Number of victims

There were 945 sterilizations in Delaware. Of the victims, 50% were female and 50% were male. Close to one third of those sterilized were considered mentally ill, while more than two thirds were considered mentally deficient. Delaware ranks 13th in the United States for number of documented sterilizations.


Period during which sterilizations occurred

Sterilization in Delaware occurred between 1923 and 1963.


Temporal pattern of sterilization and rate of sterilization

After passing a sterilization law in 1923, Delaware’s sterilization rate initially rose quite rapidly. The highest rate of sterilizations took place from 1927-1937, where approximately 44 people were sterilized per year. Between the 1940’s and 1950’s the rate fell slightly to about 25 people per year. From 1950 to 1963, the sterilization rate was lower; around 10 people were sterilized annually.  During the peak sterilization time of 1927 to1937, Delaware sterilized an average of 18 people per 100,000 state residents per year. Delaware was the “highest per capita state in the nation in utilizing its sterilization law for several years through 1949” (J. Paul, p. 321; Stern, p. 1137 n. 2).  Delaware sterilizations continued long past WWII.  30% of the sterilizations occurred after the war, and Delaware was ranked as having the highest sterilization rate in the country in both the late 1940’s as well as 1962-1963 (J. Paul, p. 321; D. Paul, p. 97).


Passage of laws

In 1918 some residents of Delaware were troubled by the fact that they were "one of the few states in the union which has no provision for its feebleminded" (American Genetic Association). The first sterilization law in Delaware was passed in 1923 (Landman, p. 82). The first amendment to this law was made on April 10, 1929. The amendment added “habitual or confirmed criminals who have been convicted of at least three felonies either in federal or state court, either inside Delaware or elsewhere, if their criminality was considered due to mental abnormality” (Painter).  This created an opportunity for any criminal act to be attributed to a mental defect in the offender. An additional amendment also made in 1929, included in Section 4, stated that “chronic or recurrent insane persons at large are amenable to compulsory sterilization” (Landman, p. 83). The sterilization law in Delaware has never been tried in court and has yet to be repealed (Painter).


Groups identified in the law

Delaware sterilization laws included habitual criminals, those who were “chronically insane”, homosexuals, inmates of mental institutions who were “insane, feeble minded or epileptic”, and “those committing criminal acts in or outside of Delaware as a result of mental defectiveness (Landman, pp, 82-3; Painter).


Process of the law

With application by the superintendent of state institutions, any “insane, feeble minded or epileptic person” could be recommended for “special examination with a view to his or her sterilization” (Landman, p. 83). The patient must have “full knowledge and understanding of the alternatives to sterilization, ability to understand information, and the understanding that they can withhold consent at any time,” according to the state statute (http://delcode.delaware.gov/title16/c057/index.shtml), but many patients were likely coerced into their decision to choose sterilization. The petition went to the Department of Public Welfare which employed an examining committee comprised of a physician, an alienist [a mental health professional such as a psychiatrist], and the superintendent of the institution who would be in charge of conducting the investigation to determine whether sterilization would occur (J. Paul, p. 313). This committee had to decide unanimously, which they often did, that procreation is inadvisable for the patient. If unanimity was reached, the commission would request that the Department of Public Welfare order the sterilization of the patient. While the law stated that a notice should be sent to the family at least 30 days prior to sterilization to inform them of the committee’s decision, there was considerable confusion in Delaware about the necessity or existence of these notices (J. Paul, p. 313).


For being one of the smallest states in the United States, Delaware was remarkable in that during peak times it had the highest per capita sterilization rates in the country. Several factors might have contributed to Delaware taking a lead role in sterilizations. As Julius Paul noted, there was no judicial review of sterilization orders, and the law was compulsory and extramural in its coverage (p. 313). The order for sterilization came from the Dept. of Public Welfare, which “usual[ly]” approved a unanimous determination by an examining commission upon application from the superintendent of a state institution. Once a sterilization had been ordered, there was only notice to be given but no avenue provided for appeal by, e.g., relatives. Paul refers to a superintendent of a state hospital in the 1960s, Dr. Bush, as having noted in a letter to him that no family ever had gone to court to stop the proceedings (J. Paul, p. 317).


Precipitating factors and processes

There is very little information on the factors and events that led up to the passage of a sterilization law in Delaware.  However, it did occur during a time of moral panic about the rapid immigration of people from eastern and southeastern Europe (Kline, p. 9), but the relation between increased immigration and the passage of Delaware’s sterilization law is unknown.


Groups targeted and victimized

Those considered mentally ill or mentally deficient were sterilized more than any other group.  Out of the 945 sterilizations, 919 of the people sterilized were believed to have been performed on mentally ill or “mentally deficient” persons.  The distribution between total sterilized men and women is equal in Delaware, but when viewed separately, 75% of the mentally ill were male, while 60% of the mentally deficient were female.  Homosexual men were also victimized because they were considered to be suffering from a mental deficiency. After being arrested for taking part in homosexual activity, many were sent to mental institutions where they could be involuntarily sterilized (Painter).


Other restrictions placed upon those identified in the law

Delaware was considerably strict on the illegality of homosexuality, and arrested and tried many in both local and State Supreme Court cases to punish the offenders. The issue of homosexuality was dealt with labeling it as a mental defect, therefore allowing for the arrest and incarceration of gay men in institutions for the "feebleminded" (Painter). By law, Delaware had also prohibited the marriage of two “poor people” (Kevles). Additionally, laws existed preventing the marriage of  the insane, or those who had been in an insane asylum. These marriages were voidable at the request of the "innocent party"  (Schuler, p. 312).


Major proponents

Emma O. Lundberg conducted the Social Study of Mental Defectives in New Castle County, Delaware, in 1920.  She worked for the Children’s Bureau of the Department of Labor and alongside Dr. E. H. Mullan. Together they conducted mental examinations of school children to identify “defectives” (Eugenics Record Office). Later proponents include Dr. Charles K. Bush, who was the Superintendent of the Delaware State Hospital at Farnhurst in the early 1960s, and Edgar Hare, the Director of the Department of Public Welfare. Dr. Charles Bush stated that “knowing that it would be possible to release more patients to their families if they had been sterilized, I began to push the matter and more operations were done” (J. Paul, pp. 314, 323).


Feeder institutions

The Hospital for the Mentally Retarded at Stockley and the Delaware State Hospital for the Insane are two places that housed patients who were sterilized. The State of Delaware acknowledges the existence of sterilization records for these two hospitals, but the records remain confidential (State of Delaware, Department of State).


The Hospital for the Mentally Retarded at Stockley housed patients with mental disabilities and was a location where sterilizations took place. It now has the name Stockley Center and continues to house those with disabilities today, providing “habilitative training, health care, family services, and residential services for individuals with developmental disabilities” (State of Delaware, Delaware Health and Social Services).


Picture of the Delaware State Hospital (Photo origin:  State of Delaware;  available at http://archives.delaware.gov/exhibits/photograph/arcweek/1890s-32.shtml)

The Delaware State Hospital for the Insane, at Farnhurst (above),  is also listed as one of the places with sterilization records. The Hospital continues to function today as a general hospital.  The Mental Hygiene Clinic and a Psychiatric Observation Clinic were also established at the Farnhurst site.

Other institutions in the state of Delaware included Sussex County Insane Department; Governor Bacon Health Center; the Day Care Center at Dover; and the Mental Hygiene Clinic at Fernhook.(State of Delaware Public Archives, Agency Histories).


Many of these hospitals are still open today.  They no longer perform sterilizations, but in some cases are still mental health facilities.  None of the hospitals’ websites mentions sterilizations taking place there.



American Genetic Association. 1918. "Feeblemindedness in Delaware." The Journal of Heredity 10: 45-48.

Brown, Frederick W. 1930. “Eugenic Sterilization in the United States. Its Present Status.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 149, 3: 22-35.

Eugenics Record Office. 1918. “Defectives in Delaware.” Eugenical News 3: 8.

Kevles, Daniel. “The Great White Way: Daniel Kevles on the History of Eugenics in the US.” Stay Free! Available at <
http://www.ibiblio.org/pub/electronic-publications/stay-free/archives/22/eugenics-daniel-kevles.html >.

Kline, Wendy. 2001. Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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

Painter, George. 2001. “The Sensibilities of Our Forefathers: The History of Sodomy Laws in the United States: Delaware.” Available at <

Paul, Diane B. 1995. Controlling Human Heredity: 1865 to the Present. New Jersey: Humanities Press.

Paul, Julius. 1965. "'Three Generations of Imbeciles Are Enough': State Eugenic Sterilization Laws in American Thought and Practice." Washington, D.C.: Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. Available at <http://buckvbell.com/pdf/JPaulmss.pdf>..

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

State of Delaware. Delaware Health and Social Services: Division of Developmental Disabilities Services. “Stockley Center.” Available at <http://www.dhss.delaware.gov/dhss/ddds/stockley.html>

State of Delaware. Department of State: Delaware Public Archives. “Records of the Delaware Industrial School for Girls” Available at <http://archives.delaware.gov/collections/guide/1500s/1501-000-036.shtml>

State of Delaware. Department of State: Delaware Public Archives. “Woodshaven Kruse School Time Capsule Records” Available at <http://archives.delaware.gov/collections/guide/1500s/1501-000-035.shtml>

State of Delaware. Department of State: Delaware Public Archives. “Sterilization Files.” Available at <http://archives.delaware.gov/collections/guide/1500s/1500-019-038.shtml>.
Updated 2022: https://archivesfiles.delaware.gov/Online-Guide-Collections/1500-018-038.pdf

State of Delaware. Online Delaware Code. “Title 16: Health and Safety: Mental Health: Chapter 57: Voluntary and Involuntary Sterilization” Available at <http://delcode.delaware.gov/title16/c057/index.shtmll>

State of Delaware. Online Delaware Code. “Chapter 97: Formerly Senate Bill No. 144 As Ammended by Senate Ammendment No. 2” Available at <http://delcode.delaware.gov/sessionlaws/ga141/chp097.shtml>

State of Delaware Public Archives, Agency Histories. “State Board of Trustees of the Insane/State Board of Trustees of the Delaware State Hospital at Farnhurst/Department of Mental Health” Available at  <http://archives.delaware.gov/collections/aghist/1500-009.shtml>

Stern, Alexandra M. 2005. “Sterilized in the Name of Public Health.” American Journal of Public Health 95, 7: 1128-1138. Available at <http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/picrender.fcgi?artid=1449330&blobtype=pdf>