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Chapter 2 Carrie Buck & The Lynchburg State Colony

The director of Virginia's Lynchburg Hospital was looking through old office files in 1980 when he came upon some startling records: from the 1920s until 1972, his hospital had sterilized some 4000 patients. Most had no idea that they were being sterilized. Most had not given their consent for the surgical procedures that the hospital put them through.

The hospital, called at various times the Virginia State Epileptic Colony and Lynchburg State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded, was the largest institution of its kind in the United States. It opened in 1910 and became a dumping ground for several sorts of people, including Virginia's poorest residents, teens from broken homes, and those whom state officials considered socially inadequate. Many of the people in these categories were labeled with a vague term-feebleminded.

Colony officials were intent on weeding out those whom they felt would contaminate the purity and soundness of the white 'race.' They assumed that "like produces like" and thus targeted those whose likenesses they did not wish to see perpetuated. Their reasoning was that, by sterilizing 'unfit' people, the state's burden of unfit individuals-people who would need institutionalization, often for life-would eventually diminish.

By 1924, the state of Virginia had a draft eugenic sterilization act, which called for sterilizations for two purposes: to promote an individual's health or to protect the welfare of society. The second provision-protecting society-was directed at giving the doctors at the Colony the legal backing they needed for sterilizing patients. Colony officials decided to test whether the sterilization act was constitutional and selected a young woman from the Colony named Carrie Buck as the test 'case.'

Carrie had been sent to Lynchburg when she was a teenager. Before that, she had lived with her foster parents-J.T. and Alice Dobbs. Mr. and Mrs. Dobbs claimed that Carrie had epilepsy and was feebleminded. But, when reporters and others interviewed Carrie in the 1980s, they found that she was a woman of probably average intelligence, a person who enjoyed working crossword puzzles and reading, someone who had just played the role of Mary in a Christmas pageant at the nursing home where she was living. Carrie was not feebleminded. She had been sent to the Colony because she was pregnant. The Dobbses had her committed to hide the fact that their nephew had raped Carrie.

As the courts debated the case, several groups fought against Carrie's pending sterilization. The case eventually wound up in the United States Supreme Court, which decided in 1927 in an 8:1 vote to uphold the Virginia decision to sterilize Carrie. The majority opinion in Buck v. Bell

(Bell was chief physician at the Lynchburg hospital at the time that Carrie was sterilized) was written by Oliver Wendell Holmes and included the famous statement: "Three generations of imbeciles are enough." According to these justices, it was okay under the law to sterilize the socially 'inadequate.'

The three generations Holmes referred to were Carrie, Carrie's mother (Emma), and Carrie's child (Vivian). Emma had several illegitimate children in addition to Carrie, and, according to one commentator, her "deviance was social and sexual; the charge of imbecility was a cover-up ?" Vivian was born in 1924 and was an infant at the time of the hearings. A social worker who examined the seven-month-old baby testified in court-"There is a look about it that is not quite normal, but just what it is, I can't tell." That was the evidence for Vivian's 'imbecility.' When, years later, investigators looked back at Vivian's elementary school report cards, they discovered that she was a good child and an average student-not an 'imbecile' at all.

Virginia was one of the most zealous states concerning eugenic sterilizations. California was another. By 1935, some 20,000 forced sterilizations had been carried out in the United States, half in California. The procedures were fairly straightforward-for men, vasectomy (cutting and removal of a portion of the vas deferens) and for women, salpingectomy (cutting and tying off the Fallopian tubes). Most of the people who were involuntarily sterilized lived in hospitals, group homes, and prisons, and, for some, the 'price' they were made to pay to get out was sterilization. Sometimes, though, even after the person agreed to the procedure, freedom was not granted.

Many Virginians were unaware that they had been sterilized until the Lynchburg story hit the press and lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a class action suit on their behalf. Carrie's sister, Doris, for example, wanted desperately to have children and spent years trying and failing. Only late in life did Doris learn that she, like Carrie, had been sterilized. When the ACLU lawyer interviewed Doris, she said, "I'm not mad; just brokenhearted."

The ACLU's involvement lasted five years. Early on, they contacted some of the people they thought might have been sterilized. But, during some of these first encounters, they learned how devastating and humiliating the sterilizations had been to the victims, to their marriages, and to their lives overall. Sometimes the people did not actually know that they had been sterilized until the lawyers told them. Thereafter, the ACLU waited for people to contact them. Reporters found some of the victims and encouraged them to join in the suit. In the end, the victims received only small compensation from the state. They were given mental health counseling if they wanted it. But no formal apology ever came from the state, nor did financial awards or opportunities to have the surgeries reversed (where possible). Furthermore, Virginia's eugenic sterilization law was not found to be unconstitutional.

Included References

  1. The Flamingo's Smile: Reflections in Natural History, Stephen Jay Gould, W.W. Norton and Company, Inc. 1985, 609-6
  2. Carrie Buck's Daughter.
  3. United States (Supreme Court) Reports, 274: 1000-1002, 1927.

Additional Resources

  1. NYU Law Review, 1985, 60: 30-62.
  2. Video: The Lynchburg Story, 1993.
  3. Eugenics Record Office Website:


Students should understand the following:
  • Eugenic sterilization laws are state laws
  • Policy makers can be influenced by their personal prejudices
  • Powerful persons conspired against the poor and uneducated
  • Some well-intentioned acts are misguided
  • The eugenics movement stressed the health of a population or community over the health and wellbeing of individuals

Suggested Questions for Discussion

  1. The Virginians who promoted eugenic sterilizations had many motives, one of which was economic. What specific economic advantages to the state would eugenic sterilizations produce?
  2. In his decision in Buck v. Bell, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the following: "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 for all the world, 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. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes." What were Holmes's attitudes about a hierarchy of human worth? Whom did he consider the "best citizens?" What did he mean by comparing eugenic sterilizations to compulsory vaccination? How do eugenic sterilizations and compulsory vaccinations serve individuals? How do they serve the needs of the society?
  3. The Supreme Court ruling found that eugenic sterilization was constitutional. 'Legal' and 'moral' are two distinct judgements. How do the law and morality differ? How are they similar? When do they overlap?
  4. What happens when a law is not morally acceptable? What options are available then to individuals? To societies?

Topics for Discussion/Written Assessment

  • Paul Lombardo argues (in N.Y.U. Law Review, April 1985, 60(30):30-62) that the Buck case was (1) a milestone in government power over individual rights, (2) a landmark in endorsement of intrusive medical procedures as tools for states' ends, and (3) an example of how professionals used 'scientific' tenets of eugenic theory to promote their own prejudices. Choose one of these points. Provide evidence to support or refute Lombardo's claim.
  • What other medical procedures and new technologies have individuals and states used for social and political purposes? How and why have they been used?
  • Lombardo characterized the doctor, Albert Priddy, who recommended that Carrie be sterilized as more of "an obsessed moralist than a zealot of eugenics." What arguments would an obsessed moralist make in defending eugenic sterilizations? What points would a zealot make? What positions would they hold in common?

Extension Questions for Additional Research

  1. Three key "players" in Carrie's court cases were state legislator Aubrey Strode, doctor Albert Priddy, and lawyer Irving Whitehead. Find out how these three, who were friends before the case came to the courts, worked in concert to prepare an unfair case against Carrie, to deny her fair representation, and to bring about her sterilization.
  2. The one justice who opposed the Supreme Court's decision to approve Carrie's sterilization was Justice Pierce Butler. Find out the grounds for his opposition to Carrie's sterilization.
  3. What scientific principles did eugenics advocates use to promote their positions in Buck v. Bell?
  4. Harry Laughlin from the Eugenics Record Office (described in Chapter #3) published a model eugenics sterilization law in 192
  5. Find out what Laughlin included in his model and how states applied it to their own legislation on eugenic sterilizations.
  6. How have attitudes shifted in different eras regarding the relations of poverty and criminal behavior with heredity? What are current attitudes and on what sorts of information are they based?
  7. How many state laws permitting eugenic sterilization still exist? What states have these laws? Did other states repeal their laws? When? Why? Find out about the cases or other political events that caused states to overturn their laws.

Topics for Teacher Preparation

  • Details of Buck v. Bell case
  • Model eugenics legislation drafted by Harry Laughlin
  • State laws on eugenic sterilization
  • State statistics and participation in eugenic sterilizations
  • Collusion of players in stacking the case against Carrie
  • Lynchburg Hospital history


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