Number of Victims

There were no legal sterilizations in this state. While rumors existed of twenty-six young men having been castrated for “curative” purposes around the turn of the twentieth century, there is record of such sterilizations (Paul, p. 585). There is a record of one mentally ill inmate of the Boston State Hospital who was promised release if he consented to sterilization first, and of the sterilization having taken place in 1911 (Paul, p. 586, n. 3)


Precipitating Factors

During the colonial period, Massachusetts and Connecticut started to segregate the healthy native population from others by authorizing laws that would quarantine foreign ships, suppress disreputable medical practitioners or "quacks," and regulate immunizations (Caron, p. 36).


Foreign women in Massachusetts in the early 20th century were having on average 50% more children than native-born women (Caron, p. 45). This large difference in birth rates was regarded to be a sign that the native population would be replaced with those of Slavic, Balkan, and Mediterranean descent. In New England at large it was observed that the immigrants were having nearly 10 times the number of children as native residents (Caron, p. 45).


Since 1905, Massachusetts did have a compulsory vaccination law and those who did not comply and receive vaccinations were penalized with a five dollar fine. In Jacobson v. Massachusetts, the Supreme Court declared that upheld police power in regard compulsory vaccination (Lombardo, pp. 86, 152). Vaccinations were deemed more dangerous than vasectomies, so it was thought that the same principle, medical intervention by the state for the benefit of the public good, could be applied to compulsory sterilization (Lombardo, p. 157).


Massachusetts was also fond of Fitter Family contests, which gained prominence in the 1920s (Rosen p. 113). One of the contests was the delivery of a sermon on eugenics, with the reward for the best being $500 (Ordover, p. 33). Fitter Family contests were efficient ways to educate the public on the eugenics movement and to make families acknoqledge their racial and social responsibility (Rosen, p. 113).


The Catholic Church also played a role. Lorraine Leeson Campell, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, along with many women voters in Massachusetts attempted to overturn the ban on contraceptives in 1940s but were unsuccessful due to resistance by the Catholic Church (Caron, p.141). By the end of the second World War, Massachusetts and Connecticut were the only two states in the US where doctors could not prescribe contraceptives to their patients (Caron, p. 117). Moreover, Massachusetts law also prohibited clinics where patients could receive birth control and contraceptive surgery, though the neighboring state of Rhode Island did allow such clinics (Caron, p. 124). Even though Rhode Island, like Massachusetts, had a large Catholic population, these clinics survived in the state. Since it was not available in Massachusetts, many residents went to Rhode Island to get the contraceptive services they desired (Caron, p. 145). Eventually, with the verdict of the Griswold Supreme Court case, clinics were allowed to open in Massachusetts (Caron, p. 178).


In Robbie Mae Hathaway v. Worcester City Hospital, a court case from 1971, a mother asked to receive contraceptive sterilization from the Worcester City Hospital, as means of permanent birth control after having eight children (Dowbiggin, Keeping America Sane, pp. 157-158). However, at this point the Massachusetts hospital had a ban on surgical sterilizations, and denied the woman surgery. The court found the hospital had violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment and granted her the surgery (Dowbiggin, The Sterilization Movement, pp. 157-158). Along with Roe v. Wade, the issue of voluntary sterilizations in America was resolved.


Marriage Laws

At this time, Western states had started to institute marriage restriction laws, including those that would prohibit intermarriage between Asian immigrants and native-born whites (Caron, p. 53). Eventually these prohibitions expanded so that the disabled, "imbeciles", and epileptics were included. Connecticut was the first state in New England to establish marriage restriction laws, and other states soon followed. By 1940, Massachusetts had marriage restrictions that applied to "idiots" and "feeble-minded" persons. People who had been committed to an institution for mental defectives, the feeble-minded, or were wards of the state were not allowed to be married, even if they had been sterilized in order to be released from the institution (Schuler, pp. 304-305). An insane person committed to a hospital for mentally defective people or an insane ward of the state was also not allowed to get married (Schuler, p. 313). 


Major Proponents

Eugenicist Harry Laughlin stated that the superintendent of Monson State Hospital, Dr. Everett Flood, was an early advocate and “tester” of eugenic sterilization (cited in Paul, p. 585).

Dr. Storer, the leader of the anti-abortion campaign, was another major proponent. His reasoning behind banning abortion was that foreigners, who were “abnormal," were not having abortions, but the native and wealthy middle-class was (Caron, p. 22). The large increase in population, and henceforth the increase in subpar individuals, was wholly due to the large increase in the foreign population.


Though in general the Catholic Church in Massachusetts was against sterilization, not all Catholics or other denominations were against eugenic ideals. Reverend C. Thurston belonged to the Central Congregation Church. He was a supporter of the eugenics movement and was able to convince not only his clergy, but also many Methodists, Baptists, and  Episcopalians, to refuse to wed couples who did not provide evidence of both of their physical and mental ability (Rosen, p. 59).


Reverend MacArthur also contributed to eugenic ideas in Massachusetts by breeding cattle to learn more about inheritance of traits (Rosen, p. 171).  He was the secretary of the Federation of Churches in Massachusetts and constantly emphasized how well-suited eugenics was to Christian ideology (Rosen, p. 171). Even though preaching was his first priotiy, he became secretary of the state eugenics committee and later secretary of the American Eugenic Society committee (Rosen, p. 171). His role in the American Eugenic Society was working with clergymen to find ways to incorporate eugenics into religion, such as having sermons that related to eugenics. He himself did that, and wrote a monthly column relating the two (Rosen, p.171).


“Feeder Institutions” and institutions where sterilizations were performed

Massachusetts was among the first of the states to have institutions and hospitals for the sole reason of providing care and treatment to the feeble-minded and other stigmatized groups (Reilly, p. 12). Massachusetts began establishing these institutions in 1848 (Reilly, p. 12).

Picture of Monson State Hospital for Epileptics in Palmer (Photo origin: Rootsweb.com; available at http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~asylums/monson/shericmonson6.jpg)

The rumors concerning castrations pertain to the Monson State Hospital for Epileptics in Palmer, Massaschusetts, directed by Dr. Flood.


Other Hospitals and Institutions

While no sterilizations occurred in any of these hospitals and institutions, they are important to recognize for the segregation of the "unfit."


Fernald State School was named as such after the first director, who was nationally recognized as an authority on feeblemindedness (Dowbiggin, Keeping America Sane, p. 101). He believed that IQ tests were accurate and that those who were feeble were also promiscuous (Dowbiggin, Keeping America Sane, p 101). He ran the school from 1889 to 1924. At one point there were approximately 1,400 residents, with 1,100 of them having an IQ under 30 (Reilly, p. 159). There is suspicion that coercive sterilizations occurred here, but those claims are dubious (Reilly, p. 159). Fernald believed that sterilization would actually increase illicit intercourse.  He thought that sterilization might cure feebleness, but it would create immorality and insanity (Largent, p. 89).


There was also the Reformatory for women in South Farmingham, where there were supposedly thousands of cases of young repeat-offenders beings sent multiple times. Using these repeat offenders, the officials attemped to make a case for criminality due to inheritance (Largent, p.120).


From 1829 up until 1930 there were over 25 new hospitals, state reformatory schools, and asylums built and opened for the care and treatment of various “deficiencies,” including but not limited to buildings for the blind, idiots, insane, alcoholics, and epileptics. However, due to a 1969 mandate, most of the state schools have since been closed (State Hospitals Historical Overview).



The Roman Catholic Church did not support sterilization, whether it was voluntary or compulsory, under any circumstances (Robitscher, p. 49). Since in Massachusetts the Church had a large presence, this is probably a large factor as to why no formal compulsory law was ever established. Catholics tended to agree with eugenic ideas of protecting the healthy natives from the disease of feeblemindedness, but disagreed with the idea of surgery to keep the two groups separate (Rosen, p. 49).  The Catholic Church in general also criticized eugenic leaders, claiming they rushed into applying eugenics without concern (Rosen, p. 47).


The African American population also was generally an opposing group. Some claimed that the only reason Massachusetts lawmakers wanted Planned Parenthood and other clinics was to wipe out the black race through abortions (Caron, p. 236).




Caron, Simone M. 2008. Who Chooses?: American Reproductive History since 1830. Gainesville: University of Florida.


Dowbiggin, Ian. 1997. Keeping America Sane: Psychiatry and Eugenics in the United States and Canada. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.


Dowbiggin, Ian. 2008. The Sterilization Movement and Global Fertility in the Twentieth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Largent, Mark A. 2008. Breeding Contempt. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press.


Lombardo, Paul. 2008. Three Generations No Imbeciles. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.


Ordover, Nancy. 2003. American Eugenics: Race, Queer Anatomy, and the Science of Nationalism. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.


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


Reilly, Philip R. 1991. The Surgical Solution. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.


Robitscher, Jonas. 1973. Eugenic Sterilization. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.


Rosen, Christine. 2004. Preaching Eugenics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Schuler, Ruth V. 1940. “Some Aspects of Eugenic Marriage Legislation in the United States.” The Social Service Review 14 (2): 301-316.


State Hospitals Historical Overview. Available at <http://www.1856.org/historicalOverview.html>.