Number of victims

Approximately 3,284 people had been sterilized in Georgia by the end of 1963, of whom about 55% were female. 77% of all those sterilized were deemed mentally ill, of which 46% were men and 54% were women. The other 33% of total victims were classified as mentally deficient, out of which 40% were men and 60% were women. Overall, Georgia was responsible for the fifth highest number of sterilizations in the United States (Paul, p. 325).


Period during which sterilizations occurred

Sterilizations occurred in Georgia during a time period spanning from its legalization in 1937 to approximately 1963.


Temporal pattern of sterilizations and rate of sterilization

Picture of a graph of eugenic sterilizations in Georgia


After the passage of the sterilization law in 1937 the rate of sterilizations in Georgia climbed slowly until it increased significantly after the end of World War II. Between 1940 and 1950 sterilizations were performed at an approximate rate of 80 per year and about 23 per 100,000 residents. Between 1950 and 1960 these numbers increased further to approximately 220 sterilizations per year, at a rate of about 9 sterilizations per 100,000 residents per year. The rate of sterilizations decreased substantially after the year 1960 until it finally stopped around 1963.


Passage of law(s)

Georgia was the 32nd and last state to implement a sterilization law. The first sterilization bill in Georgia was passed by the Georgia General Assembly in 1935. However, the bill was later vetoed by Eugene Talmadge, who was governor at the time. Talmadge was adamantly against all Progressive measures and in the year 1935 had vetoed all New Deal legislations that crossed his desk, including the sterilization bill (Larson, “Belated Progress”,  p. 58).  An amended version of the bill was reintroduced in 1937 and signed into law by newly appointed governor E.D. Rivers. The sterilization law made compulsory sterilization legal (Larson, Sex, Race, and Science, pp. 133-136).


Groups identified in the law

The sterilization law was aimed at “patients” of custodial institutions who “would be likely, if released without sterilization, to procreate a child, or children, who would have a tendency to serious physical, mental, or nervous disease or deficiency” (Larson, Sex, Race, and Science, p. 134).


Process of the law

Georgia's sterilization law was modeled after California's law. The law stated that “it shall be lawful to perform such an operation [sterilizations] for the prevention of procreation as shall be decided safest and most effective.” The recommendation of the superintendent of an institution was required in order for a patient to be sterilized. This recommendation then required approval by the three-member State Board of Eugenics. Decisions made by the board could be appealed in the form of a jury trial. The method of sterilization would be vasectomies for males and tubal ligation for women (Larson, Sex, Race, and Science, p. 134).


Precipitating factors and processes

Eugenics was not readily accepted in Georgia at first. Like many southern states, Georgia adhered to a culture that put high emphasis on familial relationships. For this reason many people did not want the state to interfere with what they considered to be private family matters, such as reproduction. Louisiana State University political scientist Charles W. Pipkin noted that, “the public has an aversion to legislative interference with parental rights except in cases of extreme neglect” (Larson, Sex, Race, and Science, 8). Large extended families also provided more support and care for the disabled and others who would have otherwise fallen prey to state institutions. Also like other states in the Deep South, Georgia had few foreign immigrants who were often the focus of eugenics programs in the north and west of the country (Larson, Sex, Race, and Science, p. 9). Religion also played a large role in the delayed acceptance of eugenics in Georgia. A largely religious culture created extended families beyond blood relatives which gave further support to the disadvantaged (Larson, Sex, Race, and Science, pp. 13-14). It is interesting to note, however, that religion was also cited in support of sterilization policy, with "medical gospel" proclamations that eugenical action was called for in the Holy Scripture (Lombardo, p. 50). Progressivism also did not hold as much sway in the south as it did in other parts of the country. This was due to a relatively smaller number of urban middle-class as well as a smaller number of educated citizens. The Deep South also did not have the scientific or educational resources that were present in other parts of the country to make the idea of eugenics go over more smoothly (Larson, Sex, Race, and Science, p. 17).

Despite its slow start, the beginnings of the eugenics movement in Georgia can be traced as far back as 1913, with the National Corn Exposition incorporating classes on eugenics and the call for a "department of eugenics" by the Child Welfare Exhibit of Atlanta (Lombardo, p. 46). Following the "successful" Better Babies show of 1914, it was even predicted that Atlanta would be the "pioneer southern city" in embracing the eugenic wave sweeping America (Lombardo, p. 46).

Early legislation regarding marriage license eligibility was proposed several times throughout the 1920s. The bills required that men demonstrate a "bill of clean health" by way of medical certificate before entering into marriage. These measures, designed to protect "the children of tomorrow", were, however, largely unsuccessful (Lombardo, pp. 47-48).

The racial climate of Georgia at the turn of the twentieth century and onward was one of segregation and deep prejudices carried over from colonial times (Lombardo, 48). Challenges to white supremacy such as miscegenation and the propagation of "degrading strains of alien blood" were fervently opposed by the public, who deemed this act an "unspeakable evil" comparable to polygamy (Lombardo, 48). "Racial integrity" could be further monitored under 1914 state "public health and vital statistics laws" that allowed for demographic data to be tracked and "racial hygiene" monitored (Lombardo, p. 48).

When eugenics in the south did get underway it occurred in a two-step process. Those deemed inferior or feeble-minded were first recommended for segregation rather than sterilization (Larson, Sex, Race, and Science, pp. 60-65; Lombardo, p. 51). A lack of funding for facilities towards this purpose and over-crowding would eventually lead to outright sterilization (Larson, Sex, Race, and Science, p. 91; Lombardo, p. 51).

Increasing populations of "degenerates" housed in state institutions provided the context for initial discussions of sterilization policies in 1912 (Lombardo, p. 50). While the first 1913 bill for a state-supported sterilization law was met with great opposition, it pioneered the way for future (more successful) attempts (Lombardo, p. 50).

The economic downturn of the Great Depression and the controversy introduced by one Erskine Caldwell, a Georgian novelist, were the pivotal factors in bringing about public reconsideration of sterilization law (Lombardo, p. 52).

Organizations such as the Medical Association of Georgia and the Georgia Federation of Women Voters also encouraged the practice of eugenics in Georgia (Larson, Sex, Race, and Science, pp. 51-52, 71-73).


Groups targeted and victimized

The main groups targeted by eugenicists in Georgia were the mentally or physically disabled. Criminals and those considered to be deviant or immoral such as prostitutes were also victimized (Larson, Sex, Race, and Science, p. 70). Surprisingly, race was not as big of a factor in Georgia as it was in other states in the south. Proponents of eugenics in Georgia never specified race as a motivation for eugenics. Instead they said they were focused on the “younger generation” in general. Ellis Arnall, who was a major proponent in Georgia, was also an open supporter of voting rights for African Americans. Also, the main targets for eugenics in Georgia were patients of state institutions who were mainly white (Larson, Sex, Race, and Science, p. 138).


Other restrictions placed on those identified in the law or with disabilities in general

Georgia had a preexisting marriage restriction that invalidated marriage contracts entered into by “an idiot or lunatic”. This restriction was based on the grounds that the aforementioned groups lacked the mental capacity to enter into such a legal contract (Larson, Sex, Race, and Science, p. 98).


Major Proponents


Picture of Ellis Arnall (Photo origin: University of Georgia Libraries, Special Collections, available at http://www.libs.uga.edu/russell/collections/arnalloralhistory/index.shtml)

A major proponent of eugenics in Georgia was Ellis Arnall. Arnall was a progressive politician in Georgia who was very much in favor of the practice of eugenics. He sponsored a sterilization bill in 1935 that called for “one surgeon and one alienist of recognized ability” to judge the condition of hospital patients for sterilization. Although this bill was vetoed by the governor of the time Arnall would still have a hand in eugenics legislation in the future. He would eventually go on to become governor of Georgia in 1942 (Larson, Sex, Race, and Science, pp. 133-138).

James C. Davis was an Atlanta lawyer and member of the Georgia General Assembly who advocated for Georgia's parallel of the 1924 Virginia Racial Integrity Act. First introduced in 1925, the Davis Racial Integrity Bill was eventually passed in 1927 for the purpose of "[supporting] existing social relations and [bolstering] a culture of white supremacy", precipitating the more severe, intrusive, and scientifically driven Georgian eugenics movement (Lombardo, p. 50).

“Feeder institutions” and institutions where sterilizations were performed

 The two most prominent feeder institutions in Georgia were Milledgeville State Hospital and the Georgia Training School for Mental Defectives. There were great disparities between the two main institutions: Before World War II, the Georgia Training School received significantly less funding than the Milledgeville State Hospital and came under the control of five different governmental agencies between 1921 and 1940. These hard times are reflected in the institution’s admissions rates: In 1932 Gracewood had only 249 residents while Milledgeville had almost 6,000 (Noll, Feeble-Minded, p. 128).  


Picture of Milledgeville State Hospital (Photo origin: The New Georgia Encyclopedia, available at http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Multimedia.jsp?id=m-1444)

Milledgeville State Hospital is located in Milledgeville, Georgia, and during the 1960s was the largest mental hospital in the country, housing over 3,200 patients (Larson, Sex, Race, and Science, p. 45). Milledgeville was a major location for sterilizations in Georgia during the 1950s and 1960s. Before 1929, its name was Georgia State Asylum. When it experienced a debt of $2.5 million in 1929, it prompted the proposal of new sterilization laws in the following three years, which failed (Lombardo, p. 51). It was renamed Central State Hospital in 1967 and continues to function as a mental institution today.

Milledgeville State Hospital is considered to have been the largest of its kind in the world from its origin in 1842 until the 1950s. Despite never sterilizing more than two percent of the patient population in any one year, the hospital's size allowed over two hundred operations per year. Men doubled women in the number of operations, and the majority of patients were diagnosed with schizophrenia (Larson, Sex, Race, and Science, p. 158). Milledgeville was successful in not publicizing the eugenic practices until a reporter from Georgia's leading newspaper investigated conditions at the hospital. He reported on the abuse of patients in multiple front-page articles, some including photographs. In response to this, the governor transferred the institution into a state-run health department. Despite the issue of Eugenics not been addressed directly, these articles rapidly declined the number of sterilizations that were performed, due in part to the fear of lawsuits from the patients or their families (Larson, Sex, Race, and Science, p. 159).

As of 2009, there is at least one building on the Milledgeville grounds that are not preserved. The Walker building was erected as an intake for white male patients, and then abandoned in 1974. Now, much of the third floor lacks a ceiling (Kingston Lounge). There is said to be a museum on the grounds of the hospital, but there is nothing available online and the museum is only open by appointment (Asylum Eclectica).

The Georgia Training School for Mental Defectives in Gracewood opened in 1921. The hospital’s initial main function was to be a place of residence for eugenically segregated individuals, mostly the mentally retarded. The hospital has since changed its name to Gracewood State School and Hospital (and now Gracewood Center) and still functions as a mental hospital (Larson, Sex, Race, and Science, p. 54; Noll, “Public Face,” p. 29). Gracewood began implementing the sterilization law in the 1940s through the practice of recommending sterilization before the release of a patient. Family members had ten days after notification of the upcoming procedure to submit written objections; otherwise the state took the lack of response as an implied consent. The total number of reported sterilizations at the Gracewood facility is 408, with over half of that number representing women. The sterilization practices at Gracewood were discontinued in the 1960s (Larson, p. 158). The facility was thrown into the public eye in 1939 when there was a fire in one of the Dormitories, killing six of the patients, and alerting the public to the overcrowding of the institution (Noll, "Public Face," p. 34).

Neither hospital's current websites reference their history as an institution for eugenics.


The greatest opposition to eugenics in Georgia came from the Catholic Church. When Governor Talmadge vetoed the first sterilization bill in 1935 the publicity director of the Catholic Layman’s Association of Georgia wrote a letter to a Georgia newspaper praising his decision (Larson, Sex, Race, and Science, p. 136).  Savannah’s black newspaper also opposed the 1935 Sterilization Act stating that they were afraid their race would be singled out for sterilization (Larson, Sex, Race, and Science, p. 156).  Also, one of the most influential opponents of eugenics was Eugene Talmadge, the governor who vetoed the original 1935 sterilization bill because he was against all progressive and New Deal measures which included the sterilization bill (Larson, “Belated Progress,” p. 58).



American History and Genealogy Project. "Central State Hospital." Available at http://www.usgennet.org/usa/ga/county/baldwin/csh.html

Associated Content. “Georgia's First Mental Institution…” Available at http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/1355641/georgias_first_mental_institution_central_pg2.html?cat=37

Asylum Eclectica. “Where Have All The Loonies Gone?” Available at http://asylumeclectica.com/asylum/sightseer/us/ga/milledgeville/lunatic.htm

Payne, David M. "The History of the Central State Hospital." Georgia Encyclopedia. Available at http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-1222

Kingston Lounge. "Central State Hospital's Walker Building as of 2009." Available at http://kingstonlounge.blogspot.com/2009/09/central-state-hospital-milledgeville-ga.html

Larson, Edward J. 1991. “Belated Progress: The Enactment of Eugenic Legislation in Georgia.” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 46: 44-64.


Larson, Edward J. 1995. Sex, Race, and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Lombardo, Paul. 2011. "From Better Babies to Bunglers: Eugenics on Tobacco Road." Pp. 45-67 in A Century of Eugenics in America, ed. Paul Lombardo. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.


Noll, Steven. 2005. “The Public Face of Southern Institutions for the ‘Feeble-Minded.’” The Public Historian 27, 2: 25-42.


Noll, Steven. 1995.  Feeble-Minded in Our Midst: Institutions for the Mentally Retarded in the South, 1900-1940.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.


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.