Eugenics in 21st Century Virginia

Joseph DeJarnette was not alone in supporting eugenics. By 1979, in Virginia alone, at least 8300 people had been sterilized. The movement was arguably a product of the Progressive Era. Because so much emphasis at the time was placed on social reform and scientific discovery, it is easy to see the connections made between the two and how that led to the development of eugenics. Much of the science at the time followed the idea that "sociological problems are in most cases biological problems."

One way that eugenic ideas were distributed was through college courses. Both the University of Virginia and William and Mary University had a number of courses that included eugenics as part of the curriculum. At William and Mary, for example, there were six different classes taught across 34 years that did so. The course description for one of those classes is pictured to the left. 

Both the federal and Virginia state government actively supported eugenics. In 1924, the Virginia Sterilization Act (sometimes called the Eugenical Sterilization Act) was passed. The law legalized compulsory sterilizations on people in state institutions if the cause of their containment was deemed genetic. Soon after the passing of the law, the Supreme Court upheld the statute for compulsory sterilizations.

In 1924, Dr. Albert Priddy filed a petition to his board of directors to sterilize Carrie Buck, an 18-year-old patient at the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded. He claimed that she had the mental age of a nine-year-old. Carrie's 52-year-old mother, Emma, had also been a patient and the same hospital and Priddy claimed Emma had the mental age of an eight-year-old. Carrie also had an illegitimate child who was deemed feebleminded before reaching the age of one. Priddy died and his successor, Dr. John Bell took over the case. The Board approved the petition but Carrie resisted. After a series of appeals, the case was put in front of the United States Supreme Court in 1927. The court upheld the original decision to sterilize Carrie. Justice Holmes said in support of the ruling, "Three generations of imbeciles are enough." The case proved support by the federal government of Virginia's extensive eugenics program. It was the the first court approval of the 1924 law.

While this is not an exhaustive list, the following is a list of books, journal articles, and websites that detail the eugenics movement in Virginia.

  • Segregation's Science: Eugenics and Society in Virginia by Gregory Michael Dorr
  • War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race by Edwin Black
  • Defective or Disabled?: Race, Medicine, and Eugenics in Progressive Era Virginia and Alabama by Gregory Michael Dorr
  • An Appointment With Dr. Jospeh DeJarnette by Brianna Melchione
  • The World of Dr. DeJarnette: Western State Hospital

Eugenics in 21st Century Virginia