Number of victims

1,910 persons were sterilized. More than two thirds of them were females. An about equal number of those sterilized were considered mentally ill or mentally deficient, but slightly more than 5% were neither (Paul, p. 362).


Period during which sterilizations occurred

The period spans from the 1910s to 1963. The majority of sterilizations occurred between 1948-1952 in which 746 total operations were performed (Paul, p. 359; Lind, p. 112).


Temporal pattern of sterilizations and rate of sterilization

Picture of a graph of eugenic sterilizations in Iowa

The number of sterilizations in Iowa remained relatively low until the late 1930s and then began to increase in the 1940s. The period with the highest number sterilizations was 1940 to 1955, after which time the number of sterilizations decreased.  In 1949 165 total sterilzation operations took place, the most procedures done in a single year. (Lind, p. 112).  The peak rate of sterilizations occurred in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when on average 150 people were sterilized each year (Paul, p. 362).  The rate of sterilization per 100,000 residents per year for this period was about 6.

Passage of laws

Iowa was the ninth state to pass a sterilization law in the United States (Laughlin, p. 1).  The first law was enacted in 1911 by the thirty-fourth General Assembly, and allowed for the directors of the mental institutions and members of the state board of parole to determine whether or not an inmate ought to be sterilized (Laughlin, p. 21).This law was soon repealed and replaced by a second law, enacted in 1913 (Laughlin, p. 22).

The third law emerged in 1915 as a response to the Davis v. Berry case, which declared the 1913 law unconstitutional (Paul, p. 359).  The case claimed that the second law “lacked provision for due process of law for the patient, it provided for a cruel and unusual punishment and it was a bill of attainder.”  Subsequently, the third law was created and called for the need of written consent before an operation could be conducted (Landman, p. 62). Robbin Howard brought an interesting case to the Iowa Supreme court in 1979 on the basis of invasion of privacy. The case related to her forced sterilization in the Jasper County Home in Newton, IA. In Howard v. Des Moines Register and Tribune Company, 1979, Howard claimed that the Des Moines Tribune published details of her institutionalization and sterilization that she did not want released to the public. She sued on invasion of privacy. Although the court did not rule in favor of Howard, the case brought forth new and interesting information about the Jasper County Home. Upon investigation, it was found that despite previously established legislation, Jasper County Home failed to obtain the necessary state approval for the 144 sterilizations per year it performed on juvenile delinquents, handicapped, disabled, aged, and poor people prior to 1972. The facility’s license was suspended in 1975 (Bezanson).  

Groups identified in the law

The first law, dated July 4, 1911, applied to “criminals, idiots, feeble-minded, imbeciles, lunatics, drunkards, drug fiends, epileptics, syphilitics, etc.” moral and sexual perverts, and diseased and degenerate persons” (Laughlin, pp. 21, 22). It was compulsory for those “inmates twice convicted of a felony, or sex-offense other than ‘white slavery.’” For the offense of “white slavery,” one conviction made sterilization mandatory (Laughlin, p. 9).  Despite the intent to diminish these groups’ influence on society, criminals were not actually sterilized (Paul, p. 359), as the third law eliminated criminals from the list of persons subject to the operation (Laughlin, p. 9). Also, epilepsy was apparently a sole reason for sterilization (Paul, p. 364 n. 3). As Julius Paul notes, the law applied extramurally, and there was a significant number of sterilizations on non-institutionalized persons (Paul, p. 360). After the State Eugenics Board was created (see below), it included “feeble-minded, insane, syphilitic, habitual criminals, moral degenerates, or sexual perverts and who are a menace to society” and might produce children likely to become “a social menace of ward of the state” (Vogel, p. 128).


Process of the law

To apply Iowa’s first eugenics law of 1911, the managing officers of the institutions had the duty to determine by examination whether or not the mental and/or physical conditions of the inmates made them unfit to procreate.  The institutions’ surgical superintendents and the members of the state board of parole were also consulted.  If the group decided that the offspring of an inmate would be a likely victim of “disease, crime, insanity, feeble-mindedness, idiocy or imbecility,” then the inmate would undergo an operation of vasectomy or ligation of the Fallopian tubes (Laughlin, p. 21). After the second law had been passed in 1913 and subsequently found unconstitutional, the third sterilization law of Iowa required the written consent of the patient or close relative before the operation could be completed.  It also eliminated the application of the operation to criminals (Laughlin, p. 9). 


The Eugenics movement in Iowa saw an important change in 1929, as the State Eugenics Board was created. The Commissioner of Public Health was on this board, as were the medical director of the Psychopathic Hospital in Iowa City, and the superintendents of the four state hospitals for the insane (Cherokee, Clarinda, Independence, and Mount Pleasant), of the Women’s Reformatory at Rockwell City, of the Hospital for Epileptics and Feebleminded at Woodward, and the Institution for Feebleminded Children at Glenwood. The people who ran different state institutions were instructed to report candidates for sterilization to the Board. The Board then briefly reviewed the case and decided the fate of the inmate. Consequently, close to two thousand people were sterilized under the authority of the State Eugenics Board until it was abolished in 1977 (Vogel, p. 128).


Precipitating factors and processes

The pre-World War II era saw “concern with controlling the effects of procreation among socially dependent classes of people” (Vogel, p. 120).  During this time, the ideas of Harry Laughlin became a significant precipitating factor of the eugenics movement, as he influenced the creation of groups of philanthropists and women who advocated for the Iowan’s philosophies (Vogel, p. 123). Iowa’s creation of the Board of Eugenics in 1929 also was a factor that increased sterilizations in the state, as they “authorized the sterilization of more than two thousand men and women in Iowa” (Vogel, p. 128).


Even though eugenics decreased as a national movement after World War II, sterilization in Iowa actually increased, at least in part due to the activities of Birthright and the Human Betterment League. Although national organizations, they became popular in Iowa after the war as the organization emphasized the “voluntary” aspect of sterilization and its alleged utility as a method of contraception for people with mental disabilities, making the process appear less cruel (Vogel, p. 134). The Iowa chapter of the Human Betterment League was established in the 1940s and worked to spread the approval of sterilizations by educating the public on the topic.  They strategically explained the “need” for this process to nurses, lawyers, college students and ministers, as these groups of educated individuals would likely understand the “positive” outcomes of the law.  The Human Betterment League popularized the movement through such tactics as setting up mass mailings, holding press releases and handing out biased, informative brochures to the public. For example, an 18-page brochure urged the public to approve of and understand the Iowa sterilization law as a positive way to improve society.  It contained images and descriptions of the ways that the law would protect handicapped individuals and the community alike (Vogel, pp. 134-136). The efforts of the organization, which also served as “an ‘unofficial auxiliary’ to the State Board of Eugenics, were successful, as one of the highest numbers of sterilizations occurred during the early 1940s, the time period during which the League was at work (Vogel, pp. 135, 137-138),


Groups targeted and victimized

The groups who were targeted and victimized by the eugenics movement were people with inadequate heredity and “socially ineffective members of the community” (Laughlin, p. 455).  The members behind the sterilization movement also sought to eliminate poverty, and thus believed poor people ought to be targets of the operation (Vogel, p. 133). Although criminals and epileptics were targeted in the law, no information about the actual sterilization of these people exists (Paul, pp. 359, 364).  In fact, it appears that only people with mental retardation or mental illness were sterilized (Paul, p. 359). 


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

The groups of people identified in the Iowa sterilization laws “were the target[s] of proposals for marriage restrictions, permanent custody, and sexual sterilization.”  However, sexual sterilization was thought to be the most productive method for creating a “better” human race, so the other two ideas were never carried out (Vogel, p. 123).

Major proponents

Picture of Harry Laughlin (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia, available at <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_H._Laughlin)

Beyond the Iowa chapter of the Human Betterment League, eugenics in Iowa received support from a major national figure. Arguably Iowa’s main “contribution” to the national eugenics movement came in the person of Harry H. Laughlin, who was born in Oskaloosa, Iowa, in 1880.  After attending schools in his home state, Laughlin became interested in heredity, evolution and genetics.  He was significantly influenced by Dr. Charles Davenport, the first person to expose the citizens of the United States to Mendelian genetics.  Laughlin became the superintendent of the Eugenics Record Office and published numerous works on eugenics that became influential to his fellow Iowa citizens.  Iowa was among the many states that followed Laughlin’s ideas for sterilization laws, as described in Eugenical Sterilization in the United States.  Harry Laughlin also conducted research on immigration, eventually proposing that such people were inferior to the rest of society.  He also was a member of the Galton Society, the Eugenics Research Association, the American Society of International Law, the American Statistical Associate, president of the American Eugenics Society 1927-28, associate editor of the Eugenical News from 1916 to 1939, secretary of the Third International Congress of Eugenics in 1932, and president of the Pioneer Fund, Incorporated, from its origin until 1941” (Pickler State Library).  Due to his extensive research and work with eugenics, Harry Laughlin is considered to be the “principal force behind the passage of sterilization laws around the country, including Iowa” (Vogel, p. 123). In 1939, when the Eugenics Records Office in Cold Springs Harbor, New York (see state of New York) closed, he returned to Iowa, where he resided until his death. Perhaps ironically, he discovered that he suffered from epilepsy—among the very conditions he sought people to be sterilized for.


“Feeder institutions” and institutions where sterilization were performed

Some of the following information is based on Laughlin’s list of early sterilizations performed in Iowa (pp. 65, 143) and on the information concerning institutions whose directors and superintendents reported to the State Eugenics Board. The rest of the information was obtained from various other sources (cited below).

The State Psychopathic Hospital in Iowa City was the second psychopathic hospital established in the United States (Medical Museum). Under a law enacted in 1919, judges of district of superior courts could commit patients if they believed them to be suffering from “abnormal” mental conditions in which hospitalization was recommended. Upon opening, the hospital included 60 patient beds, an outpatient department, laboratories for chemistry, serology, pathology, psychology and experimental work, library classroom, and a teaching laboratory (“Iowa History Project”). The institution was closed in 1991.

Glenwood 1904 (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia, available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glenwood_Resource_Center)

The Institution for Feebleminded Children at Glenwood is now called the Glenwood Resource Center (Wikipedia). The facility was originally designed as a state-funded Orphanage during the Civil War but in 1876 a bill for the transformation of Glenwood from an orphanage to an asylum for feeble-minded children was approved (Wikipedia). The bill stated that the facility would serve as a state-funded care, support and education center for children ages 5 to 18 who could not acquire education in normal schools due to intellectual defects (i.e. “feeble-mindedness”). These children were then trained in academia, vocal/ instrumental music, domestic sciences, physical education and manual work. (“Iowa History Project”). Alfred Sasser, who served as superintendent of Glenwood from 1957 to 1959, helped release over 85 wrongfully institutionalized patients, fired abusive attendants, and modified methods of patient control to exclude violence and unnecessary administration of medicines (Lind p. 96). Although the target of much criticism at the time, Sasser proved to be a good example of opposition to abuse and mistreatment of inmates at state facilities all over Iowa.

 Clarinda, 2008 (Photo courtesy of Kirkbridge Buildings, available at http://www.kirkbridebuildings.com/blog/tag/Iowa)

 The Clarinda State Hospital was Iowa’s third insane asylum. It was originally known as Clarinda Asylum for the Insane, but was also known as Clarinda Mental Health Institute. Today it is called the Clarinda Treatment Complex. (Wikipedia). Construction of the facility began in 1885 and was funded on the basis of serving patients that could not be served in other facilities that were already at maximum occupancy. In 1888 the facility opened its doors solely to male patients. In 1980 the Clarinda Correctional Facility was founded on the hospital grounds. The minimum security correctional facility housed males suffering from drug/ chemical addiction, mental retardation and social problems. Today Clarinda serves as a center for psychiatric diagnostic and treatment services. It also serves as a geropsychiactric facility; a nursing home for elderly patients with degenerative psychological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease (Waddington). It is also still used today for human and correctional services and contains a museum of the hospital’s past (Kirkbridge, “Clarinda”). 

The Hospital for Epileptics and Feebleminded was at Woodward.
The Women’s Reformatory at Rockwell City was a women’s prison until 1982 and is now a correctional facility.

Arial View of Fort Madison state penitentiary (Photo courtesy of TheGazette, available at http://thegazette.com/tag/fort-madison/)
Fort Madison State Penitentiary (Laughlin, p. 143) is located at Avenue E & 1st Street in Fort Madison, Iowa and is currently used as a maximum security prison for men.  It also offers vocational training, substance abuse help, and basic education classes (Iowa Department of Corrections).

Independence (Photo courtesy of Kirkbridge buildings, available at http://www.kirkbridebuildings.com/buildings/independence/)

The Independence Mental Health Institute, originally known as the Iowa Asylum for the Insane at Independence, was the second institution designed for the treatment of the mentally ill, and was responsible for 4 total sterilizations. It was approved for construction in 1868, and began being built in 1869 in response to overcrowding at Mount Pleasant State Hospital. Part of the facility was opened in 1873 and the entire thing was officially opened in 1884. Today the institute is called The Mental Health Insitute, and serves as an inpatient treatment center for adults, adolescents and children suffering from psychiatric disorders. It specializes in adolescent/ child -care, but functions as a nurses' training school as well. (Waddington).


Picture of the State Psychopathic Hospital, Cherokee State  (Photo courtesy of RootsWeb, available at http://freepages.geneology.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~kneen/Cherokee/cherokee.html) 

Cherokee Hospital for the Insane
The Cherokee Hospital for the Insane opened its doors to patients in 1902 under the name of the Iowa Lunatic Asylum to Cherokee with Dr. Nelson Voldeng as its first elected superintendent (Wikipedia). It is infamous as the site in which hundreds of lobotomy surgeries on “feeble minded” patients were performed. It reached peak occupancy of about 1,700 patients in the mid 1940’s. Today Cherokee operates under the Iowa Department of Human Services and provides inpatient and outpatient care to adults, adolescents and children in 41 counties across the state. The south wing of the institution serves as a prison for the criminally insane (Wikipedia). Most patients committed to the facility are admitted on a court order. (Waddington).


Picture of the Mount Pleasant State Hospital (Photo courtesy of RootsWeb, available at <http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~asylums/mtpleasant_ia/index.html)

The Mount Pleasant State Hospital, originally known as the Iowa Lunatic Asylum was the location for a small number of early sterilizations. The facility was constructed in 1855 and opened its doors to patients in 1861 (Wikipedia).A fire destroyed much of the building in 1936, and therefore little of the institution remains today (Kirkbridge, “Mount Pleasant Hospital”).  However, part of the building is used today as a male correctional facility that offers programs for sex offenders and people with substance abuse disorders (Iowa Department of Corrections).

Often, institutionalized children (in multiple facilities) suffered highly disturbing institutional abuse and inhumane treatment. Children were placed in unhygienic conditions, endured physical abuse and punishments, were not properly administered their required medications, and suffered from overall neglect. Additonaly, many children with no apparent disabilities or deficiencies were wrongfully, and forcibly confined within these institutions for many years. (Lind ch. 5). For example, Woodward Hospital was notorious for its poor patient care. The institution frequently engaged in the practice of pulling patient’s teeth to inhibit inappropriate biting, and failed to provide patients with necessities such as adequate food, clothing or recreational time. Cases of similar of violent abuse have been reported in other institutions as well (Lind, p. 85).

According to Iowa law after 1915, sterilization of all persons required voluntary consent. Often times this law was manipulated through coersion; patients were told they would only be released from an institution and placed on parole upon consenting to surgical sterilization. Only then would patients agree to the procedure as a means to escape the confines of the institution (Lind, p. 110).



Laughlin’s ideas were challenged specifically in Iowa by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), whose members collected a grant for the Iowa Child Welfare Research Station.  The purpose of the grant was to carry out such tasks as the examination of the impact of the environment and heredity on child development, as proof that IQ increased from birth to death emerged.  This evidence suggested that the potential of children should therefore not be violated, as simple nurturing could improve a child’s mental capacity (Vogel, pp. 126, 130).  Opposition also came from the families of the victims, who were permitted to refuse the operation.  Unfortunately, this opposition was often not brought to the attention of the boards, as it would threaten the victim’s chances of being allowed to leave his or her institution and return home (Vogel, pp. 130, 131).  The members of the Catholic Church also expressed their opposition to sterilizations, and their actions caused several proposed cases to be dismissed (Vogel, p. 139). 


Bezanson, Randall P. 2003.  Story 7: What is the Public’s Business? How Free Can the Press Be? Illinois: The Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Iowa Department of Corrections. 2002. “Institution Descriptions.” Available at <http://www.doc.state.ia.us/InstitutionDesc.asp>.

Iowa History Project. “History of Medicine in Iowa”. Available at <http://iagenweb.org/history/Medicine/asylums.htm>

Kirkbride Buildings. “Cherokee State Hospital.” Available at <http://www.kirkbridebuildings.com/buildings/cherokee/>.

Kirkbride Buildings. “Clarinda State Hospital.” Available at <http://www.kirkbridebuildings.com/buildings/clarinda/>.

Kirkbride Buildings. “Independence State Hospital.” Available at < http://www.kirkbridebuildings.com/buildings/independence/>.

Kirkbride Buildings. “Mount Pleasant State Hospital.” Available at < http://www.kirkbridebuildings.com/buildings/mountpleasant/>.

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

Laughlin, Harry H. 1922. Eugenical Sterilization in the United States. Chicago: Municipal Court of Chicago.

Lind, Linda Sue Impecoven. 2000. "The Forgotten Child: The History of Special Education in Iowa. Have We Really Come As Far As We Think?"  Thesis (M.S)—Iowa State University.

Medical Museum, University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. “Diagnostik: Exhibition Brochure.” Available at < http://www.uihealthcare.com/depts/medmuseum/galleryexhibits/diagnostik/brochure.html>.

Pickler Memorial Library, Truman State University. 2008. “Harry H. Laughlin.”  Available at <http://library.truman.edu/manuscripts/laughlinbio.htm>.

Vogel, Amy. 1995, “Regulating Degeneracy: Eugenic Sterilization in Iowa, 1911-1977.” Annals of Iowa 52, 2: 119–43.

Waddington, Lynda. "At a glance: Iowa's four historic mental health institutions". Available at http://iowaindependent.com/19481/at-a-glance-iowas-four-historic-mental-health-institutions.

Wikipedia. "Cherokee Mental Health Insitute". Available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cherokee_Mental_Health_Institute

Wikipedia. "Clarinda Treatment Complex". Available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clarinda_Treatment_Complex

Wikipedia. “Glenwood Resource Center” Available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glenwood_Resource_Center

Wikipedia. “Iowa Institution for Feeble-Minded Children.” Available at < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iowa_Institution_for_Feeble-Minded_Children>.

Wikipedia. "Mount Pleasant Mental Health Insitute". Available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Pleasant_Mental_Health_Institute.