Number of victims


The only known victim of sterilization was a prisoner who in 1916 was given the choice of going to prison for the crime that he was convicted of or being sterilized. Eugenicist Harry Laughlin simply put it this way: “The prisoner was a pervert and a degenerate, and he decided to get sterilized” (quoted in Paul, p. 577). The judge offered the 65 year old man the opeartion, and reported the sentencing decision, in order to spark public reaction and dialogue about eugenic sterilization in Illinois, which was effective, but did not result in a sterilization law (Laughlin, pp. 354-355).  According to Julius Paul (p. 577), this is the only reported sterilization case in Illinois.

Period during which sterilizations occurred


There were no sterilizations except for the above case in 1916.


Temporal pattern of sterilizations and rate of sterilization


Illinois neither authorized nor legalized eugenic sterilizations (Paul, p. 577).


Passage of law(s)


No sterilization laws were passed in Illinois. However, in December 1915 a bill for the Commitment and Care for the Feeble-minded Persons was drafted, subsequent to which Illinois House Bill 655 was passed, which allowed courts to permanently institutionalize anyone whom a respectable expert deemed feebleminded.  House Bill 654 granted state officials the power to create institutions for such persons.  Initially, the bills received considerable support.

In May of 1915, The Illinois House unanimously passed a bill for the involuntary and theoretically permanent commitment of feebleminded persons to institutions (Curtis, p. 154).

Groups identified in the law


House Bill 654 (eugenic commitment) pertained to the “feebleminded” (Rembis 2003, p. 91) who were a danger to the community and unable to either manage  "himself and his affairs or of being taught to do so" (Curtis, p. 156).


Process of the Law


According to Bill 655, anyone that experts considered to be “feebleminded” could be permanently institutionalized.   A petition  would be made, claiming the person was feebleminded and a danger to the community.  Then the petitioned person was granted a court hearing in which two physicians  (or a physician and psychologist)  would report the results of their examination  of the person to the court,  which would decide whether the person was in need of supervision (Curtis, p. 156).  The law provided for the discharge of patients if their condition changed, but  the process was difficult, reflecting views that feeblemindedness was a permanent condition (Curtis, p. 157).


Precipitating factors and processes


Both male and female reformers in Illinois were willing to experiment with various modern state- sponsored social measures, which led to the adoption of the eugenic commitment law.  Reformers viewed the law as way to use science to better society (Rembis 2003, p. 14) and drew support from middle class white women who took it upon themselves to do what they thought was best as “universal mothers” (Rembis 2003, p. 40). To them and many men, eugenics seemed like a simple solution to a more complex social problem (Rembis 2003, p. 73).  To eugenic reformers, institutions seemed to make the most sense because they thought these institutions would provide care for people who could not care for themselves and therefore improve society as a whole (Rembis 2003, p. 39).

Debate regarding sterilization legislation

Though no sterilization law in Illinois was ever passed, bills were introduced into the legislature in 1925, 1929, and 1933, showing Illinois was interested in the concept of eugenics (Curtis, p. 4).  Ultimately eugenicists in Illinois felt that sexual segregation and institutionalization were both more effective and more humane than sexual sterilization (Curtis, p. 64).

Those involved in the care of the feebleminded in Illinois largely supported the eugenical ideas that these persons should not be allowed to reproduce, and intended to confine all such persons to institutions for the extent of their reporductive years (Curtis, p. 68).  Dr. Hardt, supervisor of the Lincoln State School and Colony, explained that one must "not rest until you have taken care of every young woman during the child bearing age so  that she may not in her turn produce feeble-minded children to be a burden" (quoted in Curtis, pp. 74-75).  Throughout the early 1900s the Lincoln State School's population increased, reflecting Illinois attitude that society needed to be protected from the feebleminded, and that the feebleminded needed supervisioin and care (Curtis, p. 75).

As neighboring Indiana passed the first sterilization law, the eugenically minded in Illinois "expressed concern over the inefficiency and potential abuse of the Inidana law and reasoned that sterilizaed individuals were still capable of spreading mental defect with venereal diseases.  Sexual segregation would have to suffice despite the enormous number of individuals needing cares.  The State owed it to itself and to posterity" (Curtis, p. 83).  It was realized that neither sterilization laws nor marriage restrictions could be effective in the absence of segregation, since sexual segregation was the only law which could be applied effectively to all feebleminded persons, and ensure that feebleminded persons would not pass on disease or feeblemindedness to others (Curtis, p. 94).

Groups targeted and victimized


The law targeted young women whose delinquent acts were viewed as sexual transgressions (Rembis 2003, p. 91). For example, fourteen-year-old Elsie Strubble was sent to the Cook County Juvenile Court from the Chicago Detention Home because she had been raped by one man and three boys and consequently termed “incorrigible.” A judge stated that Strubble was a “high-grade feeble-minded girl” and in 1924 recommended that she be sent to the Chicago Home for Girls (Rembis 2003, p. 90).   


Major Proponents


Alfred E. Walker was a reformer who supported the eugenic commitment law. She thought the law would help improve the lives of the state’s unfortunate individuals. Walker was chairman of the Legislative Committee of the IFWC (the Illinois Federation of Women’s Clubs). Walker was also a member of the committee that helped create the original eugenic commitment bill.  In May 1915, Walker proposed that the IFWC unite on a single way to provide care for Illinois’ feebleminded (Rembis 2003, p. 42).


Picture of Edward C. Hayes (Photo origin: Wikipedia.com; available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_C._Hayes)


As Historian Michael Rembis has pointed out, Edward C. Hayes, a founder and president of the American Sociological Association, and then a professor at the Univeristy of Illinois, urged people to continue to support the use of eugenics to eliminate many of the state’s social ills including feeblemindedness (Rembis 2003, p. 10). In his textbook Introduction to the Study of Sociology (1916), Hayes wrote that “though natural selection no longer gives us a highly selective death rate, eugenics may do something toward giving us a selective birth rate (p. 576).  He also used the term “breeding up the human herd” in approving of the state’s plans (quoted in Rembis 2003, p. 10).  He believed  feeblemindedness was  a result of both heredity and environment, but he also believed eugenics was the solution to both (Rembis 2003, p. 54).



Curtis, Patrick A. 1985. "Eugenic Reformers, Cultural Perceptions of Dependent Populations, and the Care of the Feebleminded in Illinois, 1909-1920."  Ph.D. Dissertation, Dept. of Social Work, University of Illinois at Chicago, 1983.

Hayes, Edward Carey. 1916. Introduction to the Study of Sociology. New York: D. Appleton and Company.

Laughlin, Harry H. 1922. Eugenical Sterilization in the United States. Chicago: Psychopathic Laboratory of the Municipal Court of Chicago.


Paul, Julius. 1965. "'Three Generations of Imbeciles Are Enough': State Eugenic Sterilization Laws in American Thought and Practice." Unpublished ms. Washington, D.C.: Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

Rembis, Michael A. 2002. “Breeding up the Human Herd:  Gender, Power, and the Creation of the Country's First Eugenic Commitment Law.” Journal of Illinois History 5, 4: 283-308.


Rembis, Michael A.  2003. "Breeding Up the Human Herd: Gender, Power and Eugenics in Illinois, 1890-1940."  Ph.D. Dissertation, Dept. of History, University of Ariziona, 2003.