Passage of Laws

Missouri tried multiple times to pass a sterilization measure.  In 1929 Representative George E. Ballew wrote and pushed for House Bill No. 290, which would have called for the sterilization of various groups considered undesirable.This measure failed in the House 62 to 53. A second attempt failed in 1931 by a vote of 73-47, and subsequent attempts in 1933, 1935, and 1937 all failed (Lael et al., pp. 97-98).

Groups Identified in the Law

The several laws Missouri attempted to pass varied in their targets, and often changed during the legislative process. The 1929 law originally targeted various criminals: those “convicted of murder (not in the heat of passion), rape, highway robbery, chicken stealing, bombing, or theft of automobiles” (Paul, p. 570). In subsequent legislative wrangling it was modified to target “persons convicted or rape, incest or sodomy, habitual criminals or imbeciles, or idiots or incurable insane persons, or persons afflicted with incurable venereal diseases, or incurable epileptics.” The 1931 attempt seems much more vague, targeting “inmates of state institutions in certain cases.” The 1933 law actually called for the “voluntary sterilization of citizens not in any institution of the state, who if not sterilized would probably procreate children with a strong tendency to physical, mental, or nervous disease or deficiency, and would probably become wards of the state and a menace to society” (Lael et al, pp. 97-98).  Thus, Missouri targeted the usual gamut of “mental deficients” seen in sterilization measures that actually passed in other states, with some extra additions for various criminal groups as well as homosexual men.  Paul (p. 570) remarks that the original version 1929 law would probably have been struck down as unconstitutional by the courts due to violation of equal protection of the law in the case of those who commit premeditated murder (not in the heat of passion).

Precipitating Factors and Processes

By the time Missouri was attempting to pass a sterilization measure in 1929 it was already considerably behind the curve compared with many states in the nation. By the time Missouri voted on its first sterilization bill Indiana had already passed a sterilization law (1907), had it struck down in court (1921), and passed a new law (1927) (Baldanzi et al.) and 19 states had already sterilized a total of 8,515 people. There had already been calls in Missouri for a law to prevent certain “mental defectives” from breeding by some such as M. O. Biggs, superintendent of the Fulton asylum. In a report to the general assembly he asserted that there was a consensus that epileptics, the feebleminded, imbeciles, and other mental defectives shouldn’t breed (Lael et al., p. 96).

The 1929 effort may have been spurred on by the 1927 U.S. Supreme Court Case Buck v Bell, where the high court held that the sterilization of certain groups such as the mentally retarded could be considered to be in the public good, and as such was permissible. This precedent made eugenicists all over the nation breathe easier as they now had at least one branch of the federal government on their side (Lantzer and Stern, p. 11). Whatever impetus this may have given to those favoring eugenics in Missouri it was not enough to help them overcome skeptics in the state legislature, not in the recent aftermath of Buck v Bell in 1929 nor in subsequent attempts at legislation in the 1930s.

Major Proponents

Throughout the years many men took up the eugenics standard in Missouri. The original law was written by George Ballew. William Smith, chairman of the Public Health Committee led the 1931 attempt. The 1933 law was proposed by representative William Weakley, who to no avail called for at least a voluntary sterilization measure to stop the spread of those who “would probably become wards of the state and a menace to society” (Lael et al., pp. 97-98).

Harry Laughlin, perhaps the greatest advocate for sterilization in the United States taught at the State Normal School in Kirksville, Missouri (Largent, pp. 56-57). It was through this teaching post that Laughlin came into contact with Charles Davenport, another powerful man in American Eugenics. Davenport actually enrolled in Laughlin's summer course on animal breeding and heredity. Eventually this relationship led Davenport to invited Laughlin to become the director of the Eugenic Records Office in Cold Spring Harbor, New York (Largent, p. 56).


The success of legislators arguing against the passage of a sterilization law in Missouri is particularly interesting because such individuals pointed out the flaw of many of the sterilization laws, the failure to question harshly the scientific validity of heredity. The individuals that were frequently targeted by sterilization laws were often those considered "feeble-minded" or with some level of intellectual impairment and proponents espoused heredity as a proven biological mechanism. Their understanding of heredity, however, was extremely crude and did not properly reflect how heredity actually functions. During the campaign to pass a sterilization law in 1929 J. H. Landman cited "the height of ignorance concerning hereditary" as a vital reason to prevent the implementation of compulsory sterilization in Missouri (cited in Paul, p. 570).


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

Lael, Richard L., Brazos, Barbara, and McMillen, Margot Ford.  2007.  Evolution of a Missouri Asylum:  Fulton State Hospital, 1851-2006.  Columbia: University of Missouri Press. 

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.

Largent, Mark A. 2008. Breeding Contempt: The History of Coerced Sterilization in the United States. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

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.