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 major period of sterilizations occurred from the 1948-1951 (Paul, p. 359).


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. 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 and allowed for the directors of the mental institutions to determine whether or not an inmate ought to be sterilized (Laughlin, p. 21).  It was soon repealed and replaced by a second law, enacted in 1913 (Laughlin, p. 22).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).


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 (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

Very little is known about such places. The following information is based on Laughlin’s list of early sterilizations performed in Iowa (p. 65, 143) and on the information concerning institutions whose directors and superintendents reported to the State Eugenics Board.


The State Psychopathic Hospital in Iowa City closed in 1991 (Medical Museum).


The Institution for Feebleminded Children at Glenwood is now called the Glenwood Resource Center (Wikipedia).


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.

Fort Madison State Penitentiary (Laughlin, p. 143) is located at Avenue E & 1st Street in Fort Madison, Iowa and is currently used as a prison.  It also offers vocational training, substance abuse help, and basic education classes (Iowa Department of Corrections).


The Clarinda State Hospital was Iowa’s third insane asylum. It is also known as Clarinda Asylum for the Insane, Clarinda Mental Health Institute, and Clarinda Treatment Complex.  The facility is still used today for human and correctional services and contains a museum of the hospital’s past as well (Kirkbridge, “Clarinda”). 


The Independence State Hospital, originally known as the Iowa Asylum for the Insane, was the location of 4 total sterilizations.  Today, it functions as a psychiatric institute as well as a nurses’ training school and is called The Mental Health Institute.  The website used for this research does not mention the hospital’s past involvement in the sterilization of specific groups of Iowa citizens (Kirkbridge, “Independence”).


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

The Cherokee State Hospital was Iowa’s fourth asylum, and was also known as the Cherokee State Hospital for the Insane and the Cherokee Mental Health Center.  A portion of the building is currently a hospital, while another part serves as a prison (Kirkbridge, “Cherokee”).


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. 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 (Iowa Department of Corrections).


The websites on these sites consulted for this research did not address this part of history.



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). 


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

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.

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. 

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