Number of Victims

There were no official sterilizations in Ohio and therefore there is no register for the number of people sterilized.  Nonetheless, Paul (p. 587) discusses a case where the sterilizations of feebleminded was carried out without a law, and given the widespread use of eugenics in many areas and the five attempts made by Ohio to pass a sterilization law, there may have been informal sterilizations carried out. 

Passage of Law

Although Ohio never had an official sterilization law, this does not seem to be for lack of interest in the state.  There were five attempts to bring a sterilization statute to the law books in Ohio from 1915 to 1963 (surprising as almost all states that had laws had stopped sterilizing by the sixties).  The closest any of the laws got to passage was a 1925 law that passed both houses but was vetoed by Governor Alvin Victor Donahey.  Two bills in 1939 didn’t make it out of committee.  The 1963 bill, probably one of the last attempts by a state in the US to pass such a measure, died in committee as well (Paul, pp. 592-93).

Groups Identified in the Law

The several would-be laws that were debated in the Ohio legislature vary somewhat in targets.  They generally targeted the “feebleminded” and “epileptics”; a 1925 attempt also targeted criminals and “other male defective inmate(s)” that were confined in Ohio hospitals and prisons.  The final provision targeted the “mentally deficient” or “feeble-minded” (Paul, pp. 592-93).

Precipitating Factors and Processes

One controversy that existed even before Indiana had passed the first eugenic sterilization law was that of euthanasia.  In 1906 the Ohio State House held a debate over the relative merits and justice of a bill that would have sanctioned physician-assisted suicide.  Opponents of the bill won an overwhelming victory 72-22 against the measure, but nonetheless it was another aspect of the fight over what power humans have over each other’s lives in the most intimate sense.  Activist Hannah S. Hall had managed to garner the support of many physicians and at least some lawmakers show that not everyone in Ohio rejected this sort of measure (Appel, pp. 617-18, 625).

One interesting factor that helped keep eugenics in Ohio at least in the background was the presence of the prominent eugenicist Henry Goddard.  In 1908 Goddard brought Alfred Binet’s intelligence tests to the United States, which provided the foundation for IQ testing in the US.  In Ohio in the early 1900s Goddard argued that defective children should be segregated during their entire reproductive lives to prevent them from spreading their kind, and attempted to open a segregation colony for such children.  This attempt was thwarted, as was the 1915 law that would have gone one step further than Goddard to the sterilization defectives (Ryan, pp. 256, 259). 

In spite of this legal defeat eugenicists did not stop in their attempts to spread their ideas in Ohio, as evinced by the publishing of such books as The Greatest Problem of the Race-Its Own Conservation, which compared bad breeding to World War One in damage to society (Jones, pp. 3-4).  This book praised the effects of institutionalization for the care and prevention of reproduction of defectives (p. 52), and presses for more awareness of “genetics” (in that one should make sure potential mates don’t have hereditarily deleterious traits).  More than just benignly discussing education (the stated goal of the work) the book makes such statements as

law makers should recognize the universal law of heredity, and the people should be educated to support them in any reasonable legal restraints which may be thrown around the marrage (sic) of people whose offspring are bound to be public charges…there should be a Commission of competent men and woman appointed in every state to study this great problem, and devise means to eliminate the sources from which our insane and defective classes spring (Jones, pp. 3-4). 

It is thus apparent that the eugenicists did not give up their goal of winning over Ohio, even if they did not speak explicitly in favor of sterilizing those who were supposedly overrunning Ohio with defectives. 

Another factor keeping Ohio in eugenicists' sights was the studies done on defective families in Ohio.  These studies were carried out to attempt to prove that various forms of antisocial behavior were inherited.  Two such studies carried out on Ohio families include “The Family of Sam Sixty” by Mary Kostir in 1916 and “The Feeble-Minded in a Rural County of Ohio” by Mina Session.  Both of these women were graduates of Davenport’s Eugenics Records Office training program at Cold Spring Harbor (Rafter, p.  20) and produced pedigrees supposedly proving that these families were spreading (or at least capable of spreading) bad genes throughout the population. 

The 1963 sterilization push was sparked by a judicial move, namely the decision in the spring of 1962 by Zanesville Probate Court Judge Holland M. Gary to sterilize three women, including Nora Anne Simpson, whose case was widely discussed.  Simpson had not only given birth to an illegitimate child, but the baby was deemed "feebleminded".  Simpson's mother wanted to put the child in an institution to be taken care of because she was the only one who was caring for the child at this point.  The judge understood that there were no sterilization laws in Ohio at this point.  The judge understood that there were no anti-sterilization laws either.  The court stated that "because of the combination of normal physical appearance and serious mental limitation, this girl [Simpson] is likely to become pregnant repeatedly..." (Paul, p. 588).  In addition to the court's statement about Simpson's appearance and mental capabilities, both she and her mother admitted to Simpson's promiscuity thus the family attempted to have her put in a facility for her own protection.  As the quota for feebleminded commitments had been filled in Ohio and there was a long waiting list, Gary took a fairly radical step and assumed judicial eugenic powers.  Invoking a law allowing the judge to use personal discretion in dealing with feebleminded individuals who could not be received in the hospital, he decided that sterilization could be counted as necessary for ameliorating Simpson’s situation in the interim.  When the public first heard news of Judge Gary's predicted ruling for the Simpson case it sparked a great deal of controversy in Ohio about the judiciary usurping power that had usually been the purview of legislative laws.  Judge Gary let the case sit for a month before he finished his ruling in order to let the public relax and forget about Nora Anne Simpson.  The month was a waste of time because Judge Gary was still going to rule in the same way; Simpson's parents gave consent to the sterilization, and even Simpson's lawyer did not make a case against sterilization.  Shortly thereafter, the 1963 attempt was made to pass a sterilization law, the first in over two decades (the last two sterilization bills had died in committees in 1939).  Although Judge Gary and others supported the bill, it was killed in committee.  Even though the law was never passed, Judge Gary was still able to commit three women to be sterilized in 1962, including Simpson (Paul, pp. 587-593).

With Judge Gary's precedent in place, Judge Charles H Freehafer ordered the sterilization of two young women in early 1966.  Both girls had been deemed feebleminded, were pregnant, and cared for by their mother, who asked doctors to "protect" her daughters against further pregnancy.  The doctors were concerned about the legality of such an operation, and so approached Judge Freehafer, who, after hearing testimony and obtaining written consent of the mother, okayed the sterilization of the young women (Paul, pp. 597-597A).

Other Restrictions Placed on those Identified in the Law or with Disabilities in General

In 1925 a bill was put forth in the Ohio legislature to ban interracial marriage. This bill, however, did not pass the legislature and died in committee (see Giffin, p. 168). As early as 1904, Ohio had a marriage law that excluded a “habitual drunkard, epileptic, imbecile, or insane” person from obtaining a marriage license (see Department of Commerce and Labor, p. 244).

Major Proponents

Picture of Henry H. Goddard (Photo origin: http://psychology.wikia.com/wiki/Henry_H._Goddard)
Henry H. Goddard (1866-1957) was one of the most prominent eugenicists in American the early 1900s.  He is famous for bringing the Binet tests to the United States, where they inspired a wave of IQ testing that was supposed to root out those with various levels of feeblemindedness.  The Binet test was originally supposed to be used in order to figure out which children might need more or less help in the classroom (Gould, pp. 176-208).  Alfred Binet, the inventor of the test, declared that the test could not determine if one was "feebleminded" but when Goddard brought it to America, translated it to English and changed the name to Intelligence Quotient (I. Q.), the test was used against children and families.  Goddard and others used I.Q. testing to deem one "unfit" and thus eligible for sterilization.  Goddard was also known for his work in 1912 on the "Kalikak Family: a Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness".  Goddard decided to start investigating one woman's heredity (who was housed at Goddard's institution) because he wanted to see how certain traits were passed down from generation to generation, with a focus on moral values (Gould, pp. 176-208). Goddard worked within Ohio to try to begin a program of segregation of those whose bad inheritance supposedly needed to be kept out of the wider gene pool, though his attempts at segregating children were thwarted (Ryan, pp. 256-59).


Various elements within and outside of the professional world opposed Ohio’s various moves toward eugenic policies.  Rupert Hastings, for instance wrote rebuttals of Goddard’s ideas and as the superintendent of the institution Goddard was trying to use to establish his colony had the power to put an end to his sexual segregation facility (Ryan, p. 259).  Religious and disability groups also opposed Ohio’s sterilization measures:  The Ohio Association for Retarded Children, Inc. passed a resolution strongly opposing the 1963 bill, and during the hearing process Reverend Leopold Bernhard gave a speech against the bill, warning of how such power could be abused in the hands of the state (Paul, pp. 593-95).  After Judge Gary made the ruling for the three women to be sterilized, he encountered much opposition and found himself under attack.  One man wrote, "...sterilization is a drastic measure imposing permanent incapacity and is hardly warranted in a situation that is but the temporary concern of the court.  This is especially true when reasonable alternatives such as closer parental supervision, juvenile probation, or private psychiatric care could be implemented while commitment proceedings are pending," (Paul, p. 591).  Some believed that true consent was not given, however Judge Gary had a different idea about what consent meant: "...in the matter of consent we would try to get consent in each case, but if consent were not given, it would be proper to proceed with the order, provided due service had been given to the next of kin," (Paul, p. 592).  Even though many people did agree with Judge Gary and wished for the sterilization laws to pass, more people disagreed and are the reason why there was never a sterilization law in the state of Ohio.


Appel, Jacob M. 2004. "A Duty to Kill? A Duty to Die? Rethinking the Euthanasia Controversy of 1906." Bulletin of the History of Medicine 78, 3: 610-34.

Giffin, William Wayne. 2005. African Americans and the Color Line in Ohio, 1915-1930.  Athens: Ohio State University Press.

Gould, Stephen Jay.  1981.  The Mismeasure of Man.  New York City: W. W. Norton & Company. 

Department of Commerce and Labor. U.S. Bureau of the Census. 1909. Marriage and Divorce, 1867-1906. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.

Jones, J. W. 1917. "The Greatest Problem of the Race-Its Own Conservation."  Ohio Board of Administration. Columbus, Ohio. 

Paul, Julius. 1965.  "'Three Generations of Imbeciles Are Enough': State Eugenic Sterilization Laws in American Though and Practice."  Unpublished Manuscript.  Washington, D.C.: Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

Rafter, Nicole H., ed. 1988. White Trash: The Eugenic Family Studies, 1877-1919. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Ryan, Patrick J.  2007.  “’Six Blacks from Home’ Childhood, Motherhood, and Eugenics in America.”  Journal of Policy History 19, 3: 253-281