Eugenics/Eugenic Sterilizations in


Number of Victims

After the passing of Indiana's sterilization law, which stayed in effect between 1907 and 1974, about 2500 sterilizations were carried out in the state (Stern 2005, p. 99). Another source puts the total sterilizations within Indiana during same time period slightly lower at 2,424.(Paul 1965, p. 351). Further details from the same source reveal that the sterilizations performed between males and females were near parity: 1,167 males (48%) and 1,257 females (52%). These sterilizations were carried out among various Indiana institutions and out of the total sterilizations occurred about 1,751 of these people were considered mentally deficient and 667 mentally ill (Paul 1965, p.351). According to Stern, Dr.Sharp (see below) had carried sterilizations prior the passing of the states first sterilization law in April 1907 (Stern 2005, p. 98). These surgeries were carried in the Indiana State Reformatory on male inmates to “cure” masturbators, though possibly with eugenic intentions as well.  The estimates of those sterilized by Sharp vary, as do opinions of the voluntariness of the sterilizations.  Estimates of the numbers vary from 175 to 800 (Paul 1965, p. 342). According to Stern's book, its revealed that since 1899, Dr.Sharp had sterilized about 456 males at various state institutions in Indiana (Stern 2005, p. 98). The number from Stern's book Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America, fits into the range of 175 to 800 but the exact number still remains unknown as different sources give different totals. 

Period During Which Sterilizations Occurred

Sterilizations in Indiana officially started in 1907 with the world’s first eugenic sterilization law, but in 1909 a new governor, Thomas Marshall, soon put a stop to the process by threatening the funding of institutions that used the law (Paul 1965, p. 343), and the law was struck down in 1921 by the Indiana Supreme Court. The first sterlization law was struck down by the state supreme court due to violations to the Fourteenth Admentment (Stern 2005, p. 98).   A new law was passed in 1927 that cleared any pontential interpation of the law violating the fourteenth amdendment, and was on the books until 1974, though most sterilizations had already stopped by this time (Baldanzi et al.). There were several hundred prelaw sterilizations, taking place between 1899 and 1907, carried out on criminals in the Indiana State Reformatory, all vasectomies done on male prisoners (Paul 1965, p. 342).

Temporal Pattern of Sterilization and Rate of Sterilization 

Number of Sterilizations in Indiana

This graph illustrates the changing patterns of the rate of sterilization in Indiana. In the beginning period (1907-1930) and at the end (1960-1983) there were few sterilizations, but during some of the years between (mostly 1933-1950) there was a large number of sterilizations, with only a mild increase from 1950-60, after which there were very few.  For the period 1933 to 1950, a total of 1672 sterilizations were performed, which averages to 98 sterilizations per year.  The periods with the highest number of sterilizations were 1933-1938, when 443 people were sterilized, and 1944-1950, with 603 sterilizations.  In the 1933-1938 period about 90 people were sterilized per year, and the sterilization rate was about 3 people sterilized per 100,000 residents per year. The period 1944-1950 had a rate of about 100 sterilizations per year, and the sterilization rate per resident per year was also about 3 (StatsIndiana).

Passage of Laws

Indiana was the first state to pass a compulsory sterilization law, with the law coming into effect in 1907 (Stern 2007, p. 7).  After this law was struck down in 1921 by the Indiana Supreme Court, there was an attempt to pass a new sterilization law in 1925 which sought to reinstitute eugenic sterilization in Indiana through the creation of a state eugenicist, but this effort was defeated in the Indiana Legislature (Lantzer and Stern 2007, pp. 9-10).  Shortly thereafter, the legislature succeeded in passing a second law in 1927.  This law was expanded in 1931, and eventually repealed in 1974 (Baldanzi et al).

Groups Identified in the Law

The first law, in 1907,  targeted:  “’confirmed criminals’, ‘idiots’, ‘imbeciles’, and ‘rapists’” (Stern 2007, p. 9).  The second law, in 1927, was somewhat more limited, confined to the “’Insane’, ‘feeble minded’ or ‘epileptic’” (Stern 2007, p.29). There was thus a shift in emphasis, from the mentally ill and serious criminals to only the mentally ill.  Both laws were specifically designed to target those housed within state institutions, not those in the general population (Stern 2007, pp. 9, 29).

Process of the Law

The first law stated that state institutions containing targeted individuals (such as prisons, asylums, or reformatories), would appoint two surgeons to investigate candidates for sterilization in those institutions, and if they thought society would benefit from their not having children, the person would be sterilized.  The second law’s procedure was much less straightforward, a deliberate change to prevent the law from suffering the same downfall in the courts as its predecessor.  An institution’s superintendent would suggest a certain person be sterilized to the institution’s governing board.  The board would issue a notice to the inmate informing him/her of a hearing.  This hearing before the board of the inmate and/or a relative would determine if the candidate should be sterilized.  If the inmate or his/her family was dissatisfied with the ruling, then they could appeal to the court system.  This law was expanded in 1931 to empower county judges, with the approval of two physicians, to order the sterilization of the feebleminded and insane during their commitment procedure (Stern 2007, pp. 29-30).

Precipitating Factors and Processes

Indiana had one of the first practitioners of the vasectomy, Dr. Harry Sharp.  His revelations that vasectomies could be performed relatively cheaply and safely (the previous method of male sterilization had been outright castration) gave ammunition to eugenics advocates for the first law (Paul 1965, p. 344).  In one of the articles it points out that “it was not formulated de novo"(Stern, 2007, p.9).  Instead it represented the legalistic culmination of at least two decades of steady development of ideas about criminality, degeneracy, hyper-sexuality, and the primacy of heredity in determining personality and familial traits”.  When Indiana’s eugenic sterilization measures was passed, many considered it little more than just another aspect of society’s efforts to combat poverty and disease.  It was perceived that the “dregs of society” were reproducing themselves at a rapid rate compared to the rest of society, and it was vital to use all the tools at hand, including eugenic sterilization, to prevent those posing the greatest threat to the state from propagating those like themselves (Stern 2007, p. 13).  Extended family studies such as the Tribe of Ishmael, done in the late 19th century, supposedly proved that certain family groups were posing undue burdens on the state through irresponsible living and high birth rates (as such people were more likely to spend time in jail and be on public relief) (Stern 2007, p. 15).

Even after the first law was struck down for lack of due process, eugenics itself did not die in Indiana.  Better babies contests and eugenics presentations at county and state fairs helped maintain public interest in the ideas of human heredity (Stern 2007, p.22). In 1915 Governor Samuel Ralston created the Committee on Mental Defectives.  It worked throughout the period 1915 to 1924 (when there were virtually no sterilizations), doing family studies, assembling pedigrees, and publishing findings to try and keep interest in hereditary defectiveness alive.  Findings include the assertion that 2% (Fifty-six thousand persons in all) of Indiana residents were mentally defective, and these defectives could usually be found in isolated and rugged parts of the state, the exact same places where one found the rural poor (Lantzer and Stern 2007, pp. 7-9).

 Such findings as this helped to incite C.M.D. member and state senator C. Oliver Holmes to lobby for sterilization to return to Indiana.  He attempted to push a new law through in 1925, but this effort eventually failed in the State House of Representatives (Lantzer and Stern 2007, p. 9)  Holmes remained undeterred, and received a federal boost for his push for a new law in 1927 when the US Supreme Court decided the Buck v Bell case, supporting involuntary sterilization in Virginia.  In Buck v. Bell, the court ruled that the sterilization of Virginia woman Carrie Buck was in the public interest just like vaccination, and as such could be done against the will of the person being operated on.  This event was so important in legitimizing sterilization that Lantzer and Stern state that “the resurgence of eugenic sterilization in Indiana could not have taken place without one of the most famous and infamous US Supreme Court decisions, Buck v. Bell”  (p. 11).

One factor that led to the increased rates of sterilization seen in the 1930s was the Great Depression.  Budgetary constraints pushed institutions such as Fort Wayne to seek ways to parole inmates, and it was felt that inmates would pose less of a threat to the outside world were they unable to have children.  Thus, some inmates were sterilized so that they could be let go and not pose a burden on the state treasury (Stern 2007, pp. 30-31).

One other factor that should be mentioned in the popularity of eugenics is the social change that was sweeping Indiana in the early 1900s. What was once an overwhelmingly agricultural and rural state was gradually converting to a more urbanized, educated, scientific, and modern society. As some elements of Indiana’s society progressed, those who failed to do so were more and more obvious in their marginalization. The class differences between those who were investigated and those doing the investigations may have also played a role in the system classifying many of the rural poor “degenerate” (Stern 2007, p. 14; Lantzer and Stern 2007, p. 9).

Groups Targeted and Victimized

As seen in the law’s explicit statements, those with various degrees of mental disability were targeted for sterilization, though the rural poor often ended up as targets as well.  Poor whites from Kentucky and Tennessee were often singled out as disproportionately degenerate as well, especially those living in the back country (Stern 2007, p. 20).  These groups were not only outsiders, but had been left behind by the developmental forces sweeping Indiana in the early 20th century.  Their social stagnation could easily be characterized as due to innate inferiority compared to the rest of the state (Stern 2005, p. 13). Another group that was also targeted by Indiana's sterilization laws were the  Ishmaels, a local community whom lived in Indiana (Stern 2005, p.15). In Stern's book, its mentioned how Oscar Mcculloch, observes this tribe and concluded they were subhuman, referring them as "devil grass" since they were burdening the state of Indiana due to their way of living (Stern 2005, p. 16). The studies done on the group known as the Tribe of Ishmael by eugenic researchers helped show society why compulsory sterilization regulation was needed for degenerative families to preserve society and rid them of all defective traits (Deutsch 2009, p. 7).

The tribe of Ishmael was discovered by Oscar McCulloch, a minister for a local parish in Indianapolis, in 1876 (Deutsch 2009, p.26) during the many visits he made to the poor families around Indianapolis. The family he saw he described as "hardly human beings" (Deutsch 2009, p. 27). With descriptions like this describing the Tribe of Ishmael just upon first impressions, it is no wonder that eugenic researchers saw this family as an ideal case to justify their movement.

The naming for the tribe "Ishmael" by McCulloch had the intent to depict this poor community group as a threat to civilized society (Deutsch 2009, p. 5).  Intentionally labeling this group with an Arabic sounding name led some believe that this group Islamic, which was not true (Deutsch 2009, p. 5). The intentions were to differentiate the Ishmaels with this name when compared to their "white neighbors" because McCulloch found a lack of physical differences between these groups when trying to depict the Ishmaelites to the public (Deutsch 2009, p. 4). As for the composition of the Tribe of Ishmael, from McCulloch's studies depicted the group as poor whites who degenerated to become like Gypsies, Muslims and other races (Deutsch 2009, p. 56). This was essentially making the readers of McCulloch's studies actually believe that "urban whites" could devolve (Deutsch 2009, p. 7).  Not only did the composition of the group make society in during these times fearful of degenerative traits but also the behaviors and norms that were associated with the groups such as the Ishmaelites.

 The Ishmaels were composed of individuals and families from freed or escaped African slaves, Native American tribes and Europeans who had escaped indentured servitude (Carlson 2011, p. 15). It could be that form this diverse mix in the group of Ishmaelites unique norms and behaviors formed, which were seen as taboo by the rest of society. Ishmaelites wore colorful garments and embraced their norms within their culture (Deutsch 2009, p. 15). But all these clashed with norms from the lifestyle of mainstream society from that time (Deutsch 2009, p. 15). McCulloch depicted this group as a "parasitic race with a peripatetic lifestyle"(Carlson 2011, p. 16) and also viewed them as individuals who refused to improve themselves regardless of how much aide was given to them (Deutsch 2009, p. 7). Essentially believing that the Ishmaelites were draining society for resources just to survive. For example, studies done by James Frank Wright such as interviewing an individual called Kate Thorton (Deutsch p.82). Kate talked about her husband and mentioned how her husband stole and would often get drunk (Deutsch 2009, p. 82). Wright believed that almost every woman from the Ishmael tribe took part in prostitution (Deutsch 2009, p. 87). Wright also depicts many Ishmaelites as "raging alcoholics and drug addicts" (Deutsch 2009, p.86). Over the decades that followed the discovery of the Ishmael tribe, this group became to symbolize the "undeserving poor" whom were "physically and mentally degenerative (Deutsch 2009, p. 7).

The studies done by McCulloth and his associates made the Ishmael tribe as their primary evidences against the dangers of the growing epidemic of "feeblemindness" and other social problems (Duestch 2009, p. 7). This group was also used to convince US congress to implement the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924 to protect American Society from "degenerate" wishing to enter the US (Deutsch 2009, p. 7). Traits of the Ishmael tribe mentioned above is what eugenic researchers used to make their case of the requirements for compulsory sterilizations and also help politician in the state of Indiana to pass the 1st sterilization law in the country in order to "protect" humanity from degeneration. In 1933 the tribe of Ishmael and the findings based on this group were presented as examples of the dangers human society faced if individuals with "undesirable traits" were unregulated at the Eugenics exhibit at the Chicago World Fair (Deutsch 2009, p. 168). Pictures and Posters like the one below were used evidence to depict the Ishmaelites as an uncivilized community. Evidence presented at the World Fair depicted the community living style to the research done on family linage and the potential that community member of the Ismael tribe carried various defective traits.

Tribe of Ishmael chart (Photo origin: http://www.eugenicsarchive.org/html/eugenics/index2.html?tag=713)

Other Restrictions Placed on Those Identified in the Law or With Disabilities in General

One of the laws preceding the 1907 sterilization law was a 1905 law that forbade the “mentally deficient”, those with a “transmissible disease”, probably a reference to syphilis, or “habitual drunkards” from marrying (Stern 2007, p. 4). 

Major Proponents

Picture of Dr. Harry Sharp (Photo origin: Mary Washington College, Department of History and American Studies; available at http://www.umw.edu/hisa/resources/)

Dr. Harry C. Sharp was a pioneer in the use of vasectomies, originally for the purpose of curing sexual delinquency in inmates at the Indiana State Prison. Interesting enough Dr.Sharp was against castration method, viewing it as a punishment for the individual(Quiroz 2008, p. 27). The reasoning behind this was because Sharp believed that if the individuals were aware of their sterilty, then depression could settle in (Quiroz 2008, p. 27). Sterily in Sharp's mind would only become a punishment if it resulted in the removal of the gentalia or preventing enjoy sexual pleasure (Quiroz 2008, p. 27).  He lobbied the Indiana government to use sterilization to cure problems of mental deficiency and sexual deviance in Indiana, helping to get the 1907 law passed.  Sharp also attempted to spread his ideas through works such as Vasectomy, a pamphlet that touted his successes performing the operation on prisoners and called for more states to adopt sterilization laws (Stern 2011, p. 11).

Picture of Governor James Hanly (Photo origin: IN.gov; available at http://www.in.gov/history/4288.htm)

Governor James Frank Hanly was the governor of Indiana, 1905-1909, who signed the 1907 law authorizing involuntary sterilizations in Indiana.  Hanly was known for being “an anti-vice crusader and hard-line prohibitionist” (Stern 2005, p. 9), even so much so as to run for president for the Prohibition Party in 1916 (In.gov, "Hanly").  Hanly was also praised by Dr. Sharp, who stated that his administration “has been noted for its efforts at race purity and civic righteousness” (Sharp 1907, p. 179).  His biography in the Indiana state government website mentions nothing of the sterilization law.

C. Oliver Holmes was one of the prime figures responsible for bringing sterilizations back to Indiana.  In 1925, several years after sterilization had been ruled unconstitutional by the Indiana Supreme Court, Holmes attempted to pass a new bill granting wide powers to a state eugenicist.  This effort failed, but two years later he successfully pushed the law described above through the legislature.  He was also a member of the Committee on Mental Defectives, which investigated Indiana’s mentally ill, mainly in the years when sterilizations were not taking place (Lantzer and Stern 2007, pp. 9-10).

Feeder Institutions

Fort Wayne State School for Feeble Minded Youth

Picture of Fort Ways School for Feeble Minded Youth(Photo origin: IndianaCourts.com; available at http://www.in.gov/judiciary/citc/cle/eugenics/index.html)

The Fort Wayne State School for Feeble Minded Youth (located on East State Street in Fort Wayne, initially named the Indiana School for Feeble-Minded Youth, which opened in 1890), provided the vast majority of patients for sterilization (around 1,800 out of 2,424 total; Paul 1965, p. 351). However, Stern states the total number of sterilizations that occurred in the Fort Wayne institution were in fact lower:. just over 1,500, which was about 75% of the total sterilizations that were carried out in the state alone (Stern 2005, p. 99).  In 1954, due to dilapidation and overcrowding the location changed to Parker Place Farm and was renamed the Fort Wayne State Developmental Center. While the website was active prior to the institution's closing, the Fort Wayne facility’s website states nothing of its leading role in sterilizing Hoosiers. Although it closed in 2007 and the land given to the Department of Defense, the facility can be considered the heart of the eugenics movement in the state of Indiana (Muscatatuck).

Jeffersonville State Reformatory

At this institution in Jeffersonville, it is believed that Dr. Sharp started preforming vasectomies on "defective” male inmates as early as October 11 1899 (Quiroz 2008, p. 30). Different sources put the total sterilizations at the facility from as low as 175 to about 800 operations. After a fire in 1918, the grounds were sold to Colgage Company.

Picture of Muscatatuck Facility (Photo origin: http://idealab.tech.purdue.edu/muscatatuck/mg/building1/view.html)
Other important institutions where sterilizations might have occurred include the Muscatatuck Colony, in Butlerville (Stern 2007, p. 28). The Muscatatuck colony, also known as the Indiana Farm Colony for Feeble-Minded Youth, closed in 2005, due in part to decreasing demand for services for the mentally disabled in Indiana, though there were also allegations of abuse (Rosebrough 2005, p. 1).

Another locale of possible sterilizations (see Stern 2007, p. 28) are the the Logansport State Hospital for the Insane in Logansport and the Indiana Girls’ School, near Indianapolis, which is now a juvenile correctional facility. It appears that the Logansport State Hospital is still in operational (IN.gov, "Other Indiana Hospitals").

There are no official websites or histories for these sites.


After only two years of sterilizations with the 1907 law, Hanly’s successor Thomas Marshall, after receiving complaints from people sterilized against their will, decided to issue a moratorium on sterilizations.  In 1919 Governor James Goodrich sought to push the law through the court system, resulting in the case heard by the Indiana Supreme Court in 1921, Williams v. Smith.  Feeling that the lack of an option of appeal violated the 14th amendment’s due process clause, and that sterilizations were cruel and unusual punishment, the court struck down the sterilization law (Stern 2007, p.12).


In 2007, a marker was erected to commemorate those sterilized under the Indiana Sterilization Act. The marker was erected by the Indiana Historical Bureau, Indiana University, and Indiana University Foundation. The marker number is 49.2007.1 and reads: "By late 1800s, Indiana authorities believed criminality, mental problems, and pauperism were hereditary. Various laws were enacted based on this belief. In 1907, Governor J. Frank Hanly approved first state eugenics law making sterilization mandatory for certain individuals in state custody. Sterilizations halted 1909 by Governor Thomas R. Marshall." On the reverse: "Indiana Supreme Court ruled 1907 law unconstitutional 1921, citing denial of due process under Fourteenth Amendment. A 1927 law provided for appeals in the courts. Approximately 2,500 people in state custody were sterilized. Governor Otis R. Bowen approved repeal of all sterilization laws 1974; by 1977, related restrictive marriage laws repealed."

The exact location of the marker is 39 46.185′ N, 86 9.812′ W. It is located in Indianapolis, Indiana, in Marion County on North Senate Avenue on the East lawn of the Indiana State Library: 140 N Senate Ave, Indianapolis, Indiana.


Baldanzi, Jessica, Bulloff Elizabeth, Dragoo Brent, Fairfield Alicia, Hunter Claire, and Robbins Kyle.  “Eugenics in Indiana.” Available at  <http://www.kobescent.com/eugenics/>,

Bower, M. 2008. “The Historical Marker Database: 1907 Indiana Eugenics Law.” Available at <http://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=1829>.

Carlson, Elof Axel. 2011.  "The Hoosier Connection: Compulsory Sterilization as Moral Hygiene." In: A Century of Eugenics in  America: From the Indiana Experiment to the  Human Genome Era, ed. Paul Lombardo. Indianapolis. Indiana University Press,11-26.

Cotton, Gaylie.  2008.  “Logansport Correctional Facility Reactivated as a Male Juvenile Facility.” State of Indiana.  Available at <http://www.in.gov/idoc/files/loganreactiv.pdf>

Deutsch, Nathaniel 2009. Inventing America's Worst Family: Eugenics, Islam and the Fall and Rise of the Tribe of Ishmael. Berkeley: University of California Press.

"Fit to Breed: Eugenics in Indiana." IUPUI : Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Web. 28 Mar. 2011. <http://www.iupui.edu/~fit2brd/>.

Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement. Web. 28 Mar. 2011. <http://www.eugenicsarchive.org>.

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IN.gov. “Other Indiana Hospitals for the Mentally Ill and Developmentally Disabled.”  Available at <http://www.in.gov/icpr/2671.htm>.

Lantzer, Jason S. 2011. "The Indiana Way of Eugenics: Sterilization Laws 1907-1974." In: A Century of Eugenics in America: From the Indiana Experiment to the Human Genome Era, ed. Paul Lombardo. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 26-45.

Lantzer, Jason S., and Stern, Alexandra Minna. 2007. “Building a Fit Society: Indiana's Eugenics Crusaders.” Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History 19, 1: 4-11.

"Muscatatuck State Hospital Historical District." IDEA Laboratory. Purdue University.  <http://idealab.tech.purdue.edu/muscatatuck>.

Paul, Julius. 1965. “‘Three Generations of Imbeciles Are Enough’: State Eugenic Sterilization Laws in American Thought and Practice.” Unpublished manuscript. Washington, D.C.: Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

Quiroz, David Alexander 2008. "The Indiana Plan: Dr. Harry Clay Sharp and the Eugenic Sterilization of Criminals and Degenerates." Master's Thesis, Department of History, University of Houston.

Rosebrough, Dennis.  2005.  “Fort Wayne Developmental Center to Transition to Community-Based Settings.” Available at <http://www.fwsdc.com/press-release>.

Sharp, Harry.  1907.  “Rendering Sterile of Confirmed Criminals and Mental Defectives.”  Proceedings of the Annual Congress of the National Prison Association:  177-85.

StatsIndiana.  2002.  “Historic Census Counts for the U.S. and States (including District of Columbia) 1900 to 2000.” Indiana Universityy. Available at <http://www.stats.indiana.edu/population/PopTotals/historic_counts_states.html>.

Stern, Alexandra.  2005. Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Stern, Alexandra M. 2007."We Cannot Make a Silk Purse Out of a Sow’s Ear:  Eugenics in the Hoosier Heartland.” Indiana Magazine of History 103:  3-38. 

Stern, Alexandra. 2010 "Improving Hoosiers." Indiana Magazine of History 106 (2010): 219-23.