Lutz Kaelber, associate professor of sociology, led a group of Honors College students, including junior Bryan Petrow, in a course project to create the definitive online resource documenting the American eugenics movement. (Photo: Sally McCay)
“It seems like it belongs in a science fiction novel rather than part of national policy.”
By Jon C. Reidel2
When Bryan Petrow signed up for the Honors College course “Disability as Deviance” he wasn’t expecting to become immersed in one of the darker, lesser-known chapters in U.S. history, much less build the definitive website documenting the history of American eugenics. Studying the practice of compulsory sterilization of individuals deemed “disabled” was emotionally taxing, but according to the senior biology major, well worth the time and effort it took to finally give them a voice.
“It was a difficult subject to spend a semester on, but it was one that had been buried and needed to be told,” said Petrow, who worked with fellow Champlain Valley Union High graduate Charles Carpenter on the Vermont write-up. “I felt like we did something that needed to be done 50 years ago. It seems like it belongs in a science fiction novel rather than part of national policy.”
For many of the students in the course, the idea was inconceivable that states passed laws in the first decades of the 20th Century that led to the sterilization of more than 60,000 Americans who were mentally disabled or ill, who belonged to a socially disadvantaged group or were considered morally corrupt. That was the kind of thing that happened in Germany (the National Socialist sterilization program in Germany was considered a stepping stone to the Holocaust), not the United States. Even harder to digest was the revelation that 253 sterilizations occurred in Vermont (25th most nationally) beginning in 1931 and continuing as late as 1957 under the guidance of a state-sponsored program run by Henry F. Perkins, a professor of zoology at UVM from 1902-1945.
“One student said, ‘That would never happen in Vermont,’” says course creator Lutz Kaelber, assistant professor of sociology, who specializes in deviant behavior including current research on American eugenics and the commemoration of Nazi euthanasia crimes. “The issue really hit home with some students who probably had relatives 60 years ago who lived under the fear of these laws. It’s hard for them to envision social workers roaming the Vermont countryside looking for poor rural families with mentally challenged members, sexually immoral people, which in some states included prostitutes, or other socially disadvantaged groups like Abnaki Indians, gypsies and French Canadians.”
Data hard to find on “forgotten” era
Trying to gather information on a subject most people would rather forget wasn’t easy. Each state presented unique challenges and obstacles in gaining access to information, exemplifying what Kaelber calls “a hole in history.” Students eventually found a wealth of information in a research library in Minnesota that led to other pockets of data. Vermont was one of the only states to have a book written about its eugenics program. Biologist and historian Nancy Gallagher, who completed a master of arts degree in history at UVM in 1996, authored Breeding Better Vermonters: The Eugenics Project in the Green Mountain State in 1999 and was a guest speaker in Kaelber’s class. “She was very happy that we took her work to another level,” says Petrow.
Some of the state write-ups on the website are summaries of existing scholarship, but for others, where very minimal information was available, they define the core parameters for how eugenic sterilizations were carried out in that state. The website provides an overview of each state with a short account of the number of victims; when and where the sterilizations occurred; a history of the passage of laws and the groups identified in them; precipitating factors and processes that led to each sterilization program; and the identification of major proponents of state eugenic sterilization “feeder institutions.”
“There’s nothing else like it anywhere,” says Petrow. “We essentially created something totally new. It felt more like an archeological dig than a research paper. We did a lot of work to make the website as comprehensive as possible.”
Some of the anecdotal information offers unique insight into the scholarship and research behind the eugenics movement, which Kaelber says was supported by some of the nation’s leading scientists and sociologists. “A number of organizations supported and pushed these state programs,” says Kaelber, who considers himself a historical sociologist. “It was a widely adopted view among scientists and researchers that negative social characteristics were passed on in genes and that these lines would need to be prevented.”
In one account, two physicians attest to the fact that an “idiot, imbecile, feebleminded or insane” person is likely to beget same such children. Furthermore, these doctors had to testify that both the patient and society would benefit from the sterilization, and that the operation posed no significant mental or physical risk for the patient. Some of the sterilizations, which were usually carried out in the form of a tubal ligation or vasectomy, resulted in death.
“Part of me feels good that we did this, but it’s really unfortunate that it took so long,” says Petrow. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”
Explore the data uncovered by the Honors College class on the eugenics website.