Number of Victims

There were at least 3,786 officially documented cases of sterilizations  in Michigan.  Of the 3786 cases, 74% of sterilizations were carried out on females and 26% on males. 440 sterilizations cases were carried out on people considered mentally ill, while 2927 were carried out on persons deemed mentally deficient. The remaining 419 were of neither--those considered “sexual deviants, epileptics or moral degenerates” (Paul, p. 375).  According to a study by the Human Betterment Foundation stated that 76% of the total sterilizations were performed on the feeble-minded, and 73% of all sterilizations were on women. Of the insane, 82% were women, and 72% of the feebleminded were female. In “the HBF category of others,” most of the women suffered from epilepsy, while “many of the men were presumably sex offenders” (Hodges, “Dealing with Degeneracy,” p. 187).

Period When Sterilizations Occurred

Sterilizations in Michigan occurred from 1914 through 1963 (Paul, p. 382). The vast majority of them occurred after the Michigan passed its last sterilization law in 1929.

Temporal Patterns which Sterilizations Occurred

Graph of sterilizations in Michigan

The initial number of sterilization in Michigan was relatively low for the first 10 years of its eugenic history.  The number peaked from the time period between 1928 and the end of 1932, when approximately 200 people per year were sterilized. During this period, the rate of sterilization was about 4 people per year per 100,000 citizens.The yearly number of sterilizations was fairly constant from the mid thirties to the mid fifties. Following 1953, the number of yearly sterilizations decreased significantly, with an average of 37 sterilizations per year (Hodges,  “Dealing with Degeneracy,” p.185).


Passage of Laws

In 1897, Michigan became the first state in the nation to propose eugenics legislation.  This bill called for the castration of certain types of criminals and "degenerates"; however, this legislation did not pass. 

 In 1913, Michigan adopted a forced sterilization policy which applied to “mentally defective or insane” in public institutions (Paul, p. 372; Laughlin, p. 28). Only one sterilization occurred before the Michigan Supreme Court system declared the law unconstitutional in the Michigan court case of Haynes v. Lapeer Circuit Judge. 

A new sterilization law was passed in 1923, which amended in 1925 and subsequently upheld in several court cases in 1925 and 1926 (Paul, pp. 372-3; Landman, pp. 71-2). Under the 1923 reimplementation of the 1913 law, x-rays were added to vasectomy and salpingectomy as specifically stated means of sterilization (Hodges, "Euthenics, eugenics," p. 148). The law was written by Burke Shartel, a professor of law at the University of Michigan (Randall 177). As Jeffrey Hodges has commented in his Master's thesis on eugenics in Michigan, Nazi Germany was not the first entity to contemplate the x-ray sterilization procedure (Hodges, "Euthenics, eugenics," pp. 41-2). 

 Another law was passed in 1929, which expanded the groups potentially subject to sterilization. It also included a new reference to a "more humane method of sterilization" (Landman, p. 73), which came to mean castrastration, of which by 1938 twenty had been performed, all on sex offenders (Hodges, "Euthenics, eugenics," pp. 41-2).


Groups Identified in the Law

Michigan's 1913 sterilization law pertained to the "mentally defective" and "insane." 

 The 1923 law was compulsory and voluntary and pertained to "idiots, imbeciles, and feebleminded, but the not the insane" (Paul, p. 372), and it was extramural in that it included not only patients in state institutions but also those at large (Paul, p. 372).

In 1929, the act was expanded to include, in addition to the previously included groups, the "insane and epileptic persons, ..., moral degenerates, and sexual perverts likely to become a menace to society or wards of the state" (see Hodges, "Dealing with Degeneracy," p. 141; Paul, p. 375).


Process of Law

The original 1913 law consisted of several sections and provided that the state of Michigan had the right to sterilize via a vasectomy or salpingectomy anyone with any of the preceding labels if there was a potential that this person could generate "mental defectives" as offspring. A board of surgeons and physicians would examine the "mental condition" of each patient in a a state institution to determine whether sterilization was necessary. 

 The 1923 law stipulated that the boards of state institutions providing social services (including those for the mentally disabled and ill) and penal, and correctional facilities, family members, and apparently even community members could petition a court for the sterilization of a person, upon which a panel of three physicians would be provide an opinion, which on demand (of the person to be sterilized) would then be considered by a six-person jury impaneled by the court. If a sterilization order came forth, it could be challenged by the person to be sterilized in an appeals process (Landman, p. 73). The amendment in 1925 allowed probate courts to hear sterilization request (Hodges, "Dealing with Degeneracy," p. 150).

 The expanded 1929 law provided that superintendents or wardens of state institutions could recommend to the board of such institutions and the state welfare commission the sterilization of a resident. The decision required written consent, but a probate court could dispense with the requirement of such consent (Landman, pp. 72-3).


Precipitating Factors and Processes

In Michigan and elsewhere, the proponents of eugenics were concerned with the well-being of the “millions unborn.” They thought of eugenics as the tool with which to create a race of strong, healthy individuals by weeding out the "unfit."  When the U.S. Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell set precedence for more lenient sterilization justifications, Michigan’s Supreme Court in turn reinterpreted its sterilization policy as an extension of its compulsory vaccination law, which precipitated an massive increase in sterilizations (Paul, p. 373).

Based upon the words of Dr. Randall, President of the Michigan State Medical society, conditions believed to be hereditary included “migraine, deaf mutism, color blindness, astigmatism, fragile bones, cases of phalangeal ankylosis....food idiosyncracies, polydactylism, blood groupings, hemophilia, famlial hemolytic jaundice or family jaundice, hereditary ataxia, Huntington’s chorea (10 generations), skin diseases with psoriasis, ichthyosis” (Randall 177). Randall proceeded to point out that, if physical deficiencies such as these can be passed down through generations, the same is possible of mental deficiencies. Steps such as more stringent immigration laws, the prohibition of inter-racial marriage, and general limits on marriage were steps that had already been taken to limit the spread of feeble-mindedness. This, however, “has often failed,” and Randall believed that further steps were necessary (Randall 177).

Randall continues, commenting on the success rate of sterilizations, as many opponents believe that it can “promote [the loss] of moral conduct”(Randall 179). Randall, however, offers a report from Dr. Wm. J Kay, Superintendant of Michigan Home and Training School, who said that of the 111 sterilizations, only 27 were returned to the institution based upon unsatisfactory home conditions or the inability to make a living. Of those individuals released from the institution, the facility had a full history of 70 of them. Of those 70, 11 had continuing actions of sexual delinquency, but the remaining 59 have no history of it (Randall 179).
Judge Clark E. Higbee, a judge of the Probate Court in Grand Rapids, Michigan, spoke at the Third Race Betterment Conference in Battle Creek, Michigan, claiming that “only the feebleminded are sterilized.” He also believed the sterilization of the insane to be unnecessary, as the insane and epileptics have the potential to contribute to society. It should be noted, that Higbee believed that manic depression to a form of insanity, so the term insane, by his standards, likely included conditions today considered mild (Higbee 180).


Groups Targeted and Victimized

African Americans living in Michigan may have had a four times greater chance of being sterilized than whites; the extant records do not allow for a definitive determination, however (Hodges, "Euthenics, eugenics," p. 59).  ther highly targeted people were poor families, which could be easily split up by a county judge and nomadic Native Americans from tribes such as the Ottawa (Sturm). 

In the records examined by Hodges, he found that "over twenty percent of the sterilization requests include a history of criminal offenses. Nearly half of the offenses listed were of a sexual nature. These sexual offenses ranged from indecent exposure to rape and murder. Homosexuality was also included as a deviant, illegal behavior. Though homosexuality was legally defined as a form of sodomy, cases of bestiality and worse were also extant. The most unusual case was a poor, physically deformed girl of 13, who had been repeatedly raped by uncles and other family member. Reportedly, she preferred intercourse with a 'large hunting do' the family owned. This file reveals the patient not so much as a victim, but as a repository of social evil. Through her weakness, her inability to prevent males from taking physical advantage of her, she supposedly represented a continuing temptation towards societal immorality. Rape, incest, and sodomy constituted evidence of her personal degeneracy, not society's inability to protect her from abuse" ("Euthenics, Eugenics," p. 68).

In a presentation at the Third Race Betterment Conference, Probate Judge Ruth Thompson spoke on the responsibility of parents to raise their children well and their responsibility for truant children. Thompson references the number of delinquent (160) and neglected (97) children out of the 20,350 enrolled in the county’s schools. Thompson states that, in the case of a delinquent child, discovering the mother’s maiden name and ancestry “is the key to the whole situation” (183). Several examples of children are given, most of them considered delinquent for stealing. A girl, Ethel, however, was a “sex offender,” and Thompson called this the fault of her parents (Thompson). 

Other Restrictions on the Disabled

In 1846 epileptics were barred from marriage in Michigan. This prohibition was elminated in 1962 (Paul, p. 389). 

 Jeffrey Hodges has commented on instances of "euthanasia" for infants in Michican: "Euthanasia of deformed and retardet newborns wa not unknown. In the hospital jargon of the times, they were 'set aside.' The were set aside, to live or die, while care was given to the mother....Deformed and retarded children were referred to as FLKs, funny-looking kids; their parents as FLPs" ("Euthenics, Eugenics," p. 36).

Major Proponents

Picture of John Harvey Kellogg (photo origin: Willard Library; available at http://www.willard.lib.mi.us/historical/bcphotos/individuals/images/h41_3981.jpg)

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, American entrepreneur and inventor of “Corn Flakes”, was an avid supporter of eugenics.  In 1911 he founded the “Race Betterment Foundation” at Battle Creek, Michigan.  As president the foundation held three conferences in 1914, 1915, and 1928. The foundation was mostly concerned influencing the people of Michigan to support positive eugenics programs in which citizens deemed to have beneficial traits were encourages to marry and have large families (EugenicsArchive.org). 


Picture of Victor C. Vaughan (Photo origin: The Vaughan Family Archive; available at  www.vaughan.org/bios/vcv/images/vcva2.jpg)

Victor C. Vaughan was another large supporter of eugenics in Michigan.  He first became famous as the dean of the University of Michigan's Medical School (Sturm).  However, he vocally supported a forced sterilization program, claiming it would lead to a more humane society and even benefit the victims of the sterilizations (Millikan). 

Serving with Kellogg on the state board of health, Vaughan and Kellogg were able to leverage the state legislators to pass a compulsory sterilization law in 1913, Vaughan later became president of the American Medical Society at Ann Arbor in 1914 (Sturm; Hodges, "Dealing with Degeneracy," chap. 4).

The Race Betterment Foundation

A photograph from the Third Race Betterment Conference. Pictured front and center is Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. (Photo origin: Proceedings of the Third Race Betterment Conference, January 2-6, 1928, Battle Creek, Michigan. Available through Vassar University)

The purpose of the Race Betterment Foundation, founded by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, who also ran the Battle Creek Sanitaium, as stated in the Proceedings of the Third Race Betterment Conference, are as follows: “To bring together a group of leading scientists, educators and others for the purpose of discussing ways and means of applying science to human living in the same thoroughgoing way in which it is applied to industry—in the promotion of longer life, greater efficacy and well-being and of race improvement” (Kellogg, p. ii). The President of this particular conference was C.C. Little, D.Sc., the President of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In a speech given at this conference, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg praised the advantages of “being a member of a good family” (Kellogg, p. 118). Kellogg says to maintain that “prize-winner” status, individuals should be examined by a family physician every 6 months, and should stay away from tobacco, alcohol, coffee and tea (Kellogg, p. 119).

“Feeder Institutions” and Institutions where Sterilizations were Performed

Picture of Oakdale Center for Developmental Disabilities Demolition (Photo origin: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=147638288602234)

In 1893 the Michigan Home for the Feebleminded and Epileptic was established, later known as the Michigan Home and Training School, Lapeer State Home and Training School, and the Oakdale Center for Developmental Disabilities. It was the place where the majority of sterilizations appear to have occurred, at least until 1937, and the majority of them on women (Hodges, "Euthenics, eugenics," p. 31).  It received children whose families could not longer care for their children during the Great Depression.  The city of Lapeer's largest business, it once employed 1060 people.  This institution closed down for good in 1992 and is in the process of being fully demolished (Sturm; Michigan Department of Environmental Quality; see also Edwards). 

In 2000, ABC investigated sterilization at the institution in Lapeer. In a 20/20 segment they interviewed Ted and Fred Aslin, two men who, along with 5 of their siblings, were institutionalized following the death of their father. Fred was determined to be a “feeble-minded moron” and “mentally defective” by his doctors, and was sterilized at age 18 in 1934. His brother Ted, his mother and 3 of his other siblings were also sterilized (Berman). The ABC crew also investigated the court papers at the Lapeer courthouse pertaining to sterilization cases. The testimonies of doctors were very uniform, and reasons for sterilization ranged from frequent masturbation, sexual deviancy, being an only child or one’s mother having had frequent miscarriages. Investigators were not able to find testimonies for Fred Aslin’s court case (Berman). More recently, Fred and Ted Aslin requested an official apology from the State of Michigan. They received one from the head of Michigan institutions, filmed by ABC, but that was not enough. The Secretary of Defense then sent a General to replace Fred Aslin’s damaged purple heart. Ironically, Ted Aslin was licensed to become a foster father, and fostered over 100 children, despite having been determined unworthy of caring for children and being sterilized. Both Fred and Ted adopted children (Berman).

Hodges (
"Euthenics, eugenics," p. 31) mentions the Michigan Farm Colony for Epileptics, in Wahjamega/Caro, as the location of a small number of sterilizations. It was also called the Caro State Home for Epileptics, Caro State Hospital, Caro Regional Mental Health Center, and a few buildings still appear to be used today (Rootsweb.org).

Ionia State Hospital for the Criminally Insane (Photo origin: http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~asylums/ionia_mi/index.html)

Another sterilization institution included the Ionia State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, which is now used as a correctional facility (Ionia County). 

Picture of Michigan State Prison (Picture origin: Jackson District Library, available at < http://jackson.lib.mi.us/gallery/v/buildings/PA_FULL_24.jpg.html>)

Another is the Michigan State Prison at Jackson, which was once the largest prison in the world.  In 1997 it was renovated and reopened as the Southern Michigan Correctional Facility. The facility officially closed in 2007 (Michigan Department of Corrections).

 The University Hospital in Ann Arbor was another location where sterilizations occurred (Sturm; Hodges, "Euthenics, eugenics," p. 33). A Human Betterment Foundation (HBF) survey, states that in 1939, 132 individuals were sterilized in Ann Arbor, 89% of whom were women (Hodges, “Dealing with Degeneracy,” p. 187).

None of the institutions make reference to their role at sterilization institutions on their websites. 



Eugenics theories had much opposition in the early 1900's in Michigan's scientific community. Many scientists refuted the principle that pure-bred organisms have a competitive advantage over hybrids.  They looked to the competitive success of genealogically diverse corn over pure-breeding corn. In addition, by 1910, Hardy and Weinberg proposed their evolutionary equilibrium model which demonstrated that sexual sterilization in the short term would not greatly alter the gene frequency of heritable traits (Sturm). When the 1929 Michigan sterilization law was passed, Jeffrey Hodges notes, "the Catholic church's opposition had not concretized at this point" (Hodges, "Dealing with Degeneracy," p. 154). In the 1960’s medical research proved that much of the defects doctors thought were genetic turned out to be linked to ground and water toxins (Hodges, "Euthenics, eugenics," pp. 106-7). 



Berman, Thomas. 2000. “Breeding Better Citizens.” ABC 20/20 special. Aired 3/22/2000.

Edwards, Jen. 2010. "Lapeer State Home (Oakdale)." Available at http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=147638288602234

EugenicsArchive.org. “Eugenics Organizations.” Available at <http://www.eugenicsarchive.org/html/eugenics/static/themes/19.html>.

Higbee, Clark E. 1928. “Sterilization Approved by Intelligent People of Every State.” Proceedings of the Third Race Betterment Conference, January 2-6, 1928, Battle Creek, Michigan.

Hodges, Jeffrey Alann. 2001. "Dealing with Degeneracy: Michigan Eugenics in Context." Ph.D. dissertation in history, Michigan State University.
Hodges, Jeffrey Alan. 1995. "Euthenics, Eugenics and Compulsory Sterilization in Michigan, 1897-1960." Master's thesis, Dept. of History, Michigan State University.

Ionia County MIGenWeb. “Michigan State Prisons in Ionia County.” Available at <http://ionia.migenweb.net/history/prisons.htm>.
Kellogg, John Harvey. 1928. “Purpose.” Proceedings of the Third Race Betterment Conference, January 2-6, 1928, Battle Creek, Michigan.

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.

Michigan Department of Corrections. “Southern Michigan Correctional Facility (JMF) Closed November 17, 2007.” Available at <http://www.michigan.gov/corrections/0,1607,7-119-1381_1388-5357--,00.html>.

Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. "Lapeer County." Available at <http://www.michigan.gov/deq/0,1607,7-135-3304-98476--,00.html>.

Millikan, Arikia. 2008. “A Dark Medical History.” The Michigan Daily. Available at <http://www.michigandaily.com/content/arikia-millikan-dark-medical-history>.

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.

Randall, H. E. 1928. “The Sterilization of Feeble Minded in Michigan.” Proceedings of the Third Race Betterment Conference, January 2-6, 1928, Battle Creek, Michigan.

Rootsweb.org. "Caro Center." Available at <http://freepages.history.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~byram/asylums/caro_mi/>.

Sturm, Daniel. 2004. “Living with the Legacy of 'Racial Hygiene' in Michigan.” Lansing City Pulse 3, 22. Available at <http://www.lansingcitypulse.com/lansing/archives/040114/040114cover.html>

Thompson, Ruth. 1928. “The Delinquency of Parents.” Proceedings of the Third Race Betterment Conference, January 2-6, 1928, Battle Creek, Michigan.