Apologies don't erase dark era of eugenics

The dream of eugenics was to scrub the human gene pool of defects. Today, it repels people because of its association with Nazi Germany, but in the first third of the 20th century, eugenics was a progressive idea with intellectual cachet.

Let me start the story in the middle of things, with the Buck women.

Seventeen-year-old Emma Buck had been institutionalized in Virginia for feeble-mindedness. So, too, had her daughter Carrie, at the same age. And then Carrie's daughter, Vivian, was determined to be dim-witted. She was 7 months old at the time.

In 1927, after Vivian's birth, Carrie Buck was sterilized by order of the United States Supreme Court.

In his opinion, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes explained, "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

By then, sterilization had been used in Kansas for 30 years, says Michael Wehmeyer, director of the Kansas University Center on Developmental Disabilities.

In 1895, the Winfield newspaper reported the medical profession's unanimous endorsement of F. Hoyt Pilcher, superintendent of Winfield's Kansas State Asylum for Idiotic and Imbecile Youth.

Pilcher had "unsexed" 150 inmates.

And Pilcher isn't the only Kansas connection to eugenics, says Wehmeyer, whose article "Eugenics and Sterilization in the Heartland" appeared last year in the journal Mental Retardation.

Another name is Paul Popenoe, one of the leaders of the influential Human Betterment Foundation out in California.

Popenoe was born in Topeka. His father, Fred Popenoe, was secretary to a temperance-minded Kansas governor named John P. St. John and then publisher of the Topeka Daily Capital.

Kansas didn't legalize sterilization until 1913. Indiana preceded it with 1907 legislation targeting the "feebleminded, insane, criminalistic, epileptic, inebriate, diseased, blind, deaf, deformed and dependent," as well as "orphans, ne'er-do-wells, tramps, the homeless and paupers."

Eugenics also had a positive face. It showed in the Fitter Family competitions held at state fairs in the 1920s. The first one was at the Kansas Free Fair.

One organizer said, "While the stock judges are testing the Holsteins, Jerseys and whitefaces ... we are judging the Joneses, Smiths & the Johns."

The dark side of eugenics shows in a model law drawn up by Harry Laughlin, of the Eugenics Record Office. It called for compulsory sterilization of the "socially inadequate." After many states had adopted it, so, too, did the Nazi government.

All told, upward of 50,000 people were sterilized in the United States, many more than that in Germany.

The Nazi romance with eugenics discredited it, and after World War II, people with disabilities started to gain public sympathy, says Wehmeyer.

An article by Nobel Prize winner Pearl Buck, about a daughter with mental retardation, gave a human face to disability. So did a book by Dale Evans, spouse of TV cowboy Roy Rogers, about the couple's child with Down syndrome.

It turns out that 90 percent of all children with mental retardation are born to "normal" parents.

In 1965, Kansas became the first state to repeal a sterilization statute -- after more than 3,000 operations. In 2002, Virginia apologized for its more than 7,000 sterilizations. Three other states have followed Virginia's lead.

"Apologies not only acknowledge an injustice," Wehmeyer says, "but help ensure that such events are not erased from our history or consciousness."

Apologies, then, to Carrie Buck. She wasn't feeble-minded. Her pregnancy didn't result from a moral looseness thought to stem from low I.Q. in women. She was raped.

Her daughter Vivian wasn't feeble-minded either. She was a bright student.

Virginia's apology, by Gov. Mike Warner, was read at the unveiling of a highway marker honoring Carrie Buck's memory.

I wish historical markers could help us avoid mistakes, but we human are an oddly forgetful bunch.

- Roger Martin is a research writer and editor for the Kansas University Center for Research and editor of Explore, KU's research magazine Web site, which can be found at www.research.ku.edu. Martin's e-mail address is rmartin@ku.edu.


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