March 21, 1905 A Genetic Threat to Society

In the 19th century, Francis Galton studied the theories of his cousin Charles Darwin on the evolution of species, applying these ideas to a system of selective breeding intended to bring “better” human beings into the world.  He called it his theory of “Eugenics”.

In 380BC, Plato described a system of state-controlled human breeding. In the Socratic dialogue “The Republic” Plato introduced a “guardian class” to watch over over the ideal society.

Ada Juke

In the 19th century, Francis Galton studied the theories of his cousin Charles Darwin on the evolution of species, applying these ideas to a system of selective breeding intended to bring “better” human beings into the world.  He called it his theory of “Eugenics”.

Eugenics gained worldwide respectability in the early 20th century, when countries from Brazil to Japan adopted policies regarding the involuntary sterilization of certain mental patients.

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“Better Babies” competitions sprang up at state fairs across the United States. Babies were measured, weighed, and “judged”, like livestock.  By the 1920s, such events had evolved into “Fitter Family” competitions.

One of the leaders of the eugenics movement was the pacifist and Stanford University professor, David Starr Jordan.  After writing several books on the subject, Jordan became a founding member of the Eugenics Committee of the American Breeders Association.  The higher classes of American society were being eroded he argued, by the lower class.  Careful, selective breeding were required to preserve the nation’s “upper crust”.

Judging babies at the state fair, in 1900

Margaret Higgins Sanger believed that birth control should be compulsory for “unfit” women. She claimed that these mothers “recklessly perpetuated their damaged genetic stock by irresponsibly breeding more children in an already overpopulated world.”


An early advocate for birth control, Sanger has her supporters to this day, including former Presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton. “I admire Margaret Sanger enormously”, Clinton said.  “Her courage, her tenacity, her vision…”  Time Magazine points out that “Sanger opened the first birth-control clinic in the United States”, describing her as “An advocate for women’s reproductive rights who was also a vocal eugenics enthusiast…”

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Margaret Samger

Detractors have described Sanger as a “thoroughgoing racist”, citing her own words in What Every Girl Should Know, published in 1910:  “In all fish and reptiles where there is no great brain development, there is also no conscious sexual control. The lower down in the scale of human development we go the less sexual control we find. It is said that the aboriginal Australian, the lowest known species of the human family, just a step higher than the chimpanzee in brain development, has so little sexual control that police authority alone prevents him from obtaining sexual satisfaction on the streets”.

Admire or detest the woman as you choose, Sanger’s work established organizations. These evolved into what we know today, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Around the world, such ideas took the form of involuntarily terminated pregnancies, compulsory sterilization, euthanasia and, in the case of Nazi Germany, mass extermination.

Madison Grant, the New York lawyer best known for his work in developing the discipline of wildlife management, was a leader in the eugenics movement, once receiving an approving fan letter from none other than Adolf Hitler.

Public policy and academic types conducted three international eugenics conferences to discuss the application of programs to improve human bloodlines.  The first such symposium convened in London in 1912, discussing papers on “racial suicide” and similar topics.  Presiding over the conference was none other than Major Leonard Darwin, the son of Charles Darwin, with Harvard president emeritus Charles William Eliot serving as vice President.

Vermont Eugenics: A Documentary History

The 1912 conference was followed by two more in 1921 and 1932, both held in New York City.  Colleges and universities delved into eugenics as academic discipline, with courses exploring the ethical and public policy considerations of eliminating the “degenerate” and “unfit”.

In Pennsylvania, 270 involuntary sterilizations were performed without benefit of law, between 1892 and 1931.  On March 21, 1905, the Pennsylvania legislature passed “An Act for the Prevention of Idiocy”, requiring that every institution in the state entrusted with the care of “ idiots and imbecile children”, be staffed by at least one skilled surgeon, whose duty it was to perform surgical sterilization.  The bill was vetoed by then-Governor Samuel Pennypacker, only to return in 1911, ’13, ’15, ’17, ’19, and again in 1921.

By the height of the eugenics movement, some 30 states had passed legislation, legalizing the involuntary sterilization of individuals considered “unfit” for reproduction. All told, some 60,000 individuals were forcibly sterilized in state-sanctioned procedures.

In 1945 the state of California required Charles Follett to undergo an involuntary vasectomy. His crime? Follett found himself abandoned by alcoholic parents. He was 15 years old.   Charlie Follett was but one of some 20,000 Californians forced to undergo such a procedure.

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Roadside Marker, Raleigh, NC

Vermont passed a sterilization law in 1931, aimed at what then-University of Vermont zoology professor Henry Perkins called the “rural degeneracy problem.”  An untold number of “defectives” were forced to undergo involuntary sterilization, including Abenaki Indians and French-Canadian immigrants.

Indiana passed the first eugenic sterilization law in 1907, but the measure was legally flawed.  To remedy the situation, the Eugenics Record Office (ERO), founded in 1910 by the the former Harvard University Zoology Professor Charles Benedict Davenport, Ph.D.  crafted a statute, later adopted by the Commonwealth of Virginia as state law in 1924.

That September, Superintendent of the ‘Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded’ Dr. Albert Sidney Priddy, filed a petition to sterilize one Carrie Elizabeth Buck, an 18-year-old patient at the institution whom Priddy claimed to be “incorrigible”.  A “genetic threat to society”.  Buck’s 52-year-old mother had a record of prostitution and immorality Priddy claimed. The child to whom Buck gave birth in the institution only proved the point.

Carrie Elizabeth Buck was born into poverty in Charlottesville, Virginia, the first of three children born to Emma Buck. Carrie’s father Frederick Buck abandoned the family, shortly after the marriage. Emma was committed to the “Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded” following accusations of immorality, prostitution, and having syphilis.

Buck’s guardian brought her case to court, arguing that compulsory sterilization violated the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.  After losing in district court, the case was appealed to the Amherst County Circuit Court, the Virginia Supreme Court, and finally the United States Supreme Court.

Dr. Priddy died along the way, Dr. John Hendren Bell taking his place.  SCOTUS decided the “Buck vs Bell” case on May 2, 1927, ruling in an 8–1 decision that Carrie Buck, her mother, and her perfectly normal infant daughter, were all “feeble-minded” and “promiscuous.”

“This photograph was taken on the eve of the initial trial of Buck v Bell in Virginia. Mrs. Dobbs appear to be holding a coin believed to be used as a test for alertness or mental acuity. Vivian appears to be looking elsewhere. It may have ben on the strength of this test that Arthur Estabrook concluded that she “showed backwardness.” H/T DNA Learning Center,

In the majority ruling, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. did more than just greenlight the Virginia statute.  He urged the nation as a whole to get serious about eugenics, and to prevent large numbers of “unfit” from breeding:  “”It is better for all the world“, Holmes wrote, “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“. In writing about Carrie Buck herself, her mother and infant daughter Vivian, Holmes delivered one of the most brutal pronouncements in all American jurisprudence: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

It was later revealed that Carrie Buck had been raped by a member of the Dobbs family, the foster family who had taken her in and later had her committed.  To save the family “honor”.  No matter.  Buck was compelled to undergo tubal ligation, later paroled from the institution to become a domestic worker with a family in Bland, Virginia.  Buck’s daughter Vivian was adopted by the Dobbs family.

In a later examination of Vivian Buck, ERO field worker Dr. Arthur Estabrook pronounced the child “feeble minded”, claiming that she “showed backwardness” supporting the “three generations” theory expressed in the SCOTUS opinion.

“Vivian Alice Elaine Dobbs” died from complications of measles at the age of 8, after only two years in school.  Dr. Estabrook’s report failed to explain how she seemed to do well for those two years with grades ranging from As and Bs in deportment and Cs in most academic subjects except mathematics, with which she always had problems. She actually made honor roll in April 1931, a fact which goes unexplained in Dr. Estabrook’s report.

In order to keep the family from reproducing, Carrie’s sister Doris was sterilized without her knowledge when she was hospitalized, with appendicitis. Doris later married. She and her husband tried for many years to have children, without success. It was only in 1980 she learned the true reason, for her inability to get pregnant.

Carrie Buck went on to marry. Twice. Both marriages ended only with the death of her husband. Later interviewers labeled her a woman of “normal intelligence”. In later life she said she always wanted more children but that, of course, was denied her. Carrie Buck died in a nursing home in 1983, 56 years after her sterilization. She was buried in a cemetery in Charlottesville. In a nearby gravesite lies the child the government took away from her, all those many years before.

Carrie Buck in later life

Author: Cape Cod Curmudgeon

I'm not a "Historian". I'm a father, a son and a grandfather. A widowed history geek and sometimes curmudgeon, who still likes to learn new things. I started "Today in History" back in 2013, thinking I’d learn a thing or two. I told myself I’d publish 365. The leap year changed that to 366. As I write this, I‘m well over a thousand. I do this because I want to. I make every effort to get my facts straight, but I'm as good at being wrong, as anyone else. I offer these "Today in History" stories in hopes that you'll enjoy reading them, as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Thank you for your interest in the history we all share. Rick Long, the “Cape Cod Curmudgeon”

10 thoughts on “March 21, 1905 A Genetic Threat to Society”

  1. So glad people are continuing to write about this– we repeat the history we don’t remember. I teach a course that includes a class about American eugenics and so many of my students are like, “Don’t you mean German eugenics?” And I have to break the news that Nazis studied it from Americans.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ugh. It’s ridiculous how many things filed under “women’s health” don’t do much to help women. Thanks for another timely post. If only society looked at people less as burdens and more as opportunities to serve each other!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I was chagrind on hearing the news the other day, that ye olde fighting cocks had closed. That place opened the year the Vikings first appeared, at Lindisfarne. That was amazing to me. What was even more astonishing was to learn that my son had enjoyed pint there, and he didn’t bring his old man! Ungrateful little shit.😎

        Liked by 1 person

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