Number of victims

In total, 556 individuals were sterilized in Oklahoma, of whom about 78% were female. Almost half of them were considered “mentally deficient,” and the rest were mentally ill. Oklahoma ranks 20th among states in the United States in terms of the total number of sterilizations. These numbers do not include sterilizations of Native American women, of which there is evidence base upon a GAO report from 1976 (see below).


Period during which sterilizations occurred

The sterilizations began in the mid-1930s. The last sterilizations under state law were performed in 1955 (Paul, p. 453). Sterilizations of Native American women, however, may have occurred as late as 1976 (Lawrence, p. 411). 


Temporal pattern of sterilizations and rate of sterilization

Picture of a graph of eugenic sterilizations in Oklahoma

After the passage of sterilization legislation in 1931, sterilizations sharply increased after 1935.  After the Skinner case in 1942 (see below), there were only a few sterilizations. For the period of 1935 to 1942 about 65 sterilizations occurred per year (see Paul, p. 451). The rate of sterilization per 100,000 residents per year during this period was about 3.


Passage of law(s)

Legislation regarding sterilization in Okalahoma was first passed on April 22, 1931 (Landman, p. 93).  Oklahoma was the 30th state in the United States to pass such a law. The law was expanded in scope in 1933 and in 1935.


Groups identified in the law

Sterilization legislation in Oklahoma allowed for the sterilization of inmates of asylums, prisons, and other state institutions who suffered from “cacogenic recurrent insanity, idiocy, imbecility, feeble-mindedness, or epilepsy” (Paul, p. 450). It also covered persons “afflicted with hereditary forms of insanity” (Nourse, p. 43). In 1933, the law was expanded to cover patients “likely to be a public or partial public charge” and “habitual criminal[s],” defined as “any person convicted of a felony three times” (Nourse, p. 44). In 1935, the state passed another law, the Habitual Criminal Sterilization Act, which held that those found to be habitual criminals with two prior convictions could be forcefully sterilized (Nourse, p. 84). 


Process of the law

The superintendent of a state institution could recommend an inmate for sterilization. The superintendent then needed to seek affirmation of this recommendation from the board of affairs.  At this meeting, the candidate for sterilization was permitted to contest his or her recommendation.  If, at this meeting, the board did affirm the recommendation, the individual could appeal this decision at the district court level and, eventually, at the level of the State Supreme Court. The patient’s consent was needed in order to complete the sterilization operation (Landman, p. 93). However, a patient deemed a candidate for sterilization by the board of affairs and subsequent court decisions was not permitted to leave the state institution without undergoing said procedure (Nourse, p. 17).


For those affected by the Criminal Sterilization law, writes Victoria Nourse in her book In Reckless Hands, “the attorney general…would be in charge of petitioning for sterilization, which would require a jury trial and could be immediately appealed to the state supreme court, bypassing intermediate courts. Gone were references to public charges and social inadequacy [as in the 1931/1933 laws]; if the jury found that the defendant was a habitual criminal and that sterilization would not harm his health, then the district court was required to issue a sterilization order” (Nourse, p. 84).


Legal Issues

As discussed by Victoria Nourse’s book (on which the following relies), the year 1942 brought the landmark decision of Skinner v. The State of Oklahoma, in which the United States Supreme Court ruled that forced sterilization was not a justifiable sentence for a crime.  Because the compulsory criminal sterilization law in Oklahoma excluded white-collar crimes, the Supreme Court ruled that the punishment was altogether unjustifiable for any sort of crime. This was very significant in that sterilizations in the state decreased almost entirely after the ruling.  It is important to note that the reason why sterilizations in Oklahoma decreased after the ruling was due largely in part to the fact that the vast majority of the sterilizations in Oklahoma were punitive.  Therefore, the Supreme Court decision had outlawed the very kind of sterilization which was most prominent in the state.  The ruling also had little effect on sterilizations nationwide.  A great deal of sterilizations of the so-called “feeble-minded” occurred in the years after the ruling. Nourse posits that the main importance of this ruling lies in its triumph over the political and social climate of the time.  Eugenics was a popular ideology in the nation at the time. A propaganda-induced moral panic had swept over the nation, causing much of the populous to believe that the human race was in grave danger of being overtaken by feeble-minded and habitual criminal “idiots.” Thus, it was neither easy nor particularly safe to stand as a voice of opposition against such a movement.  That Skinner and his fellow inmates at McAlester Prison not only stood firm in their beliefs, but stayed the course all the way to the Supreme Court, was a very significant and often overlooked aspect of the fight against eugenics.

In an article regarding the sterilization of Native American women, Jane Lawrence highlights the importance of Skinner v. Oklahoma. It set a precedent by declaring the Oklahoma sterilization law unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment. The judge, Justice William Douglas, stated “the power to sterilize, if exercised, may have far-reaching and devastating effects… [an in] evil hands it can cause races or types which are inimical to the dominant group to wither and disappear” (Lawrence, p. 404).

Precipitating factors and processes

Photo from a eugenics display, depicts a tree. (Photo origin: Nourse, center section. Caption: Third International Eugenics Conference, 1932. Courtesy of Wellcome)

The Great Depression created a new sense of urgency about public health.  The ideas surrounding the perpetuation of undesirable heredity were becoming less of a futuristic concern and more of a present worry (Nourse, p. 23). Additionally, the general public became much more concerned with criminality.  The growing presence of gangsters in the media fueled fears that society was producing habitually criminal individuals (Nourse, p. 26). Directors of asylums and prisons in Oklahoma claimed that their institutions were full to the point of overflowing.  They begged then-governor Alfalfa Bill Murray to remove some of the burden that was being placed on these institutions.  Sterilization offered a seemingly viable solution, as those feeble-minded or otherwise desirable individuals could safely be released into society after undergoing such a procedure (Nourse, p. 45).


Groups targeted and victimized

The most widely targeted group in Oklahoma were criminals, particularly habitual offenders.  Murray was a firm believer in the genetics of criminality, and argued that these individuals were a burden on society that could be prevented by sterilization (Nourse, p. 20). Women were also targeted more often than their male counterparts.


Native American Women may also have been the target of sterilizations, at least during the 1970s. In her book American Eugenics, Nancy Ordover reports that at the Indian Health Services hospital in Claremore, sterilization practices “translated into one woman sterilized for every four babies born at the facility” (p. 173) and quotes one investigator who, relying on native sources, states that there may well be “one tribe in Oklahoma where there are no full-blooded women who have not been sterilized” (p. 262 n. 58). Concern over the severity of such alleged practices has led some Native Americans to consider them genocidal.

Further studies have shown that the sterilization of Native American women was a widespread problem in the 20th century. Some estimates place the percentage of Native American women sterilized between 1970 and 1976 at 25-50%. A 1976 report on sterilization at IHS (Indian Health Service Facilities) by the Government Accounting Office (GAO) included records from Oklahoma City. The report found 3,406 sterilizations to have taken place between 1973 and 1976 at the three facilities they looked at. That number included 36 underage sterilizations, and many had concent forms that were improperly filled out or no clear indication of consent by the woman sterilized. The GAO report only began to reveal the problem of sterilization of Native American women that existed in the 1970s (Lawrence).


Major proponents

Picture of William Henry Davis Murray (Photo origin: OKGenWeb Project, available at http://www.okgenweb.org/~okalfalf/graphics/168px-William_Murray.jpg)

William Henry Davis “Alfalfa Bill” Murray (1869-1956) was the governor of Oklahoma during the emergence of the eugenics movement in the state.  Murray was born in Texas and attended several schools throughout the state.  After graduating from the College Hill Institute, Murray passed the bar exam and began to practice law in Fort Worth.  Eventually, Murray moved his practice to Oklahoma.  In 1907, Murray became the first Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. In 1912, Murray was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.  In 1930, Murray was elected governor of Oklahoma. Gradually, Murray became a strong proponent of the eugenics movement.  He was instrumental in the passage of legislation regarding sterilization (Nuarse, pp. 20-22).

Black and white photograph of Louis Henry Ritzhaupt (Photo origin: Nourse, center section. Caption: courtesy of Harper’s Weekly)


Another proponent of eugenics, and influential in bringing about the 1933 and 1935 laws, was Louis Henry Ritzhaupt, a physician, state senator, and president of the American Poultry Association (Nourse, pp. 44, 84-85). Dr. Ritzhaupt was a major sponsor of Oklahoma’s sterilization legislation (Nourse, p. 96).

“Feeder institutions” and institutions where sterilization were performed

Picture of the McAlester State Prison  (Photo origin: Oklahoma Department of Corrections, available at http://www.doc.state.ok.us/photo/facilities/OSP.JPG)

Then referred to as the “McAlester State Prison,” this institution is presently known as the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. The institution is located in McAlester, Oklahoma, and was one of the state’s primary locations for holding those found to be habitually criminal. Skinner was an inmate at McAlester. Nowadays the Oklahoma State Penitentiary has a procedure for inmates desiring voluntary sterilization. Available here: Oklahoma Department of Corrections, Female Offender Health Services, the form specifies the procedure for female offenders looking to be sterilized. All costs for the procedure are the responsibility of the inmate and/or her family (Jones, p. 5). It continues to function as the Oklahoma State Penitentiary <http://www.doc.state.ok.us/facilities/institutions/osp.htm>.

Picture of Griffin Memorial Hospital (Photo origin: http://www.city-data.com/forum/photography/322008-photo-turned-art-x3-72.html)

It is very difficult to determine where most of the sterilizations actually took place, or the feeder institutions that supply the groups of victims (mentally ill or “deficient”). An early commentary on the 1931 law provides excerpts from it, which include express references to the Hospital for the Insane at Norman (Central State Hospital, later Griffin Memorial Hospital), which began in the 1800s as a school for women, but in 1895 was sold to the Oklahoma Sanitarium Company. It functioned as a facility for the "violent insane" (Zizzo, p. 1). Norman State Hospital is also known for a devastating fire that occured in 1918, which resulted in 33 deaths (New York Times). It is no longer in operation, but in 1953, a short film was made by the University of Oklahoma, following the fate of a patient admitted to the Hospital for the Insane at Norman. The film was made with the intent to reveal the unfortunate circumstances of individuals admitted to mental hospitals. It offered a positive perspective on the reality of asylums and the work necessary to provide a “therapeutic environment” for patients. The film makes no mention of sterilizations or eugenics <http://www.asylumprojects.org/index.php?title=Norman_State_Hospital>.

Also referenced in the commentary on the law are the Hospital at [Fort] Supply (later Northwest Center for Behavioral Health at Fort Supply), the Hospital for the Insane at Vinita (later Easter State Hospital), and the Institute for Feeble Minded at Enid (later Enid State School, Northern Oklahoma Resource Center) (Brooks, p. 52).

Picture of the Hospital at Fort Supply (Photo origin: http://okgenweb.org/~okcraig/history/craig_co/eaststhosp.html)
The Hospital for the Insane at Vinita accepted its first patients in 1913, with a capacity of 600 patients (Drewery, p. 367). By the 1950s, the institution had a capacity of over 2,500 patients ("Eastern State Hospital"). It now operates as the Eastern State Hospital <http://okgenweb.org/~okcraig/history/craig_co/eaststhosp.html>



Picture of the Hospital at Fort Supply (Photo origin: http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~asylums/fortsupply_ok/index.html)

The Hospital at Fort Supply was established in 1908, and is known to have suffered 3 fires before 1916. It is believed to have been used for patients with chronic conditions and cases being treated "in connection with the insititution" in Norman (Drewery, p. 367). It is now known as Western State Hospital < http://www.asylumprojects.org/index.php?title=Fort_Supply_State_Hospital>.

Picture of the Institute for the Feeble-Minded at Enid

The Institute for Feeble Minded at Enid was opened in 1910, and, according to a study from 1916, was established "to furnish a home for the homeless...to train a class of children whose minds are feeble [and]...to care for irresponsible and undesirable children generally" (Drewery, p. 368). Children were instructed using the Montessori system, one which integrates subjects such as "nature study," "instrumental music" and "domestic science" (Drewery, p. 368). It now serves as a resource center for persons with intellectual disabilities <http://www.okdhs.org/divisionsoffices/visd/ddsd/docs/history.htm>.


As in many states, the Catholic Church was a strong oppositional force against the eugenics movement (Nourse, p. 21).  Additionally, in 1936, inmates at the McAlester State Prison rioted against the law passed requiring forceful sterilization of criminals.  A “brain trust” of prisoners formed in opposition to the laws. These men educated themselves about the sciences of eugenics, preparing to fight the law in every manner possible (Nourse, p. 49).  Their leader, Jack Skinner, became famous as the first test case for the third sterilization law.  His oppositions to the law led him to district, state, and eventually the United States Supreme Court (Nourse, p. 92). 



Brooks, Frank G. 1932. “The Oklahoma Sterilization Law and Its Application.” Proceedings of the Oklahoma Academy of Science 12: 52-54. Available at <http://digital.library.okstate.edu/oas/oas_pdf/v12/p52_54.pdf>.

Drewery, William Francis. 1916. The Institutional Care of the Insane in the United States and Canada. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press. Available at Google Books.

"Eastern State Hospital." OKGenWeb. Available at <http://okgenweb.org/~okcraig/history/craig_co/eaststhosp.html>

Jones, Julia. 2010. Female Offender Health Services. Oklahoma Department of Corrections. Available at <www.doc.state.ok.us/Offtech/140125aa.pdf>

Landman, J. H. 1932. Human Sterilization: The History of the Sexual Sterilization Movement. New York: MacMillan.

Lawrence, Jane. 2000. “The Indian Health Service and the Sterilization of American Women.” American Indian Quarterly 24, 3.

New York Times. 1918. "33 Dead, 37 Missing, In Hospital Fire." 14 April.

Nourse, Victoria. 2008. In Reckless Hands: Skinner v. Oklahoma and the Near-Triumph of American Eugenics. New York: Norton.

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

Zizzo, David. 2011. "Norman Hospital once a 'mythical city.'" NewsOK Available at <http://places.newsok.com/hidden-oklahoma-norman-hospital-once-a-mythical-city/article/3546956>