youtube, 1961, <>.

[33] Smith, 8.

[34] Trials of War Criminals before the Nuernberg Military Tribunals under Control Council Law No. 10, 30 November 2012, <>. 1159-60.

[35] Kevles, 111.

[36] Alexandra Minna Stern, Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 2005), 17.

[37] Harry H. Laughlin, Eugenical Sterilization in the United States (Chicago: Psychopathic Laboratory of the Municipal Court of Chicago, 1922), 10.

[38] Ibid., 10.

[39] Gosney and Popenoe. 184.

[40] Human Betterment Foundation, “Eugenic sterilizations performed in US through 1932, Human Betterment Foundation,” Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement, 1932, National Human Genome Institute, <>.

[41] Human Betterment Foundation, “An American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera,” The Library of Congress, 1938, Library of Congress, 15 November 2012, <>.

[42] Correspondences between Paul Popenoe and state hospital authorities, Box 12.8, E. S. Gosney Papers and Records of the Human Betterment Foundation, Archives, California Institute of Technology (the citation followed the format preferred by the Caltech archives, as stated in the following website:

[43] Mark Largent, Breeding Contempt: The History of Coerced Sterilization in the United States (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2008), 72.

[44] Aubrey Milunsky and George J. Annas, ed., Genetics and the Law (New York: Plenum Press, 1976), 470.

[45] Aubrey Milunsky and George J. Annas, ed., Genetics and the Law II (New York: Plenum Press, 1979), 315.

[46] Aubrey Milunsky and George J. Annas, ed., Genetics and the Law III (New York: Plenum Press, 1984), 42.

[47] Largent. 89-90.

[48] Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, The Politics of Knowledge: The Carnegie Institution, Philanthropy, and Public Policy (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1989), 164-5.