Number of victims

There were 224 people who were sterilized, of whom approximately 58% were male. All of the sterilized were deemed “mentally deficient.” In terms of the total number of people sterilized, Alabama ranks 27th in the United States.  Of the 32 states that had sterilization laws, Alabama is the state with the 5th lowest number of sterilizations.  


Period during which sterilizations occurred

The period was 1919 to 1935 (Paul p. 246)


Temporal pattern of sterilizations and rate of sterilization

Picture of a graph of eugenics sterilizations in Alabama

After the passage of the sterilization law in 1919, the number of sterilization appears to have been low.  Gosney/Popenoe (p. 194; see data sources) report no sterilizations yet at the end of 1927, but the number for the end of 1929 was 44. After that year, the number of sterilizations increased. The last sterilizations occurred in June 1935 (Paul, p. 246). Between 1930 and 1935, the annual number of sterilization was about 30. The rate of sterilization per 100,000 residents per year was about 1.  


Passage of law(s)

According to Edward Larson, “Alabama began its long flirtation with eugenics…before any other state in the Deep South” (Larson, p. 50).  At the 1901 meeting of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama (MASA), Dr. William Glassell Sommerville, Trustee of the Alabama Insane Hospitals, declared it a proven fact that “the moral disposition for good and evil, including criminal tendencies…are transmitted from…one generation to another…and is as firmly believed by all scientific men as the fact that parents transmit” physical qualities to their children (Dorr, “Defective or Disabled?,” pp. 383-4).  At that same meeting, John E. Purdon stated that it was a “‘proven fact’ that criminality, insanity, epilepsy, and other alleged manifestations of degraded nerve tissue were hereditary” (Larson, 50).  He emphasized that “‘[i]t is essentially a state function’ to retrain ‘the pro-creative powers’ of the unfit” (Larson and Nelson, p. 407).  He suggested that the use of sterilization would benefit the race by saying, “[e]masculation is the simplest and most perfect plan that can be adapted to secure the perfection of the race” (Larson, p. 50).  Finally, Purdon explained his belief that “the goodness, the greatness, and the happiness of all upon the earth, will be immeasurably advanced, in one or two generations, by the proposed methods” (Larson and Nelson, p. 407), and, based on his belief that “weakness begets weakness” feared that “humanitarianism would ‘assist the imperfect individual to escape the consequences of his physical and moral malformation’” (Dorr, "Honing Heredity," p. 29).

Over the next decade, MASA was encouraged by many authorities such as physicians and Birmingham’s medical society to draft a bill to legalize the sterilization of the unfit.  In 1911 at the annual MASA meeting, Walter H. Bell of Birmingham declared that “any person who would produce children with an inherited tendency to crime, insanity, feeblemindedness, idiocy, or imbecility” should be sterilized (Larson, p. 51).  He believed that sterilization was “an easy, safe and practical method of prevention with no restrictions or punishment attached” (Larson and Nelson, p.410).

The MASA, however, continued to delay taking action until 1914 when it created a committee of physicians who would research “needful data in regard to ‘defective children,’ with a purpose to urge upon the state legislature the proper provision for the care of such ‘defectives’” (Larson, , p. 60).  During the 1915 MASA meeting, C.M. Rudolph suggested the formation of a home for mentally ill children.  He stressed the importance of segregating the unfit youth because he believed it shrewd to “[s]egregate the defectives of one generation to prevent the multiplication of their kind in the next” (Larson,  p. 60).  In this same meeting it was decided that an Alabama Society for Mental Hygiene (ASMH) would be formed and led by William Partlow as a liaison with the National Committee for Mental Hygiene (NCMH) and to survey Alabama’s “defectives” (Larson,  p. 60).  That year, MASA collectively agreed to support eugenic sterilization (Dorr, “Defective or Disabled?,” pp. 386-87).     


In 1919, the MASA and the ASMH reached their goal.  In the next regular session of the State legislator, a bill was passed to create the Alabama Home (Larson and Nelson, p. 413).  Buried within the law was a clause granting permission to the superintendent of the Home for the Feeble-Minded in Tuscaloosa, to sterilize its patients.  This was the first law passed in Alabama that supported sterilizations (Paul p. 239). 


In 1934, Partlow wanted permission to sterilize all discharged patients from the Home (a procedure he was already practicing as superintendent) (Dorr, "Eugenics in Alabama").  Partlow proposed a bill that gave the superintendent of any state hospital for the insane complete power to sterilize “any or all patients upon their release.”  The bill also proposed the creation of a board with three doctors who would have the right to sterilize a larger group of people.  Finally, the anticipated bill granted permission for county public health committees to sterilize anyone in a state or local custodial institution (Larson and Nelson, p. 418).   Although Partlow’s bill was passed in both the House and the Senate, the bill was vetoed by Alabama’s Governor, Bill Graves after consulting with the Alabama Supreme Court on the bill’s constitutionality (Larson and Nelson, p. 422).  In 1935 the Alabama State Supreme Court viewed the bill and deemed it unconstitutional because it violated the Due Process Clauses of the state and federal constitutions—a sterilization victim would not have the right to appeal to a court against his or her sterilization (Larson and Nelson, p. 422).  A second version of the bill was drafted and, similarly, passed in both houses but was vetoed by the Governor (Larson and Nelson, pp. 422-23).  Soon after this second veto, Partlow “discontinued the practice of sterilization” (Larson and Nelson, p. 424).   


Partlow’s bill, however, was unsuccessfully reintroduced in 1939 and again in 1943.  In 1945, legislation was created that asked for the right to sterilize every inmate or person eligible for entrance in the state’s insane asylums.  This bill was passed by the senate but was rejected by the house (Larson and Nelson, p. 426).  


Groups identified in the law

In the 1919 law, William Partlow included in his draft the permission for the superintendent of the Home for the Feeble-Minded to “sterilize any inmate” (Larson,  p. 84).  “Inmates” were any “person confined in a poor house, jail, an orphanage, or a boarding school in the State” (Larson,  pp. 48-49).  In the 1935 bill, it was proposed that “any sexual pervert, Sadist, homosexualist, Masochist, Sodomist, or any other grave form of sexual perversion, or any prisoner who has twice been convicted of rape” or imprisoned three times for any offense be sterilized.  It was also suggested granting permission to county public health committees to sterilize anyone in a state or local custodial institution (Larson and Nelson, p. 418). An expansion of the law, proposed by Alabama State Health Officer Dr. James Norment Baker, called for the sterilization of “anyone committed to state homes for the insane and feebleminded, reformatories, industrial schools, or training schools, …, as well as any sexual pervert, Sadist, homosexual, Masochist, Sodomist” (Dorr, "Protection," p. 173) as well as anyone convicted of rape twice.  The bill was considered unconstitutional and vetoed by Governor Bill Graves. 

Process of the law

In the 1919 law, the superintendent of the Alabama Home for the Feeble-Minded was given the authority “to sterilize any inmate” (Larson,  pp. 48-49).  This law held only one limitation on sterilization in the Alabama Home.  The superintendent of the Alabama Insane Hospitals had to agree upon the sterilization of the inmates from the Alabama Home for the Feeble-Minded (Larson,  pp. 105-06).  This absence of safeguards for inmates in the law made it possible for William Partlow to sterilize every inmate of the Home.   This law was drafted by Partlow and was the only sterilization law passed in Alabama.  Although this law passed, Partlow continued to try to strengthen the power to sterilize in Alabama through other bills.  All of his attempts, however, failed. 


Precipitating factors and processes

The entire Southern region in general was more hesitant to adopt eugenic ideals for many reasons. One of the most important Southern values was its traditional emphasis on family and parental rights, which eugenics challenged (Larson,  p. 8).  The Southern sense of family also encouraged relatives to take responsibility for “individuals who might otherwise be subject to eugenic remedies in state institutions” (Larson,  p. 9).  Most immigrants in the South came from the British Isles, the same area most Southerners originated from.  Subsequently, a community existed in the South including many immigrants, unlike the North and West where Americans focused their eugenic ideas on ethnically diverse immigrants (Larson,  p. 9). The strength of Southern religion also played a role in the overall rejection of eugenics in Alabama.  Religion lent itself to conceptions of congregations as extended families and many people in the South accordingly apposed segregating the “unfit” (Larson,  pp. 13-14).  In comparison with the rest of the United States, Progressivism in the South was relatively weak due to the comparatively small size of its typical carriers, secular groups, urban professional middle classes, and the more educated (Larson,  p. 17).  Moreover, the Deep South was lagging other regions in biological research programs, as well as scientists and education, which shifted the advocacy of eugenics to state mental health officials and local physicians (Larson,  pp. 40-44).  The MASA and leaders such as William Partlow were extremely important to the eugenics movement in Alabama.  Without the organizations and leaders that were produced from the MASA, Alabama may have never started eugenic practices.     


Overall, Alabama was not in favor of sterilization, which is reflected in the comparatively low number of  sterilization victims.  In general, the people of Alabama were more in favor of segregation of the “unfit” than sterilization (Larson,  pp. 60-63).  However, inadequate funding of such facilities for segregating the “feeble-minded” as well as over-crowding seems to have facilitated a push toward sterilization (Larson,  pp. 90-91). “Even though mental health surveys placed Alabama’s ‘feeble-minded’ population at more than 7,000 persons, the new facility could accommodate only 160 residents, and was filled within two months of it opening” (Larson,  p. 90). 


Groups targeted and victimized

Among those targeted were males, including “some of the delinquent boys who[m] we fear might escape” (Larson,  p. 106), the poor, “mental deficien[ts]” and the “feebleminded” (Larson,  p. 151).  People who could be committed to the state mental health hospital included people in prison, a poor house, and orphanage, or a state boarding school” (Larson,  pp. 48-49).


While Alabama never established a facility for feebleminded blacks (see Dorr, “Defective or Disabled?,” p. 387), Gregory Dorr has argued that the absence of such a facilty should not lead observers to conclude that eugenics in Alabama lacked racist elements, for the limitation of eugenics to the sterilization of whites (in contrast to Virginia) reflected the belief that the "betterment" of the black "race" could not be achieved by such measures. In fact, by the time the wall of segregation had started to come to down in the 1970s and no longer assured second-class citizenship of Blacks, African Americans had become the targets of extra-institutional and extra-legal sterilizations, reflective of a more general southern racist view that it was necessary"to further protect the white race itself from black folks" (Dorr, "Defective or Disabled?," p. 383; see also Dorr, Segregation's Science).

The Relf case

The cause of forced sterilization in Alabama was not helped by the Relf case.  By 1973, the focus had moved away from sterilization of the mentally deficient and those imprisoned, to the use of sterilization as birth control.  The Relf family was on welfare, and living in a public housing project in Montgomery, Alabama. Two Relf sisters, Minnie Lee, age 14, and Mary Alice, age 12, had been receiving shot of Depo-Provera as a form of long term birth control (Rossoff,  p. 6). When the use of the drug was no longer allowed, the mother was mislead into signing a consent form allowing the sterilization of her daughters.  Mrs. Relf was unable to read or write, so she “signed” the form with an X, without any physicians explaining the conditions to her (Roberts, p. 93, Carpia, p.78, Caron, p. 211, Southern Poverty Law Center).   She thought she was signing a form consenting to additional shots, when she was actually consenting to sterilizations (Tessler, p. 58).  A third daughter, Katie Relf, also received the birth control shots, but refused to open the door to her room when the official came to get the three girls to be sterilized.  Because she was 17, she could not be sterilized without her own consent. (Larson and Nelson, p. 440) Later, when Mrs. Relf realized that her daughters had been sterilized, she sued the surgeons and other associated groups for $1,000,000 (Rosoff, p. 6). As a result, a moratorium was placed on federally funded, coerced sterilizations until a decision was reached by the Department of Justice.


Other restrictions placed on those identified in the law or with disabilities in general

In 1919, Alabama passed legislation that made it the first state in the Deep South that made it illegal for people with venereal diseases to marry (Larson,  p. 88).


Major Proponents

Image of Dr. William Partlow (Photo origin: Encyclopedia of Alabama: Eugenics in Alabama; available at http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/face/Article.jsp?id=h-1367)

Dr. William Partlow attended the Medical College of Alabama in Mobile and in 1901 he started work at Bryce State Hospital.  William Partlow was without a doubt the most important eugenicist in Alabama.  He was a eugenics advocate because and believed he was “serv[ing] the State and society by looking to the future” (Larson,  p. 106).   Partlow was superintendent of the Alabama Home of the Feeble-Minded throughout the 1920s and into the early 1930s.  While superintendent, he sterilized every inmate upon his or her discharge.  In 1923, he became the superintendent of the Alabama Insane Hospitals as well and held the position for thirty years (Larson,  p. 107).  Partlow remained committed to increasing the number of sterilizations, even though in the 1930s and 1940s opponents became more vocal. As Partlow persisted to draft bills for eugenics, more people started to voice their opinions that “the great rank and file of the country people of Alabama do not want this law; they do not want Alabama…Hitlerized” (Larson,  p. 146).  After his failures in 1945, however, Partlow ended his legislative eugenics efforts.


To this day, a website “Alabama Healthcare Hall of Fame” lionizes Dr. Partlow as a person with “executive ability, iron will, rugged determination, intellectual and moral courage, and common sense” but does not mention his involvement in Alabama eugenics.


“Feeder institutions” and institutions where sterilizations were performed

Picture of Partlow State School (Photo origin: http://www.tuscaloosanews.com/apps/pbcsi.dll/bilde?Site=TL&Date=20110305&Category=NEWS&ArtNo=110309845&Ref=AR&MaxW=600&border=0)

The Alabama Home for the Feeble-Minded opened in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1919 as a result of the law in favor of a home for the feeble-minded. Two months after the Alabama Home for the Feeble-Minded opening, the institution was completely full of people from poor houses, jails, orphanages, and boarding schools (Larson, pp. 48-49, 90). In 1927, this school was renamed the Partlo State School for Mental Deficients (Larson,  p. 106).  The school is now known as the Partlow State School and Hospital. Its closure has been announced in 2011 ("W.D. Partlow Developmental Center to close").

Picture of Alabama State Hospital (Photo origin: http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/media_content/m-2320.jpg)
Similarly, some of the institutions in Alabama for the mentally ill such as the Byrce State Hospital are still open. On the website about these institutions, no reference to the sterilizations that once occurred there is made.  The purpose of these “specialty hospitals…[is] for the support of mentally ill and mentally retarded persons” (University of Alabama School of Medicine).

While Partlow was superintendent of the Alabama Home for the Feeble-Minded and the Alabama Insane Hospital (Bryce Hospital) every patient who was released was sterilized (Dorr, "Eugenics in Alabama"; Larson, p. 140). These institutions, because of this, were the source of the most sterilizations in Alabama. in 1925, Bryce had a total population of about 2,100; Alabama, 277 (Tarwater, p. 26). In November 1974, the case of Wyatt v. Aderholt was heard in the United States 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.  The court ruled that it is an institutions responsibility to provide “minimally adequate habilitation and care, beyond the subsistence level custodial care that would be provided in a penitentiary,” and as a result, the numbers of patients at Parlow State School for Mental Deficients decline by over 60 percent in less than ten years (Noll, "The Public Face of Southern Institutions," p. 36).


Although the original bill went largely unnoticed by the population (Paul, pp. 239-40), the movement did meet considerable opposition in Alabama.  Chief among these objectors were the Catholics, who were entirely against eugenics and any form of birth control in general.  “Alabama Catholics…wrote legislators and spoke out at public hearings in response to their bishop’s plea to ‘use every means at our disposal to help defeat this bill’” (Larson, p. 151).  Protestants were similarly concerned.  A Baptist claimed that he “found in the Bible all the warrant he required to vote against the bill” (Larson and Nelson, p. 420).  Trade unions were also against expanding the sterilization law.  As one laborer anxiously said, there’s “nothing in the bill to prevent a labor man from being ‘railroaded’ into an institution where he could be sterilized on ‘suspicion’ of insanity or feeble-mindedness” (Larson, p. 141). Similarly, Alabama’s Governor, Bill Graves was extremely important to the opposition of eugenics because of his decision to veto the 1935 bill and its revision.  He claimed “[t]he hoped for good results are not sure enough or great enough to compensate for the hazard to personal rights that would be involved in the execution of the provisions of the Bill” (Larson and Nelson, p. 422). 


Overall, however, the population in Alabama was perhaps not as supportive of eugenic sterilization laws as in other American states.


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Tessler, Suzanne.  1976. “Compulsory Sterilization Practices.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 1, 2: 52-66.

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