Number of Victims 

There were a total of 1,823 people on record who were sterilized (Paul, p. 546). Of those whom were sterilized, 79% were women and 99.5% were deemed mentally deficient.  Wisconsin was 11th in the nation for the total number of sterilizations performed.

Period During which Sterilizations Occurred

The state passed its first sterilization law in 1913, but sterilizations did not occur until 1915, when the first 76 were conducted at the Northern Wisconsin Center for the Developmentally Disabled (Goc, p. 40).  Legal sterilizations continued in Wisconsin until 1963 (Paul, 546).

Temporal Pattern of Sterilizations and Rate of Sterilization

Picture of a graph of eugenic sterilization in Wisconsin

While a relatively small number of people were sterilized through the late 1920s, the number of sterilizations increased in the 1930s and remained high until the end of World War II.  For this period, the average number of sterilizations was about 80 per year. There were approximately 3 sterilizations per 100,000 people per year.

Passage of Law(s)

On July 30, 1913 (Dowbiggin, p. 126), Governor Francis McGovern of Wisconsin enacted Chapter 693 (Lombardo, p. 47), a statute empowering the state to sterilize inmates of both mental and penal institutions (Painter) and to require the presentation of a medical certificate when applying for a marriage license (Laughlin, p. 345; “Health-Marriage and Sterilization Acts”).  Wisconsin was the 12th state to pass a sterilization law in the United States.  In 1955 the legislature eliminated epileptics from the law (Paul, p. 547). Involuntary sterilization remained legal until July 1978, when Chapter 428 of the Laws of 1977 outlawed the procedure (Goc, p. 41). Today, voluntary sterilization in Wisconsin is legal and does not require spousal consent. Doctors often refuse to sterilize persons below a certain age or with few children and there is strict opposition to the procedure in some hospitals (Lucey, p. 46).

Groups Identified in the Law

Groups specifically identified by the 1913 sterilization law are inmates of both mental and penal institutions (Laughlin, p. 12; Painter): “criminals, insane, feeble-minded, and epileptics” (“Health-Marriage and Sterilization Acts”).  Although these were specifically enumerated, those who were most likely to be sterilized were feebleminded people (mostly women) who were deemed to be sexually promiscuous (Paul, p. 548).

Process of the Law

Although the sterilization process is not detailed explicitly in the law and it contains no “procedural safeguards” (Paul, p. 540), the examining board did have to make a unanimous decision that sterilization was in the best interest of the individual and society as a whole (Laughlin, p. 12); they also had to agree that it was the “safest and most effective” way of curtailing the patient’s ability to reproduce (Painter, 2001).  After reports suggesting certain sterilizations were filed to the institution’s superintendant, that superintendant then had to make a recommendation to the Department of Public Welfare.  Subsequent to this action, a panel of experts (a surgeon and a scientist) would review the case and then begin ascertaining the consent of the person in question.  If consent was refused, the patient would not be forcibly sterilized; they would be kept institutionalized indefinitely (Paul, p. 542). Once sterilization was conformed, women received salpingectomies, whereas vasectomies were performed on male patients (Brown, p. 31). The law also restricted the amount of money that could be spent on sterilizations to two thousand dollars per year (Laughlin, p. 12).

The operating table at the Northern Wisconsin Center (The operating table at the Northern Wisconsin Center for the Developmentally Disabled where sterilizations were performed. Photo origin: Goc, p. 40).

Precipitating Factors and Processes

The movement began in the 1890s, when progressive “educators, charity and correction officials” began looking for ways to solve the economic crisis they were facing (Dowbiggin, p. 125).  In response to this in 1895 the state passed legislation to build a “Home for the Feeble-Minded” at Chippewa Falls, where “idiot” children could be placed, reproduction of epileptic and feeble-minded women curtailed, and “imbeciles” educated to their highest potential (Wisconsin Department of Health Services, 2007).  The establishment of this center was popular with progressive state reformers because they believed that “custodialism” would help prevent “defectives” from reproducing (Dowbiggin, p. 125).  These homes were well-liked but the fact that they were overcrowded and expensive led to the increasing attractiveness of sterilization (Vecoli, p. 195).  A primary factor leading to the initial institution of the 1913 sterilization law was that Wisconsin was already famous for trusting in science, especially biology, psychology, medicine, and sociology to help form public policy, and eugenics was an accepted science (Dowbiggin, p. 126).  The academic authorities of the late 19th and early 20th centuries viewed “degeneracy” as a “cancerous tumor” in society that could be cured by eliminating its ability to grow: “sterilization or racial disaster!” A progressive governor and legislators ultimately succeeded, after failed attempts in 1907, 1909 and 1911, in passing the bill by convincing both houses that serving the “collective” was most important (Laughlin, p. 31). 

By the time the law was passed, sterilizations did not seem nearly as radical as it had in 1907 when Indiana first instituted the program (Vecoli, p. 195).  The peak in sterilizations from 1934 to 1938 occurred because following the Great Depression there was an amplified concern in Wisconsin about the burden which those in need of aid would place on the “fit” populace.  Forced sterilizations became increasingly popular as the middle class became more urbanized.  It was seen as an improvement for the individuals receiving the operations (removing the burden of parenthood), society as a whole, and to future generations in regard to overall racial purity (Painter).  Wisconsin academics convinced legislators that opposing eugenic sterilizations was both “unscientific and fiscally irresponsible” (Dowbiggin, p. 126).

Groups Targeted and Victimized

Although the law specifically listed several groups for sterilizations (Painter), those who were targeted in practice were primarily “feebleminded” because they were actually at risk of procreating.  However, severely disabled persons were more likely to be institutionalized with long term care for their entire lives and therefore were less considered for sterilizations, particularly because they were less likely to reproduce. Thus, a target was placed on those with lower levels of disability. Furthermore, sexually promiscuous people would be most likely to reproduce and therefore would be targeted the most (Paul, p. 548).  Because of the nature in which society and legislators viewed promiscuity, women were more likely to be labeled as such than men and the impoverished lower class was more likely to be targeted than the middle and upper classes (Paul, p. 546).

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

In 1907 Wisconsin made it illegal for epileptic, feeble-minded, and insane people to marry.  It declared it a misdemeanor for any in these groups to have sexual intercourse (Vecoli, p. 195).  In 1913 Wisconsin also passed a law requiring the presentation of a medical certificate when applying for a marriage license.  This was declared unconstitutional in 1914 (“Eugenics Law”). In 1955, Wisconsin eliminated epileptics from the sterilization law and also changed the marriage law so that people who were sterilized could be married (Paul, p. 547).

Major Proponents

Albert Wilmarth moved to Wisconsin from Pennsylvania.  He was the first director of the Home for the Feeble-Minded in Chippewa Falls.  He brought with him the notion that people are not only mentally but also morally imbecilic.  His influence over the large number of sterilizations of “habitual criminals and unchaste women” was immense (Vecoli, p. 194).  He is especially credited for advocating sterilization above confinement as a more efficient and fiscally responsible program (Dowbiggin, p. 125). 

 Picture of Edward A. Ross (Photo origin: American Sociological Association; available at http://www2.asanet.org/governance/ross.html).

Edward A. Ross (1866-1951) was a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin where he was a principal figure in early criminology. He is credited with having coined the phrase “race suicide” in his article “The Causes of Racial Superiority” in 1901 and at the time of his death he was considered a trailblazer in the field of sociology (Hertzler, pp. 597-612). 

Charles Van Hise (1857-1918) was the President of the University of Wisconsin.  He promoted eugenic thought by founding the University of Wisconsin School of Criminology (Chamberlin, 1919).

Dr. Richard Dewey, additionally, was the head physician of Milwaukee Hospital for the Insane and was also mentioned as an advocate of sterilization in Wisconsin, despite the fact that no sterilizations were reported at this institution (Robison, p. 275).

“Feeder Institutions” and Institutions where Sterilizations are Performed

The Home for the Feeble-Minded in Chippewa Falls and the Wisconsin Hospital for the Insane were the two largest feeder and sterilization institutions (Vecoli, p. 193). 

 Picture of the Northern Wisconsin Center for the Developmentally Disabled  (Photo origin: Waymarking.com, available at http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM1KA4)

The Wisconsin Home for the Feeble-Minded was founded in 1897 in Chippewa Falls. The name of the institution changed several times, including in 1922, when it was renamed the Northern Wisconsin Colony and Training School. As of 1976, it is known as the Northern Wisconsin Center for the Developmentally Disabled and is still used for the care of patients with developmental disabilities. and is still used for the care of patients with developmental disabilities. The institution was founded on eugenic principles, which included relieving families from the “burden” of an “idiot child,” institutionalizing women of childbearing age in order to curb reproduction of the epileptic and feebleminded, and educating “the ‘imbecile’ to the highest sphere of usefulness” (Wisconsin Department of Health Services, 2007). However, its history with sterilization is not currently recognized by the institution’s webpage (Wisconsin Department of Health Services, 2007). Sterilization is, instead, mentioned in the institution’s history (Goc, pp. 40-41). 

 Picture of the Wisconsin Hospital for the Insane (Photo origin: Wisconsin Department of Health Services; available at http://dhs.wisconsin.gov/mh_winnebago/WMHI_Museum.htm)

The Wisconsin Hospital for the Insane was known as the Winnebago Mental Health Institute in Winnebago, Wisconsin and is still used for psychiatric and behavioral care (Wisconsin Department of Health Services 2011). In 1973, the Julaine Farrow Museum was established to display the history of the Winnebago Mental Health Institute. Despite that Farrow authored an entire history of the institution, of which she was considered the “official hospital historian,” there is no mention of the institutions history of sterilization (Farrow, p. 325). Sterilization also goes unmentioned in the two histories published by the institution itself, which collectively cover the institution from 1873 to 1998 (Winnebago Mental Health Institute). Its website also fails to mention its relationship with eugenics (Wisconsin Department of Health Services 2008).


The Catholic community of Wisconsin dissented with the progressive, eugenic legislators because they pushed for interference with reproduction.  Archbishop Messmer of Milwaukee wrote a letter of complaint to the government immediately after the 1913 Bill was introduced, urging it to be shot down yet again (“Health-Marriage and Sterilization Acts”).  Sterilization programs were also fought by Democrats.  The 1913 law only won passage in the assembly by a narrow margin because Democrats were so strongly against it.  Although the socialist ideology also deplored sterilizations, four of the five socialists in the legislature voted for the passage of the bill (Vecoli, p. 200). There was also dissension within established eugenicists.  Charles Davenport was quoted in the New York Times denouncing Wisconsin’s requirement of medical certificates when applying for marriage licenses because he viewed the legislation as doing more harm than good and to be ineffective regarding the true goal of controlling reproduction (“Doctor Ridicules Laws”).  Specifically, there were also many people opposed to the sterilization of criminals because they viewed it as a form of punishment, and therefore as unconstitutional (Lombardo, p. 221).


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