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The Public History of Eugenics in Washington. Joanne Woiak, Ph.D. Disability Studies Program University of Washington. University of Washington Disability Studies Program presents. Eugenics and Disability: History and Legacy in Washington. Friday, October 9, 2009 One-day public symposium

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The public history of eugenics in washington

The Public History of Eugenics in Washington

Joanne Woiak, Ph.D.

Disability Studies Program

University of Washington

The public history of eugenics in washington

University of Washington Disability Studies Program presents

Eugenics and Disability:History and Legacy in Washington

Friday, October 9, 2009

One-day public symposium

and poster exhibit

Eugenics and Disability website:

Questions about eugenics and disability in washington
Questions about eugenics and disability in Washington

What was eugenics and who studies its history?

Where does “disability” appear in these histories and why is it important?

What sources do we have and what can we learn about eugenics in Washington state?

Why tell a public history of local eugenics and how can public history be done in meaningful ways?

Eugenics human selective breeding
Eugenics: human selective breeding

  • Francis Galton,1883

  • eu “well” + genes “born”

  • “science of improving stock”

  • “I object to pretensions of natural equality.”

The burden of the feebleminded and other defective classes
The burden of the “feebleminded” and other “defective” classes

“It is a reproach to our intelligence that we as a people should have to support about half a million insane, feebleminded, epileptic, blind and deaf; 80,000 prisoners and 100,000 paupers at a cost of over 100 million dollars per year.”

-Charles Davenport, founder of the Eugenics Record Office, 1910

Negative eugenics compulsory segregation and sterilization
Negative eugenics: compulsory segregation and sterilization “defective” classes

Eugenics Record Office pedigree showing transmission of feeblemindedness over several generations. Such evidence supported state-mandated, coerced sterilization of at least 62,000 Americans in over 30 states, beginning in 1907.

The public history of eugenics in washington
1924 Immigration Restriction Act, “defective” classesled by WA Congressman Albert Johnson, with expert testimony by eugenicist Harry Laughlin

Albert Johnson:

“The US is undertaking to regulate and control the great problem of the commingling of races. Our hope is in a homogeneous nation. At one time we welcomed all and all helped to build the nation. But now asylum ends. This nation must be as completely unified as any nation in Europe or Asia. Self-preservation demands it.”

Carl Brigham, A Study of American Intelligence (1923)

The public history of eugenics in washington
Oliver Wendell Holmes’s 1927 “defective” classesBuck v. Bell decision: compulsory sterilization is comparable to vaccination.

“There can be no doubt that so far as procedure is concerned the rights of the patient are most carefully considered. We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for 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, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better 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.”

Positive eugenics fitter families contests and educational exhibits
Positive eugenics: Fitter Families contests “defective” classesand educational exhibits

Eugenics and disability history and legacy in washington
Eugenics and Disability: “defective” classesHistory and Legacy in Washington

1909 wa criminal statute the second forced sterilization law in the nation
1909 WA criminal statute: the second forced sterilization law in the nation

  • Whenever any person shall be adjudged guilty of carnal abuse of a female person under the age of ten years, or of rape, or shall be adjudged to be an habitual criminal, the court may, in addition to such other punishment or confinement as may be imposed, direct an operation to be performed upon such person, for the prevention of procreation. [1909 c 249 § 35; RRS § 2287.]

  • Still on the books: RCW 9.92.100

1921 wa statute targeted a broader range of hereditary defectives
1921 WA statute: targeted a broader range of “hereditary defectives”

  • “Superintendents of all state mental hospitals and custodial schools must report all feebleminded, insane, epileptic, habitual criminals, moral degenerates and sexual perverts, who are persons potential to producing offspring, who because of inheritance of inferior or anti-social traits, would probably become a social menace or wards of the state.”

  • Eugenic and therapeutic rationales: ”The purpose of said orders of the Institutional Board of Health shall be for the betterment of the physical, mental, neural, or psychic condition of the inmate, or to protect society from the menace of procreation by said inmate, and not in any manner as a punitive measure.”

Lobbyists progressive women s groups and physicians
Lobbyists: progressive women’s groups defectives”and physicians

Dr. Bethenia Owens-Adair


“We are obliged to turn them

[the disabled] out at the most

dangerous period of their

existence when many of

them marry and reproduce in

kind” (State Institution for the

Feeble Minded, 1908).

Involuntary sterilization in washington 685 reported victims 1921 1942
Involuntary sterilization in Washington: 685 reported victims, 1921-1942

Total number of sterilizations by state, from Mark Largent, Breeding Contempt: The History of Coerced Sterilization in the US.

CA 20,108 DE 945

VA 7,325 NB 902

NC 5,993 SD 789

MI 3,786 UT 764

GA 3,284 WA 685

IN 2,424 MI 683

MN 2,350 NH 679

OR 2,269 OK 626

WI 1,796 DE 557

ND 1,029

The public history of eugenics in washington
Surgeries were legally performed at 2 kinds victims, 1921-1942of state institutions, by order of the Institutional Board of Health

  • Psychiatric (“insane asylum”)

    • Western State Hospital:

      in 1930, had 1,900 patients

      (Fort Steilacoom)

    • Northern State Hospital

      (Sedro-Woolley, now closed)

    • Eastern State Hospital

      (Medical Lake)

  • Developmentally disabled (“School for the Feeble Minded”)

    • Eastern State Custodial School: in 1915, had 1,500 inmates

      (Medical Lake, now called Lakeland Village)

    • Western State Custodial School

      (Buckley, now called Rainier School)

Sterilization victims
Sterilization victims victims, 1921-1942

  • Total 685: based on data gathered from superintendents by the CA-based Human Betterment Foundation, 1942

    • 184 Males

    • 501 Females

  • 403 “Insane” (M 147, F 256)

  • 276 “Feebleminded” (M 33, F 243)

  • 6 “Others” (M 4, F 2)

The public history of eugenics in washington
Have found minutes of 13 IBH meetings, 1936-1941. victims, 1921-1942Names and/or files of 294 people:approved, disapproved, deferred, rescinded.

The public history of eugenics in washington

Female inmate examined at the Western State Custodial School by IBH, Aug. 30, 1940. All identifying information omitted. From the Washington State Archives.

  • Born in Illinois, age is 25+.

  • One marriage, 3 children, eldest is 5 and also at Custodial School.

  • 5th grade education, no occupation given, economic status marginal.

  • Medical history: no information given.

  • Venereal: active gonorrhea.

  • Heredity and family traits: no information given.

  • Admitted in 1940, no paroles or previous admissions.

  • Feebleminded without psychosis. History of sexual promiscuity. Physical condition good.

  • Mental diagnosis: Feebleminded of moron classification. I.Q. 62.

  • Special trends sexual/criminal: Heterosexual as stated above.

  • Recommendation: personal benefit or eugenic sterilization—bilateral salpingectomy.

  • Special remarks: Husband is asking for her release to him.

Male inmate examined at the western state custodial school by ibh aug 30 1940
Male inmate examined at the Western State Custodial School by IBH, Aug. 30, 1940

  • Born in Lake Samish, age is 21+.

  • Single, attended 8 years of school, progress fair.

  • Short jobs around the neighborhood only, economic status marginal.

  • Medical history: no information given.

  • Heredity and family traits: Father emotionally unstable; shiftless and had a violent temper. Sister at Eastern State Custodial School.

  • Admitted in 1934 to Eastern State Custodial School for supervision and education. Transferred in 1939 to Western.

  • Feebleminded without psychosis. Works well when under constant supervision. Physical condition good, overweight.

  • Mental diagnosis: Feebleminded of moron classification. I.Q. 60.

  • Special trends sexual/criminal: Some homosexual tendencies.

  • Recommendation: Eugenic sterilization—bilateral vasectomy.

  • Special remarks: Mother anxious to have operation performed. Goes home frequently for visits and is desirous of going out at present to accept a woodcutting job offered by a neighbor.

Why me for the benefit of society or for the benefit of the patient
Why me? “For the benefit of society or for the benefit of the patient”

  • Regulating behaviors, esp. “deviant” sexuality.

  • Sterilization as a condition for parole.

  • Institutional Board of Health minutes: “transcripts” of patient interviews

    • Asked about traits/habits of their relatives.

    • Asked about the cause of breakdown.

    • “What is your attitude toward sterilization?”

      • Some women consented to the operation as form of birth control.

Sept 19 1940 file of a female patient sterilized at northern state hospital
Sept. 19, 1940, file of a female patient sterilized at Northern State Hospital

  • Age 21+, single—one child born July, 1940.

  • Protestant, born in Washington, high school education, domestic work.

  • Character traits: Average student in school. Interested in sports but had very limited opportunities for enjoying them. Parents permitted practically no social contacts. She was a fair mixer but did not hold friends very long. Parents felt she was easily led in the wrong direction.

  • Chronic diseases in family: Tuberculosis, Bright’s disease, and apoplexy.

  • Insanity trends: Maternal aunt and uncle and paternal aunt insane. One brother a patient in this hospital.

  • Clinical record: According to the mother patient became mentally ill three years ago. She became stubborn, contrary and irritable, irresponsible and showed poor judgment. She would absent herself from home for long periods, was careless in her appearance and laughed in a silly manner. Had auditory hallucinations. Became fatigued. Gave birth to an illegitimate child in July. Here she is negativistic, somewhat antagonistic, hears voices and smells odors. Judgment impaired and insight lacking.

  • Diagnosis: Dementia Praecox, hebephrenic type.

  • [unanimously approved for sterilization.]

Oregon governor john kitzhaber s apology in 2002
Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber’s apology in 2002 Northern State Hospital

Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber’s eugenics apology, Dec. 2, 2002

To those who suffered, I say, The people of Oregon are sorry. Our hearts are heavy for the pain you endured. And, it is in honor of you that I declare December 10 hereafter to be Human Rights Day in Oregon—a day on which we will affirm our commitment to the value of every human being. On this day, we will renew our determination to protect the rights of all people, regardless of their color, their religious or philosophical beliefs, their sexual preference, their economic status, their illnesses or disabilities. We value them all, for they are our brothers and sisters.

But how far have we come what s the purpose of the apologies and this public history
But…how far have we come? What’s the purpose of the apologies and this public history?

  • Today, I am here to acknowledge a great wrong done to more than 2,600 Oregonians over a period of about 60 years—forced sterilization in accordance with a doctrine called eugenics. Most of these Oregonians were patients in state-run institutions. The majority of them suffered from mental disorders and disabilities. Others were criminal offenders, sufferers of epilepsy or other conditions that required institutional care. Many were children. Virtually all of them were vulnerable, helpless citizens entrusted to the care of the State of Oregon by their families or by courts.

  • Conclusion. Oregon has made remarkable progress in treating citizens who suffer mental illness or disabilities. But even as we celebrate the progress we’ve made, we must also acknowledge the realities that darken the history of our state institutions. The time has come to apologize for misdeeds that resulted from widespread misconceptions, ignorance and bigotry. It’s the right thing to do, the just thing to do. The time has come to apologize for public policies that labeled people as “defective” simply because they were ill, and declared them unworthy to have children of their own.

The public history of eugenics in washington
2007 Indiana legislature: resolution expressed “regret” on the centennial of the first sterilization law

  • More nuanced interpretation of what eugenics was, why it was so popular, and why we should continue talking about it today. Composed in collaboration with historians.

  • Hints at continuities with the past; does not demonize its supporters, or dismiss it as “pseudoscience.”

    • “Wrongly dehumanizing [vulnerable victims] for the claimed purpose of public health and the good of the people.”

Government apologies for sterilizations

Virginia 2001 on the centennial of the first sterilization law

Oregon 2002

North Carolina 2002

Reparations proposed

California 2003

Indiana 2007

Washington 2009?

Criticism: What lessons are we teaching and learning? Avoid close examination of who sanctioned eugenics and why. Does the public still believe disabled people “deserve” sterilization? Where are the voices of PWD in the apology movement?

Government apologies for sterilizations