Number of victims

Florida did not have a eugenic sterilization law.


Passage of law(s)

While there was no law authorizing sterilizations, soon after the Buck v. Bell Supreme Court case granted Virginia the authority to sterilize Virginians in 1927, many bills were drafted for similar sterilization rights throughout the Deep South (Larson, p.107).  A bill was proposed in the Florida legislature that covered both patients in Florida’s state mental health hospitals as well as its institutions for the mentally retarded (Larson, p. 107). This legislation, however, was not considered in the state Senate (Larson, p. 107).  Bills requesting to sterilize the “mentally ill, mentally retarded, and epileptic patients in the state institutions” were proposed in the Florida legislature in 1933 and 1935. While legislative committees approved and state mental health officials endorsed them, they did not come to a final vote (Larson, p. 123).    


Although a sterilization law was never passed in Florida, a segregation law was passed.


In response to the activities of Marcus Fagg (see below), Florida legislators in 1915  authorized a commission of physicians, mental health officials, and other interested citizens to study the need for a eugenically segregated institution for epileptic and mentally retarded children” (Larson, p. 59).  The commission made the determination that “over one thousand known cases of feeble-mindedness and epilepsy” existed and a more detailed study would find even more cases (Larson, p. 67). Such a study was conducted by the Russell Sage Foundation of New York (Larson, p. 59), and its result was a proposal of a “colony plan,” which the state legislature subsequently adopted (Larson, p. 84).


Groups identified in the law

In the drafted sterilization laws, the “mentally ill, mentally retarded, and epileptic patients in state institutions” were identified as people who should be sterilized (Larson, p.123). In the segregation law that was passed, the “Epileptic and Feeble-Minded” as well as the “retarded” were identified and termed “unfortunates” (Larson, p. 68).


Process of the law

The segregation law determined that there would be an “Institution for the care of the Epileptic and Feeble-Minded.” It led to the creation of a “Farm Colony” intended to stem “the propagation of future degeneracy and dependency through eugenic segregation.”  The statue decreed that colony would be organized in a way that “these unfortunates may be prevented from reproducing their kind, and the various communities and the State at Large be relieved from the heavy economic and moral losses arising by reason of their existence” (Larson, p. 68). 

Many southern states had no specific criteria for the admittance of patients into state mental hospitals. Most, including Florida, followed previously established guidelines used to determine if an individual was considered mentally deficient enough to require hospitalization. These guidelines usually involved an application to a local court where a judge would then issue an order to have the patient committed or not (Noll, Feeble-Minded in our Midst, p. 33). Since Florida did not have a strictly enforced law regarding the “feeble-minded” in institutions, it comes as no surprise that in 1929, the Florida Board of Commissioners of State Institutions authorized the superintendent of the Florida Farm Colony at the time, J.H. Hodges, to allow all inmates of the colony that were committed solely on allegations of truancy or delinquency to be released if they showed no signs of “feeble-mindedness” (Noll, Feeble-Minded in our Midst, p. 33).



Precipitating factors and processes

The entire Southern region in general was more hesitant to adopt eugenic ideals for many reasons. As in Alabama, one of the most important Southern values was its traditional emphasis on family.  “The doctrine of eugenics…directly challenged southern concepts of the family and parental rights” (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 the South.  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).


Moreover, Florida, in comparison with the other states in the Deep South, had a more “cosmopolitan environment” than the other states, as Edward Larson has put it (p. 123). The State Federation of Women’s Clubs of Florida was the first organization in the Deep South that advocated the use of birth control to women instead of sterilization (Larson, p.123).  The Florida Medical Association was also the first state in the Deep South whose physicians pointed to scientific evidence of the environment affecting mental disabilities (Larson, pp. 123-24).   

Groups targeted and victimized

The groups that were targeted and victimized in Florida consist of “girls and women of child-bearing age” (Larson, p. 68), as well as the people deemed feebleminded, mentally retarded, and/or epileptic (Larson, pp. 68, 123).

Only those 6-21 years of age were granted entry into the Florida Farm Colony. This was to preserve the intention of the institution as a facility for the care, treatment and training of mentally deficient children (Noll, Feeble-Minded in our Midst, p. 123). 1,742 people were admitted to the Florida Farm Colony from 1921 to 1940, 42% of which came from the urban counties of Dade, Duval and Hillsborough (Noll, Feeble-Minded in our Midst, p.112).

Often, juvenile delinquents and criminals were committed to the Florida Farm Colony on court order. Fortunately, the policy of the colony was not to detain “criminal” individuals with no indication of “feeble-mindedness” (Noll, Feeble-Minded in our Midst, p.117).

In general, females were committed more often, and held in the Florida Farm Colony longer than their male counterparts (Noll, Feeble-Minded in our Midst, p. 133). Prostitutes were also specifically targeted (Noll, Feeble-Minded in our Midst, p.114).


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

As well as being an advocate for the segregation of the “mentally retarded and epileptic” (Larson, p. 58), Marcus Fagg also supported eugenic marriage laws—along with the Florida Federation of Women’s Clubs, which believed that there should be a law ensure that any “applicant for a marriage license is not an imbecile, or insane person, or person of feeble mind, or an epileptic, or infected with tuberculosis in an advanced stage, or infected with any venereal disease” (Larson, p. 88).  Although Fagg and the Florida Federation of Women’s Clubs continued to advocate a eugenic marriage law, no legislation was passed (Larson, p. 98).

Blacks were actively excluded from admittance to the Florida Farm Colony. When the facility first opened its doors to white patients in 1921, plans had been made to house black patients as well (in a separate facility on the Colony’s grounds), but no legislature was ever passed to do so (Noll, Feeble-Minded in our Midst, p. 93). Between 1929 and 1940, courts gave the Colony permission to commit at least 29 black patients, but the Colony never did. In fact, it actively rejected black applicants despite the courts suggested.  Superintendent Dell of the Florida Farm Colony justified this action by stating that the institution simply did not accept black patients because there was no segregated facility to house them in (Noll, Feeble-Minded in our Midst, p. 94).


Major proponents

Marcus Fagg became the superintendent of the Children’s Home Society of Florida, a Child’s welfare agency (Larson, p. 58).  He was involved in the eugenic ideas in Florida and supported the idea that the state give permanent institutional care to mentally retarded and epileptic children (Larson, p. 58).  He was a major participant in convincing the Floridian legislature to create a commission to study the need to segregate certain individuals in a state institution (Larson, p. 58).   

Marcus C. Fagg (Photo Courtesy of: http://www.aging-out.org/CHSFL_History/slides/MarcusFagg_1956.html)



The Florida Farm Colony for Epileptic and Feeble-Minded was founded in 1921 (Noll, Feeble-Minded in our Midst, p. 12), and served as Florida's only public facility for the treatment of mentally retarded until the 1960's (Noll, "Care and Control," p. 58). The institution was located in Gainesville, Florida. It was created with the purpose of preventing epileptic and “feeble-minded” people from procreating and relieving society of their “burden” (Larson, p. 68).  It was intended to train the inmates in academia, agriculture, industry, and behavio/ habit so that they could become self-sufficient, productive members of society (Noll, Feeble-Minded in our Midst, p. 150). The name of the institution, as Steven Noll suggests, “underscores its major purpose as a site of agricultural production” (Noll, “Public Face,” p. 32).

The Farm Colony was headed by a specially selected five-member board of managers. The board included the governor and state superintendent of public instruction, and three other members including a physician and at least one woman.  Without any prior experience for care of the feeble- minded, Dr. J.H. Hodges became the first superintendent in 1921 (Noll, "Care and Control," p. 62).

The definition of "feeble-minded" was ambiguos. Although the institution was designed for the treatment of mentally retarded patients, often people were comitted to the colony on the basis of deninquency, alcoholism, or sexual over-activity. This was problematic as it created overcrowding in the institution.  (Noll, "Care and Control," p. 68). In 1939, Dell claimed that “[t]he wards are so crowded we are having to place some of the patients on an open sleeping porch, during both summer and winter” (Noll, “Public Face,” p. 34). Due to a combination of overcrowding, understaffing, and poor parole procedures, patients in the Colony had a high turn -over rate. Persons institutionalized did not remain at the facility for extended periods of time, and were often released without the adequate training they needed to get a job, or the ability to be fully functional members of society (Noll, Feeble-Minded in our Midst, p. 146).

In the 1930's, the Colony underwent  a transformation in regard to its patients. The institution became disproportionatley crowded with lower-level patients as those committed on the basis of truancy, alcoholism, or promiscuity were released. These low-level patients included individuals who could not feed or dress themselves, or communicate effectively with others (Noll, "Care and Control," p. 70). Consequently, the Farm Colony began to move away from its original focus of being an agricultural production center, and was forced to shift its attention to becoming more treatment and training oriented (Noll, "Care and Control," p.73).

Due to the lack of firmly grounded laws concerning the care of the “feeble-minded”, the state governments in many southern states were unable to form successfully organized state-funded plans for the care of mentally deficient individuals. In the Farm Colony, superintendents Hodges and J. Maxey Dell shared the opinion that the state did not provide extensive enough care for these individuals, and that it was the responsibility of individual communities to recognize and report those individuals that needed specialized care (Noll, Feeble-Minded in our Midst, p. 48).

Because of overcrowding in the Farm Colony and its shift of attention, it was imperative that Florida construct more state-funded facilities for the care of mentally disabled people. During the 1930’s, the state was able to construct more hospitals with the help of the Works Progress Administration and the Civil Works Administration (Noll, Feeble-Minded in our Midst, p. 137). The Public Works Administration also funded the construction of two more buildings on the Farm Colony's grounds to house patients and help relieve the institution of some of issues caused by over-capacity (Noll, "Care and Control," p.76).


Florida Farm Colony (photo courtesy of asylumprojects.org. Available at http://www.asylumprojects.org/index.php?title=File:C011810.jpg)


The website “Asylum Projects” claims that the history of the Colony began in 1915 with a Commission to “study the needs of persons who were ‘feeble-minded’ and epileptic,” and it also states that the facility is now closed. 



Overall, there was considerable opposition to sterilization in Florida.  The State Federation of Women’s Clubs was part of a general opposition to a state law because they advocated the use of alternate forms of birth control rather than sterilization (Larson, p. 123).  The Florida Medical Association supported the scientific evidence that the environment has a “demonstrable effect” on mental deficiency (Larson, p. 124).  Senators opposed the bills for sterilization through additional provisions that subverted the intent of a sterilization bill and satirized its content, such as that it were to apply “persons over the age of seventy years,” the operation “may only be performed on a moonlight night…by a clairvoyant” and the law must be approved by “the female electorate of the Senate…on a cold day in July” (Larson, p. 123).  


Asylum Projects. “Florida Colony.” Available at <http://www.asylumprojects.org/index.php?title=Florida_Farm_Colony>

Larson, Edward J. 1995. Sex, Race, and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.


Noll, Steven. 1990. "Care and Control of the Feeble-Minded: Florida Farm Colony, 1920-1945". The Florida Historical Quarterly 69, 1: 57-80.

Noll, Steven. 1995. Feeble-Minded in Our Midst: Institutions for the Mentally Retarded in the South, 1900-1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.


Noll, Steven. 2005. “The Public Face of Southern Institutions for the ‘Feeble-Minded.’” The Public Historian 27, 2: 25-42.