There were a total of 1,823 people on record who were sterilized
(Paul, p. 546). Of those whom were sterilized, 79% were women and 99.5% were deemed mentally deficient. Wisconsin
was 11th in the nation for the total number of
which Sterilizations Occurred
The state passed its first
sterilization law in 1913, but sterilizations did not occur until 1915,
when the first 76 were conducted at the Northern Wisconsin Center for
the Developmentally Disabled (Goc, p. 40). Legal sterilizations
continued in Wisconsin until 1963 (Paul, 546).
Temporal Pattern of Sterilizations and Rate of Sterilization
relatively small number of people were
sterilized through the late 1920s, the number of sterilizations
the 1930s and remained high until the end of World War II. For this period, the
average number of
sterilizations was about 80 per year. There were approximately 3 sterilizations per 100,000 people per year.
Passage of Law(s)
On July 30,
1913 (Dowbiggin, p. 126), Governor Francis
McGovern of Wisconsin
enacted Chapter 693 (Lombardo, p. 47), a statute empowering the state
sterilize inmates of both mental and penal institutions (Painter) and
require the presentation of a medical certificate when applying for a
license (Laughlin, p. 345; “Health-Marriage and Sterilization Acts”). Wisconsin
was the 12th state to pass a sterilization law
in the United States. In
1955 the legislature
from the law (Paul, p. 547). Involuntary sterilization remained legal
until July 1978, when Chapter 428 of the Laws of 1977 outlawed the
procedure (Goc, p. 41). Today, voluntary sterilization in Wisconsin is
legal and does not require spousal consent. Doctors often refuse to
sterilize persons below a certain age or with few children and there is
strict opposition to the procedure in some hospitals (Lucey, p. 46).
Groups Identified in the Law
specifically identified by the 1913
sterilization law are inmates of both mental and penal institutions
p. 12; Painter): “criminals, insane, feeble-minded, and epileptics”
and Sterilization Acts”). Although
were specifically enumerated, those who were most likely to be
feebleminded people (mostly women) who were deemed to be sexually
(Paul, p. 548).
Process of the
sterilization process is not detailed explicitly in the law and it
“procedural safeguards” (Paul, p. 540), the examining board did have to
unanimous decision that sterilization was in the best interest of the
individual and society as a whole (Laughlin, p. 12); they also had to
that it was the “safest and most effective” way of curtailing the
ability to reproduce (Painter, 2001).
After reports suggesting certain sterilizations were filed
institution’s superintendant, that superintendant then had to make a
recommendation to the Department of Public Welfare.
Subsequent to this action, a panel of experts
(a surgeon and a scientist) would review the case and then begin
the consent of the person in question.
If consent was refused, the patient would not be forcibly
they would be kept institutionalized indefinitely (Paul, p. 542).
Once sterilization was conformed, women received salpingectomies,
whereas vasectomies were performed on male patients (Brown, p. 31). The law also restricted
the amount of money
that could be spent on sterilizations to two thousand dollars per year
(Laughlin, p. 12).
operating table at the Northern Wisconsin Center for the
Developmentally Disabled where sterilizations were performed. Photo
origin: Goc, p. 40).
Precipitating Factors and Processes
movement began in the 1890s, when progressive
“educators, charity and correction officials” began looking for ways to
the economic crisis they were facing (Dowbiggin, p. 125). In response to this in
1895 the state passed
legislation to build a “Home for the Feeble-Minded” at Chippewa Falls,
“idiot” children could be placed, reproduction of epileptic and
women curtailed, and “imbeciles” educated to their highest potential
Department of Health Services, 2007).
The establishment of this center was popular with
reformers because they believed that “custodialism” would help prevent
“defectives” from reproducing (Dowbiggin, p. 125).
These homes were well-liked but the fact that
they were overcrowded and expensive led to the increasing
sterilization (Vecoli, p. 195). A
primary factor leading to the initial institution of the 1913
was that Wisconsin
was already famous for trusting in science, especially biology,
medicine, and sociology to help form public policy, and eugenics was an
accepted science (Dowbiggin, p. 126).
The academic authorities of the late 19th
and early 20th
centuries viewed “degeneracy” as a “cancerous tumor” in society that
cured by eliminating its ability to grow: “sterilization or racial
progressive governor and legislators ultimately succeeded, after failed
in 1907, 1909 and 1911, in passing the bill by convincing both houses
serving the “collective” was most important (Laughlin, p. 31).
By the time
the law was passed, sterilizations did not
seem nearly as radical as it had in 1907 when Indiana first instituted
program (Vecoli, p. 195). The
sterilizations from 1934 to 1938 occurred because following the Great
Depression there was an amplified concern in Wisconsin
about the burden which those in
need of aid would place on the “fit” populace.
Forced sterilizations became increasingly popular as the
became more urbanized. It
was seen as an
improvement for the individuals receiving the operations (removing the
of parenthood), society as a whole, and to future generations in regard
overall racial purity (Painter). Wisconsin academics convinced
legislators that opposing
eugenic sterilizations was both “unscientific and fiscally
(Dowbiggin, p. 126).
the law specifically listed several groups
for sterilizations (Painter), those who were targeted in practice were
primarily “feebleminded” because they were actually at risk of
severely disabled persons were more likely to be institutionalized with
care for their entire lives and therefore were less considered for
sterilizations, particularly because they were less likely to
reproduce. Thus, a target was placed on those with lower levels of
disability. Furthermore, sexually
people would be most likely to reproduce and therefore would
the most (Paul, p. 548). Because
nature in which society and legislators viewed promiscuity, women were
likely to be labeled as such than men and the impoverished lower class
likely to be targeted than the middle and upper classes (Paul, p. 546).
Other Restrictions Placed on those Identified in the Law or with Disabilities
In 1907 Wisconsin
made it illegal for epileptic, feeble-minded, and insane people to
marry. It declared
it a misdemeanor for any in these
groups to have sexual intercourse (Vecoli, p. 195). In
also passed a law requiring the presentation of a medical certificate
applying for a marriage license. This
was declared unconstitutional in 1914 (“Eugenics Law”). In 1955,
Wisconsin eliminated epileptics from the sterilization law and also
changed the marriage law so that people who were sterilized could be
married (Paul, p. 547).
Wilmarth moved to Wisconsin from
was the first director
of the Home for the Feeble-Minded in Chippewa Falls. He brought with him the
notion that people
are not only mentally but also morally imbecilic. His
influence over the
large number of sterilizations of “habitual criminals and unchaste
immense (Vecoli, p. 194). He
credited for advocating sterilization above confinement as a more
fiscally responsible program (Dowbiggin, p. 125).
(Photo origin: American Sociological Association; available at http://www2.asanet.org/governance/ross.html).
Ross (1866-1951) was a professor of sociology at the University
where he was a principal figure in early criminology. He
with having coined the phrase “race suicide” in his article “The Causes
Racial Superiority” in 1901 and at the time of his death he was
trailblazer in the field of sociology (Hertzler, pp. 597-612).
Hise (1857-1918) was the President of the
University of Wisconsin. He
eugenic thought by founding the University of Wisconsin School of
Dr. Richard Dewey,
additionally, was the head physician of Milwaukee Hospital for the
Insane and was also mentioned as an advocate of sterilization in
Wisconsin, despite the fact that no sterilizations were reported at
this institution (Robison, p. 275).
“Feeder Institutions” and Institutions where Sterilizations are Performed
for the Feeble-Minded in Chippewa Falls and the Wisconsin Hospital for
Insane were the two largest feeder and sterilization institutions
(Vecoli, p. 193).
(Photo origin: Waymarking.com, available at http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM1KA4)
Wisconsin Home for the Feeble-Minded was founded in 1897 in Chippewa
Falls. The name of the institution changed several times, including in
1922, when it was renamed the Northern Wisconsin Colony and Training
School. As of 1976, it is known as the Northern
Wisconsin Center for
the Developmentally Disabled
and is still used for the care of
patients with developmental disabilities. and is still used for the
care of patients with developmental disabilities. The institution was
founded on eugenic principles, which included relieving families from
the “burden” of an “idiot child,” institutionalizing women of
childbearing age in order to curb reproduction of the epileptic and
feebleminded, and educating “the ‘imbecile’ to the highest sphere of
usefulness” (Wisconsin Department of Health Services, 2007). However,
its history with sterilization is not currently recognized by the
institution’s webpage (Wisconsin Department of Health Services, 2007).
Sterilization is, instead, mentioned in the institution’s history (Goc,
(Photo origin: Wisconsin Department of Health Services; available at http://dhs.wisconsin.gov/mh_winnebago/WMHI_Museum.htm)
Hospital for the Insane was known as the Winnebago Mental Health
Winnebago, Wisconsin and is still used for psychiatric and behavioral
care (Wisconsin Department of Health Services 2011). In 1973, the
Julaine Farrow Museum was established to display the history of the
Winnebago Mental Health Institute. Despite that Farrow authored an
entire history of the institution, of which she was considered the
“official hospital historian,” there is no mention of the institutions
history of sterilization (Farrow, p. 325). Sterilization also goes
unmentioned in the two histories published by the institution itself,
which collectively cover the institution from 1873 to 1998 (Winnebago
Mental Health Institute). Its website also fails to mention its
relationship with eugenics (Wisconsin Department of Health Services
Catholic community of Wisconsin
dissented with the progressive,
eugenic legislators because they pushed for interference with
Milwaukee wrote a letter of complaint to the government immediately
1913 Bill was introduced, urging it to be shot down yet again
and Sterilization Acts”). Sterilization
programs were also fought by Democrats.
The 1913 law only won passage in the assembly by a narrow
Democrats were so strongly against it.
Although the socialist ideology also deplored
sterilizations, four of
the five socialists in the legislature voted for the passage of the
bill (Vecoli, p. 200).
There was also
dissension within established eugenicists.
Charles Davenport was quoted in the New York Times
Wisconsin’s requirement of medical certificates when applying for
licenses because he viewed the legislation as doing more harm than good
be ineffective regarding the true goal of controlling reproduction
Ridicules Laws”). Specifically,
were also many people opposed to the sterilization of criminals because
viewed it as a form of punishment, and therefore as unconstitutional
Brown, Frederick W. May 1930. “Eugenic Sterilization in the United
States: Its Present Status.” Annals of the American Academy of
Political and Social Science
149, 3: 22-35.
1919. Biographical Memoir Charles Richard Van Hise
Government Printing Office.
Ridicules Laws for Eugenics.” 1914. The New York Times
Ian R. 1997. Keeping America
. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Law is Declared Invalid.” 1914. The New York Times
Farrow, Julaine. 2008. An Asylum's Journey: Healing Through the
Centuries: The History of Winnebago Mental Health Institute, 1873-1998
Winnebago, WI: Winnebago Mental Health Institute.
Goc, Michael, ed. 1997. Island of Refuge: Northern Wisconsin Center for the Developmentally Disabled, 1897-1997
. Friendship, WI: New Past Press.
and Sterilization Acts are Adopted.” 1913. The New York Times
Hertzler, Joyce O. 1951.
“Edward Alsworth Ross:
Sociological Pioneer and Interpreter.” American
16, 5: 597-612.
Harry H. 1922. Eugenical Sterilization in the United States
Psychopathic Laboratory of the
Municipal Court of Chicago.
Paul. 2008. Three Generations, No Imbeciles
Lucey, Patrick J. 1997. Wisconsin Women and the Law: The Governor's Commission on the Status of Women.
Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
G. 2001. “The Sensibilities of Our Forefathers; The History of Sodomy Laws in
the Unites States.” Available at <http://www.glapn.org/sodomylaws/sensibilities/wisconsin.htm
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.
Robinson, Dale W. 1980. Wisconsin and the Mentally Ill
. New York: Arno Press.
Rudolph J. 1960. “Sterilization: A Progressive Measure?” Wisconsin Magazine
of History 43:
Department of Health Services. 2007. “History of Northern Wisconsin Center.” Available
Wisconsin Department of Health
Services. 2008. “Winnebago Mental Health Institute.” Available at <http://dhs.wisconsin.gov/mh_winnebago/HISTORY.HTM
Wisconsin Department of Health Services. 2011. “Winnebago Mental Health Institute.” Available at <http://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/mh_winnebago/INDEX.HTM