Number of victims

In total, 7325 individuals were sterilized in Virginia under its sterilization law. Of those sterilized about half were deemed “mentally ill” and the other half deemed “mentally deficient.” Approximately 62% of total individuals sterilized were female. Some estimate the total number of sterilizations as high as 8,300 individuals (Dorr 2006, p. 382).


Period during which sterilization occurred

Sterilization in Virginia occurred under state law between 1924 and 1979. It thus appeared to have continued such sterilizations longer than any other state (Landman 1932, pp. 83-4; Largent 2008, p. 80). There are known instances of eugenic sterilization before 1924 (Dorr 2008, p. 116).


Temporal pattern of sterilization and rate of sterilization

Picture of a graph of eugenic sterilizations in Virginia

Although Virginia formally adopted a sterilization law in 1924, sterilization was not practiced widely until after the United State Supreme Court ruling against Carrie Buck in 1927. This ruling set a precedent on the legality of sterilization not only in Virginia but also throughout the nation. During the 1930’s, immediately after this Supreme Court ruling, sterilization in Virginia occurred at its highest rate with approximately 13 sterilizations per 100,000 state residents. A 1938 report stated that 632 of the first 1,000 patients sterilized had been paroled, and that 812 of the same group were from impoverished families (Trent 1994, 217). After the 1930’s – prior to, during, and following WWII – sterilization initially decreased and thereafter maintained a fairly constant rate. After this, sterilization rates dropped dramatically until the practice faded out and then was subsequently forced out of practice with the repeal of the 1924 act in 1974 and the additional removal of all mention of eugenic sterilization to prevent “hereditary forms of mental illness that are recurrent” from being passed on from Virginia code in 1979 (Dorr 2008, p. 221, Lombardo 2008b, p. 250). Compulsory sterilizations for non-eugenic purposes continue today, but under very strict regulations. A compulsory sterilization patient must be unable to give informed consent, in need of contraception, unable to use any other form of contraception, and permanently unable to raise a child (Lombardo 2008b, p. 267).


Passage of law(s)

On March 20, 1924, Virginia SB 281, the “Eugenical Sterilization Act,” was signed into law (Landman 1932, pp. 83-4).


Groups identified in the law

Under the Eugenical Sterilization Act, individuals confined to state institutions “afflicted with hereditary forms of insanity that are recurrent, idiocy, imbecility, feeble-mindedness or epilepsy” could be sterilized (Landman 1932, p. 84).


Process of the law 

In order for a sterilization to take place under the 1924 Eugenical Sterilization Act the superintendent of a colony or hospital had to present the case for each individual to be sterilized in the form of a petition to a special board of directors at said institution. A copy of this petition was also required to be presented to the patient and the legal guardian of the patient. Thirty days after the board deemed an individual fit for sterilization, the sterilization was permitted to occur. Appeals were heard but rarely considered. No individual involved in this process could be held civilly or criminally liable. Additionally, nothing in the Eugenical Sterilization Act could prevent a legally licensed doctor from partaking in a medical procedure that could “incidentally involve the nullification or destruction of reproductive functions” (SB 281, Virginia Sterilization Act; (Landman 1932, p. 84).


Precipitating factors and processes
The white, Virginia elite of the time was immersed in the idea of perpetuating and protecting the purity of the “American race” (i.e., Anglo-Saxon Whites). This socioeconomic elite group wanted to maintain their “traditional Southern identity” while also embracing modern progressive ideology. The eugenic movement offered an avenue to pursue both of these notions simultaneously. Through the embrace of eugenics as a progressive science and ideology, Virginians were able to modernize their identity while maintaining the purity of their state through the coerced sterilization of minorities and undesirable whites alike (Dorr 2000, p. 262). Often, “mongrels” and “worthless” whites were collected in “mountain sweeps.” This involved a sheriff of a nearby town driving into mountain villages and forcibly removing individuals and taking them to institutions where they would only be released upon submission to sterilization (Black 2003, pp. 3-8). More often than not these individuals were unaware of the consequences of the procedures that they underwent.


The sterilization of Virginia resident Carrie Buck is perhaps the most infamous case of sterilization in not only Virginia but also the United States as a whole. Buck was deemed “defective” and institutionalized in the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded four years after her mother was similarly institutionalized. Buck was classified as “feeble-minded” after giving birth to an illegitimate child as a result of rape by relative of her foster family.  Her daughter was subsequently deemed feebleminded at the age of 6 months.” Under accusations of hereditary defectiveness, Carrie Buck faced a series of trials and appeals used to legitimize her pending sterilization. She was defended by Aubrey Strode, a known supporter of sterilization, whose defense focused more on the potential benefits of Buck’s sterilization than the consequences (Lombardo 2008b, p. 136) Nonetheless, with the 1927 Supreme Court ruling in Buck v. Bell, sterilization was legitimized and Buck was consequently sterilized to prevent the birth of more “defective” individuals. It was said by Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Holmes that
“three generations of imbeciles are enough” (Lombardo 2003, pp. 2-4; Paul 1965, pp. 497-507).

On March 20, 1924 (the same day as the passage of SB 281, the “Eugenical Sterilization Act”) Virginia signed into law SB 219, the “Racial Integrity Act.” Under this piece of legislation it became “unlawful for any white person in [Virginia] to marry any [person] save a white person” (SB 219, Racial Integrity Act). The Racial Integrity Act garnered lots of public attention, allowing the Sterilization Law (written by Carrie Buck’s defense lawyer) to pass without much public notice (Lombardo 2008b, p. 100).

The Virginia sterilization law was paramount to the perceived legality of sterilization throughout the country. With the Carrie Buck Supreme Court case of 1927, the American eugenics movement gained the legitimacy necessary to avoid adversity in various courts (Paul 1965, p. 497). This ruling precipitated high rates of sterilization in Virginia and throughout the rest of the United States. This sterilization pattern continued throughout the first half of the twentieth century until rates began to decline in the mid-1950s (Paul, p. 504).  In both 1956 and 1962, bills were proposed that allowed for compulsory sterilization of women with multiple illegitimate children. Both bills failed (Lombardo 2008b, p. 242-243). Furthermore, with the issue of “Recommendation 6” of the Commission to Study Problems Relating to Children Born Out of Wedlock in 1959, compulsory sterilization was seriously questioned for the first time since its legalization (Paul 1965, pp. 504-6). Even in the presence of such concern, the 1961 report of the Virginia Advisory Legislative Council recommended no change to the sterilization statute because there had been “no substantial complaint” (Dorr 2008, p. 213). At this time every other state in the Nation, with the exception of North Carolina, had found reason to stop or slow sterilization (Paul 1965, pp. 506-9). Virginia enacted additional voluntary sterilization legislation in 1962 (Windle 1965, p. 307), which allowed women to volunteer to be sterilized as a birth control measure (Lombardo 2008b, p. 243). In order to qualify for voluntary sterilization, women needed to be married and to have obtained spousal consent. Virginia’s current law, enacted in the early 1980s, only allows for those with a need for contraception, who have no other options in obtaining it, to be sterilized. Patients can be sterilized involuntarily, but the process one must go through before gaining permission to involuntarily sterilize a patient is very protective (Lombardo 2008b, p. 267).


Groups targeted and victimized

To Virginians, there seemed to be little difference between the harm to society caused by minorities and the harm caused by undesirable whites. During the time of sterilization, twenty-two percent of those sterilized were African American. This is roughly proportionate to the twenty percent of the total population represented by African Americans. In Virginia, sterilization rates were fairly proportionate to population representation (Dorr 2006, pp. 381-3). For this reason a wide array of individuals became targets for sterilization, specifically “mongrels,” minorities and poor whites. “Mongrels” are those who were considered to be of non-white heritage. In the opinion of Virginia, non-white was defined as any individual with any ancestor of any race but Caucasian, excluding those with 1/16th or less Native American blood. Additionally, institutionalized females who worked outside of the institution were sterilized at a higher rate than others due to their perceived risk of promiscuous interaction with the “normal” public (Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, p. 4). After World War II, the numbers of men becoming sterilized increased due to ex-soldiers’ mental problems and alcoholism (Brocato 2008, p. 113).

After Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, racist eugenics became more prominent. The 1954 Supreme Court case brought a resurgence of racist eugenics called “Massive Resistance” to prevent desegregation (Dorr 2008, p. 196).

Racist eugenics once again came into discussion with the 1962 and 1964 proposed laws for punitive sterilization of welfare mothers with illegitimate children. There was some fear that African, Far eastern, Indian, and African American populations were expanding far more rapidly than others, and these proposed laws were in part to target such communities (Dorr 2008, p. 196, 211). Even with the voluntary sterilization law, there was some concern that a woman might consent to being sterilized if strongly advised by a physician to do so. This trust in physicians could have given them the power to influence women to undergo sterilization for ultimately eugenic purposes (Dorr 2008, p. 214).

Other restrictions placed on those identified in the law

On March 20, 1924 (the same day as the passage of SB 281, the “Eugenical Sterilization Act”) Virginia signed into law SB 219, the “Racial Integrity Act.” Under this piece of legislation to became “unlawful for any white person in [Virginia] to marry any [person] save a white person” (SB 219, Racial Integrity Act).


Major proponents 

 Picture of Albert Priddy  (Photo origin: University of Virginia Health Systems' Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, available at http://www.hsl.virginia.edu/historical/eugenics/3-buckvbell.cfm)

Pictured above is Albert Priddy, the Superintendent of the Virginia Colony for the Epileptic and Feebleminded in Lynchburg, Virginia. Priddy was an adamant supporter of the institutionalization of poor, unfit White Virginians deemed “feeble-minded” by the state. As Superintendent, Priddy used his power to begin sterilizing individuals at his own whim before the passage of the Eugenical Sterilization Act of 1924. Between 1916 and 1917, he sterilized an estimated 80 women, not all of whom were diagnosed as mentally defective (Brocato 2008, p. 108).   In 1917, he was sued for the wrongful institutionalization and sterilization of a woman named Willie Mallory in Mallory v. Priddy. Priddy won the case, but not without learning the perils of neglecting to follow protocol (Lombardo 2008b, p. 64- 77).

After the 1924 act was passed, Priddy was a key proponent in the sterilization of a Virginia Colony patient, Carrie Buck, in order to test the strength of sterilization legislation and set a precedent of its legality. (The court case Buck v. Bell was originally Buck v. Priddy, however; Albert Priddy died before the case went into the appeals process and the Virginia Colony’s new Superintendent Dr. J.H. Bell replaced Priddy in the case during appeals.) Priddy’s power and eugenic ideology was a key factor in the success of eugenics throughout Virginia (Claude Moore Health Sciences Library).

While there were many major other proponents of eugenics and sterilization in Virginia, it is important to note the influence of Walter Plecker, the University of Virginia, and of the journal
Virginia Medical Monthly. Walter Plecker, in his role as State Registrar at the Bureau of Vital Statistics, intended to maintain the purity of the states white race by classifying all residents in the state of Virginia by their race to prevent any intermarriage through the threat of prosecution of those who dissented (Black 2003, pp. 165-70). It was under the great influence of Plecker and his racist rhetoric that the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 became law (Lombardo 1996, p. 9).

Additionally, the University of Virginia acted as a highly respected educational institution that pushed the thought and science of eugenics through research and education. In the words of Dr. H.E. Jordan, Dean of the Department of Medicine at the University of Virginia, “eugenics… will work the greatest social revolution the world has yet known… [for] it aims at the production and the exclusive prevelancy of the highest type of physical, intellectual and moral man within the limits of human protoplasm” (Claude Moore Health Sciences Library). Having a similar influence, the
Virginia Medical Monthly published medical reports from superintendents of various Virginia institutions as a method to increase the loathing toward those deemed feeble-minded while also spreading eugenics theory and practice. These proponents continued to condemn the  “unfit” to sterilization and with their continual insistence of the necessity of sterilization, public support grew (Noll 1995, p. 61).

“Feeder institutions” and institutions where sterilizations were performed

 Picture of the Hasley Jennings Building (Photo origin: University of Virginia Health Systems' Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, available at http://www.hsl.virginia.edu/historical/eugenics/3-buckvbell.cfm)

In Virginia, state hospitals and institutions were used both to institutionalize and to sterilize patients. Most infamous throughout Virginia is the Virginia Colony for the Epileptic and Feebleminded in Lynchburg, Virginia, which started as a place to house epileptics, who had previously been put into prisons with criminals (Lombardo 2008b, p. 13). Pictured above is the Hasley Jennings building at the Virginia Colony where many individuals, including Carrie Buck, were sterilized (Claude Moore Health Sciences Library). Its name has been changed to Central Virginia Training Center (CVTC; Noll 2005, p. 29).

While Steven Noll noted in a 2005 article that the CVTC does not address its role in the 1927 Buck v. Bell case (p. 39), it does so now with remarkable candor about its past on its website under "History" (http://www.cvtc.dmhmrsas.virginia.gov/feedback.htm). Its cemetery is open to the public; however, archival material is not maintained in a manner that permits public viewing (Noll 2005, p. 37).


Picture of the Western State Hospital (Photo origin: http://www.wsh.dmhmrsas.virginia.gov/images/photoofoldsite.jpg)

Patients were also sterilized the Western State Hospital in Staunton, Virginia under the supervision of Joseph S. DeJarnette. The hospital opened in 1825 as the Western Lunatic Asylum, but its name was changed in 1894 to the Western State Hospital. Western State was the second largest sterilization institution, after Lynchburg (Brocato 2008, p. 113). There is no mention of sterilization on any official webpages, but the Western State Hospital still functions as a psychiatric hospital.

Picture of Central State Hospital (Photo origin: http://www.gotghost.net/images/P3010134.JPG)

With less frequency, sterilization occurred at Virginia’s Central State Mental Hospital in Petersburg, which stopped treating intellectual disability patients in 1971, but continues as a rehabilitation facility under the name Central State Hospital.

Picture of rebuilt Eastern State Hospital (Photo origin: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_State_Hospital)

Sterilizations also took place at Eastern State Hospital in Williamsburg, which is still functioning and claims to be America's first psychiatric hospital, and at Southwestern State Hospital in Marion as well (Black 2003, p. 4). Now a museum, the original hospital built in 1773 has been rebuilt on excavated foundations.

Picture of Southwestern Lunatic Asylum (Photo origin: http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~asylums/marion_va/index.html)

Southwestern State Hospital, originally called  Southwestern Lunatic Asylum, is now called Southwestern Virginia Mental Health Institute. These institutions make no reference to their history in sterilization.



 In 2002, a marker was erected to commemorate those sterilized under the Virginia sterilization law. The marker was erected by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. The marker number is Q-28. It reads: “In 1924, Virginia, like a majority of states then, enacted eugenic sterilization laws. Virginia’s law allowed state institutions to operate on individuals to prevent the conception of what were believed to be “genetically inferior” children. Charlottesville native Carrie Buck (1906–1983), involuntarily committed to a state facility near Lynchburg, was chosen as the first person to be sterilized under the new law. The U.S. Supreme Court, in Buck v. Bell, on 2 May 1927, affirmed the Virginia law. After Buck more than 8,000 other Virginians were sterilized before the most relevant parts of the Act were repealed in 1974. Later evidence eventually showed that Buck and many others had no ‘hereditary defects.’ She is buried south of here” (Lombardo 2008a).

The location of the marker is 38° 2.202′ N, 78° 29.303′ W. It is located in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Preston Avenue (U.S. 250) 0.2 miles south of Grady Avenue (U.S. 250), on the left when traveling north. The approx. address is 800 Preston Avenue, Charlottesville, Virginia.



Opposition outside of the Catholic Church appears to have been minimal throughout Virginia. While Catholics opposed sterilization in any form because such mutilation is in direct violation of “Natural Law,” it seems that the strong Protestant, white supremacist ideology present throughout much of the South allowed for eugenic sterilizations to go nearly unquestioned (Windle 1965, p. 308). Very little information pertaining to the opposition to sterilization is available prior to Charles Windle’s case study on the passage of sterilization legislation in Virginia during the 1962 legislative session. During this session, a bill requiring the compulsory sterilization of women with more than one illegitimate child who is also receiving welfare benefits died in committee debate (Windle 1965, pp. 306-7). While the compulsory sterilization proposal failed, a voluntary sterilization bill during the same session passed by a large margin (Windle 1965, p. 307). It is important to note that this legislation was considered nearly forty years after sterilization was first legalized in Virginia and public opinion allowed for compulsory sterilization in 1924. Additionally, at the time these bills were considered, sterilization legislation was still on the books in Virginia. Even the Buck v. Bell case had little to do with any opposition to sterilization. Rather, this case was a ploy by eugenicists to set a nationwide standard of sterilization legality by taking appeals to the United States Supreme Court (Claude Moore Health Sciences Library). Moreover, Virginia is a traditionally agrarian state and sterilization legislation (when considered in 1962) was widely supported by individuals concerned with race relations and welfare in “poorer, nonurban areas with high proportions of nonwhites and of agricultural and manufacturing employment” (Windle 1965, p. 314). The number of sterilizations that continued to occur into the 1970’s is a testament to the stronghold of eugenic ideology throughout the state.




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