Photo of the Day

Carrie and Emma Buck: Carrie Buck sits with her mother, Emma Buck, on the grounds of the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded in Madison Heights, near Lynchburg. This photograph was taken in November 1924 by Arthur H. Estabrook, a eugenics researcher who interviewed the two women before testifying in a legal case that resulted in the forced sterilization of Carrie Buck.

Carrie and Emma Buck: Carrie Buck sits with her mother, Emma Buck, on the grounds of the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded in Madison Heights, near Lynchburg. This photograph was taken in November 1924 by Arthur H. Estabrook, a eugenics researcher who interviewed the two women before testifying in a legal case that resulted in the forced sterilization of Carrie Buck.

?They done me wrong.

They done us all wrong.?

Carrie Buck after Her Involuntary Sterilization

Psychology has a fascinating and rich history, filled with amazing advances. But it wasn?t all progress. Psychology has a painful past ? with many victims.

One of the most devastating times in psychology was a movement called eugenics, a name coined by?Sir Francis Galton?in 1883. The goal of eugenics was to improve the genetic composition of the population: to encourage healthy, smart individuals to reproduce (called positive eugenics) and to discourage the poor, who were considered unintelligent and unfit, from reproducing (negative eugenics).

One of the main methods to discourage reproduction was through sterilization. Many people, both abroad and in the U.S., agreed with the principles of eugenics.

In fact, state governments soon started establishing sterilization laws. In 1907, Indiana was the first state to legalize sterilization.

?Sterilization could be imposed upon those judged insane, idiotic, imbecilic, or moronic, and upon convicted rapists or criminals when recommended by a board of experts.?

While sterilization laws were in place in many states, they weren?t really used. According to Harry H. Laughlin, director of the Eugenics Record Office and a major player in the eugenics movement, that was because the laws were either too confusing or too poorly written to be constitutional.

So in 1922, he published?a model sterilization act, which later became the model for many states.

By the 1930s, over 30 states had sterilization laws. Some states even expanded the definition to include blindness, deafness, drug addiction and alcoholism.

U.S. Supreme Court

Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927)

Buck v. Bell

No. 292

Argued April 22, 1927

Decided May 2, 1927

Mr. JUSTICE HOLMES delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is a writ of error to review a judgment of the Supreme Court of Appeals of the State of Virginia affirming a judgment of the Circuit Court of Amherst County by which the defendant in error, the superintendent of the State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble Minded, was ordered to perform the operation of salpingectomy upon Carrie Buck, the plaintiff in error, for the purpose of making her sterile. 143 Va. 310. The case comes here upon the contention that the statute authorizing the judgment is void under the Fourteenth Amendment as denying to the plaintiff in error due process of law and the equal protection of the laws.

Carrie Buck is a feeble minded white woman who was committed to the State Colony above mentioned in due form. She is the daughter of a feeble minded mother in the same institution, and the mother of an illegitimate feeble minded child. She was eighteen years old at the time of the trial of her case in the Circuit Court, in the latter part of 1924. An Act of Virginia, approved March 20, 1924, recites that the health of the patient and the welfare of society may be promoted in certain cases by the sterilization of mental defectives, under careful safeguard, &c.; that the sterilization may be effected in males by vasectomy and in females by salpingectomy, without serious pain or substantial danger to life; that the Commonwealth is supporting in various institutions many defective persons who, if now discharged, would become a menace, but, if incapable of procreating, might be discharged with safety and become self-supporting with benefit to themselves and to society, and that experience has shown that heredity plays an important part in the transmission of insanity, imbecility, &c. The statute then enacts that, whenever the superintendent of certain institutions, including the above-named State Colony, shall be of opinion that it is for the best interests of the patients and of society that an inmate under his care should be sexually sterilized, he may have the operation performed upon any patient afflicted with hereditary forms of insanity, imbecility, &c., on complying with the very careful provisions by which the act protects the patients from possible abuse.

In 1924, Virginia passed its sterilization law based on Laughlin?s model. In 1927, Carrie Buck was the first person to be sterilized in the state under the new law, which included sterilizing anyone who was feeble-minded, an imbecile or epileptic. The Supreme Court upheld the decision in Buck v. Bell, validating sterilization and increasing sterilizations throughout the country.

Carrie?s mother, Emma Buck, was deemed ?feebleminded? and ?sexually promiscuous,? and involuntarily institutionalized at the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded in Lynchburg, Virginia. Then 17 years old, Carrie, believed to have inherited these traits, was committed to the same asylum after giving birth to an illegitimate daughter, Vivian.

When Vivian was examined at six months old, experts concluded that she was ?below the average.? According to a social worker, ?there is a look about it that is not quite normal.? (Interestingly, this social worker would later deny that she diagnosed Vivian as feebleminded or even examined her.)

When the case went to the Supreme Court, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote:

?It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind?Three generations of imbeciles are enough.?

?It is better for all the world, if ? society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind,? U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. opined in Buck v. Bell (1927). In concluding that teenager Carrie Buck and her mother and infant daughter were ?feeble-minded? and that the state of Virginia had the authority to sterilize Buck, Holmes memorably proclaimed that ?three generations of imbeciles are enough.?

Over the next half-century, Holmes? decision would provide the legal authority to sterilize more than 60,000 Americans, and set precedent for more than half a million other surgeries across the globe. At Nuremberg, lawyers for Nazi scientists cited the opinion in defense of their radical programs. As it turned out, Carrie Buck was no imbecile ? but rather a pawn in an elaborate conspiracy of doctors, lawyers and scientists hoping to terminate the reproductive rights of those they deemed socially unfit.

On the morning of October 19, 1927, the Commonwealth of Virginia sterilized Carrie Buck. Dr. John Bell???whose name would forever be linked with Carrie?s in the Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell? ??cut her open and removed a section from each of her Fallopian tubes. In his notes, Dr. Bell noted that ?this was the first case operated on under the sterilization law.?

Carrie was an average, unassuming girl. She wasn?t very smart, but she wasn?t dumb either. She didn?t come from the best circumstances, but she did the best with what she had. Pictures show a plain young woman with short, dark hair, bobbed in the fashion of the time. In one photo, taken by Arthur Estabrook, an ?expert? in eugenics whose testimony would help seal her fate, Carrie sits on a bench with her mother Emma at the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-minded, where both were institutionalized.

Carrie Buck was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, the first of three children born to Emma Buck; she was soon joined by a half-sister, Doris Buck, and a half-brother, Roy Smith. Little is known about Emma Buck other than that she was poor and married to Frederick Buck, who shortly into their marriage abandoned her. Emma was committed to the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded after being accused of immorality, prostitution, and having syphilis.

Her father was largely absent, and her mother apparently lived a hard life of odd jobs and persistent poverty. As a result, Carrie spent much of her early life with her foster parents, John and Alice Dobbs.

After her birth, Carrie Buck was placed with foster parents, John and Alice Dobbs. She attended public school and was noted to be an average student. Buck stopped attending school in the sixth grade, upon which point the Dobbs removed her from school in order to have her help with housework.?When Carrie was 16, Clarence Garland, a visiting nephew of her foster family, sexually assaulted her. Years later, when Carrie was an old woman being interviewed by reporters, she would recall that Clarence ?forced himself on me.?.?. he took advantage of me.?

Carrie became pregnant. Alice Dobbs now had a problem on her hands. Virginia society in the 1920s didn?t look kindly on illegitimate children, and Alice feared being burdened with a girl of ?that type.? By squirreling her away with her mother at the Virginia State Colony in Lynchburg, the Dobbs family could be saved from disgrace.

C.D. Shackleford, the local Justice of the Peace, went over a standard commitment form with the Dobbses, featuring such bizarre questions as ?does she take proper notice of things?? (answer: ?No?), and ?how was the peculiarity manifested?? (answer: ?Peculiar actions?). He was told that Carrie was prone to ?some hallucinations and some outbreaks of temper,? and that her pregnancy was proof enough of her ?moral delinquency.? Additionally, two doctors also reported that Carrie was ?feebleminded within the meaning of the law.? Satisfied, Shackleford ordered Carrie to be sent to the Colony.

But the Colony was not a place for a pregnant woman. Before being institutionalized, Carrie was allowed to have her baby on the outside. On March 28, 1924, Vivian Buck was born. Carrie was a mother for two weeks before she was sent away, leaving Vivian with the Dobbses.

Buck?s foster parents had committed her to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded on the grounds of feeblemindedness, incorrigible behaviour and promiscuity. ?Since Buck had been declared mentally incompetent to raise her child, her former foster parents adopted the baby. Her commitment may have been due to the family’s embarrassment because Carrie’s pregnancy was the result of being raped by the Dobbs?s nephew.

Now known as the Central Virginia Training Center, the Colony sits just over the James River from downtown Lynchburg. The large, red brick ?Mastin-Minor? building was built in 1913, and by the time Carrie came it housed approximately 800 inmates. Upon arrival, Dr. Priddy examined her and found no evidence of hallucinations or psychosis. He also found that Carrie could read and write, which is not surprising since she had had five years of school and been an average student.

In the Colony, Carrie was reunited with her mother. Colony records describe Emma Buck as a widow who ?lacked moral sense and responsibility.? She had a reputation as ?notoriously untruthful,? had been arrested for prostitution, and had allegedly given birth to illegitimate children. Perhaps most shockingly, her housework was ?untidy.? Emma was stamped with a diagnosis: ?Mental Deficiency, Familial: Moron.?

The term ?moron? is originally a ?scientific? one, invented by Dr. Henry H. Goddard, a pioneer of the ?science? of eugenics. His book, Feeble-Mindedness: Its Causes and Consequences, tried to classify and describe the attributes of those who are ?incapable of performing his duties as a member of society in the position of life to which he was born.? The feeble-minded were ?ne?er do wells? who were ?shiftless, incompetent, unsatisfactory and undesirable members of the community.? Goddard filled his book with pictures?of his subjects, a supposed rogues gallery of the congenitally stupid.

Goddard created a taxonomy of the ?feeble-minded.? ?Idiots? were the lowest grade, with intelligence comparable to a child under two. Next, came ?imbeciles,? those with intelligence comparable to a child from ages three to seven. Finally, came the ?morons,? eight to ten.

Carrie Buck, was then a seventeen-year-old girl when she was picked as the first person to be sterilized. Officials at the Virginia Colony said that Carrie and her mother shared the hereditary traits of “feeblemindedness” and sexually promiscuity. To those who believed that such traits were genetically transmitted, Carrie fit the law?s description as a “probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring.” A legal challenge was arranged on Carrie?s behalf to test the constitutional validity of the law.

At her trial, several witnesses offered evidence of Carrie?s inherited “defects” and those of her mother Emma. Colony Superintendent Dr. Albert Priddy testified that Emma Buck had “a record of immorality, prostitution, untruthfulness and syphilis.” His opinion of the Buck family more generally was: “These people belong to the shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South.” Although Harry Laughlin never met Carrie, he sent a written deposition echoing Priddy?s conclusions about Carrie?s “feeblemind-edness” and “moral delinquency.”

Sociologist Arthur Estabrook, of the Eugenics Record Office, traveled to Virginia to testify against Carrie. He and a Red Cross nurse examined Carrie?s baby Vivian and concluded that she was “below average” and “not quite normal.” Relying on these comments, the judge concluded that Carrie should be sterilized to prevent the birth of other “defective” children.

The decision was appealed to United States Supreme Court. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., himself a student of eugenics, wrote the formal opinion for the Court in the case of Buck v. Bell (1927). His opinion repeated the “facts” in Carrie?s case, concluding that a “deficient” mother, daughter, and granddaughter justified the need for sterilization. The decision includes the now infamous words: It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind?Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

Recent scholarship has shown that Carrie Buck?s sterilization was based on a false “diagnosis” and her defense lawyer conspired with the lawyer for the Virginia Colony to guarantee that the sterilization law would be upheld in court. Carrie?s illegitimate child was not the result of promiscuity; she had been raped by a relative of her foster parents. School records also prove that Vivian was not “feebleminded.” Her 1st grade report card showed that Vivian was a solid “B” student, received an “A” in deportment, and had been on the honor roll.

Nevertheless, Buck v. Bell supplied a precedent for the eventual sterilization of approximately 8,300 Virginians. Borrowing from Laughlin?s Model Law, the German Nazi government adopted a law in 1933 that provided the legal basis for sterilizing more than 350,000 people. Laughlin proudly published a translation of the German Law for the Prevention of Defective Progeny in The Eugenical News. In 1936, Laughlin was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Heidelberg as a tribute for his work in “the science of racial cleansing.”

Carrie Buck was sterilized on Oct. 19, 1927, and it would take almost 50 years before Virginia repealed its sterilization statute in 1974 (though?Buck v. Bell?has never been overturned).

?They done me wrong.

They done us all wrong.?

Carrie Buck after Her Involuntary Sterilization

Carrie Buck and her husband on their wedding day. From eugenicsarchive.org

Carrie Buck and her husband on their wedding day. From eugenicsarchive.org

The legal test case resulting in Carrie Buck?s involuntary sterilization was premised on the acceptance of a politically popular social policy that mistakenly labelled her as feebleminded. Her defense attorney worked with the attorney for the Virginia Colony to assure that Virginia?s sterilization law would be upheld in Court.

Carrie Buck was paroled from the Virginia Colony shortly after her sterilization was performed. She married twice.

On May 14, 1932, Carrie Buck married William D. Eagle, a sixty-five year old widower with six children from his first marriage.?After his death in 1965, she married sixty-one year old orchard worker Charlie Detamore to whom she remained married until her death.?Reporters and researchers that visited Buck later in life claimed she was a woman of normal intelligence. Later in life, she expressed regret that she had been unable to have additional children.

Buck died in a?nursing home?in 1983;?she was buried in Charlottesville near her only child, Vivian, who had died at age eight.

She spent most of her adult life helping others. Her competence was obvious in the quality of care she gave to those who depended on her.

In order to ensure that the family could not reproduce, Carrie Buck?s sister Doris was also sterilized when she was hospitalized for appendicitis, although she was never told that sterilization had been performed; in later years she married and she and her husband attempted to have children. She did not discover the reason for their lack of success until 1980.

Bearing an illegitimate child provided the basis for allegations of promiscuity against Carrie Buck, when, in fact, her pregnancy resulted from a rape, allegedly by the nephew of her foster parents. Carrie?s daughter, Vivian, was raised by her foster parents until she died at the age of eight from an intestinal disease.

Records from Venable Elementary School in Charlottesville demonstrate that Vivian was not ?feebleminded.? Her first grade report card showed that Vivian was a solid ?B? student, consistently received an ?A? in deportment, and had been on the honour roll.

Vivian was neither particularly outstanding nor much troubled. In those days before grade inflation, when C meant “good, 81-87” (as defined on her report card) rather than barely scraping by, Vivian Dobbs received As and Bs for deportment and Cs for all academic subjects but mathematics (which was always difficult for her, and where she scored a D) during her first term in Grade 1A, from September 1930 to January 1931. She improved during her second term in 1B, meriting an A in deportment, C in mathematics, and B in all other academic subjects; she was on the honor roll in April 1931. Promoted to 2A, she had trouble during the fall term of 1931, failing mathematics and spelling but receiving an A in deportment, B in reading, and C in writing and English. She was “retained in 2A” for the next term — or “left back” as was formerly said, and scarcely a sign of imbecility as I remember all my buddies who suffered a similar fate. In any case, she again did well in her final term, with B in deportment, reading, and spelling, and C in writing, English, and mathematics during her last month in school. This offspring of “lewd and immoral” women excelled in deportment and performed adequately, although not brilliantly, in her academic subjects.

Vivian?s first grade report card. Courtesy of Paul A. Lombardo.

Vivian?s first grade report card. Courtesy of Paul A. Lombardo.

Carrie Buck.

Carrie Buck.The last photograph of Carrie Buck, taken in 1982 by legal historian Paul Lombardo at the nursing home where she lived in the last years of her life. From eugenicsarchive.org

When the 1927 trial ended, the court held that Buck was ?the probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring? under the statute and should therefore be sterilized. On appeal, the case landed before the most celebrated judge in America, 86-year-old?Oliver Wendell Holmes. In an opinion?of less than three pages, citing just one case and no relevant science, Holmes declared that sterilization was justified to avoid society ?being swamped with incompetence.?

Carrie Buck was sterilized on Oct. 19, 1927, and it would take almost 50 years before Virginia repealed its sterilization statute in 1974 (though?Buck v. Bell?has never been overturned).

When asked during the trial to define a ?socially inadequate? person, Dr. Estabrook testified it would include anyone who ?is unable to maintain themselves according to the accepted rules of society.? By that definition, each of the men who condemned Carrie Buck could today be judged socially inadequate and manifestly unfit for their professions.

Although the eugenics movement was eventually discredited as arising from political and social prejudice rather than scientific fact, few of the the legislative bodies that passed compulsory sterilization laws have ever compensated or apologized to the more than 60,000 victims. The United States Supreme Court affirmed Virginia?s sterilization law on May 2, 1927, in the Buck v. Bell decision, and the constitutionality of that ruling has never been challenged nor has the ruling ever been overturned. Virginia repealed the 1924 sterilization law in 1974, while compulsory sterilization of those with ?hereditary forms of mental illness that are recurrent? was a part of the Virginia Code until 1979.

In the late 1990s, pressure was exerted on the Virginia State Assembly to acknowledge the injustice of the sterilization law after historians and reporters drew clear links between the Virginia law and the enthusiasm shown for eugenics by Nazi Germany.

An historical marker was erected on May 2, 2002 in Charlottesville, Virginia where Carrie Buck was born. At this time, Virginia Governor Mark R. Warner offered the ?Commonwealth?s sincere apology for Virginia?s participation in eugenics,? noting that ?the eugenics movement was a shameful effort in which state government never should have been involved.? Both events took place at the urging of Paul A. Lombardo, Ph.D., J.D., who was the Director of the Program in Law and Medicine, Center for Biomedical Ethics, at the University of Virginia School of Medicine at the time this website was published. He has studied and written about Carrie Buck?s case for more than 20 years.

An historical marker was erected on May 2, 2002 in Charlottesville, Virginia where Carrie Buck was born. At this time, Virginia Governor Mark R. Warner offered the ?Commonwealth?s sincere apology for Virginia?s participation in eugenics,? noting that ?the eugenics movement was a shameful effort in which state government never should have been involved.? Both events took place at the urging of Paul A. Lombardo, Ph.D., J.D., who was the Director of the Program in Law and Medicine, Center for Biomedical Ethics, at the University of Virginia School of Medicine at the time this website was published. He has studied and written about Carrie Buck?s case for more than 20 years.

Efforts to obtain an apology from the General Assembly were abandoned quickly as sponsors feared some lawmakers would resist. Even the proposed expression of regret drew opposition. One Senator referred to a ?trend in this country to recreate history. Now we go back and stir the pot on history, and take the most unfortunate chapters in our history and try to relive them for no real reason.?

Stopping short of a full apology, the Virginia General Assembly in 2001 expressed ?profound regret? for the ?incalculable human damage done in the name of eugenics.?

In January of 2002, a resolution honouring the memory of Carrie Buck was passed by the General Assembly of the state that forcibly sterilized her 75 years previously. This resolution states ?legal and historical scholarship analyzing the Buck decision has condemned it as an embodiment of bigotry against the disabled and an example of using faulty science in support of public policy.?

When Carrie Buck died, by a quirk of fate, and not by memory or design, she was buried just a few steps from her only daughter?s grave. May Carrie and Vivian, victims in different ways and in the flower of youth, rest together in peace.

Buck v. Bell :: 274 U.S. 200 (1927) :: Justia U.S. Supreme Court Center

Buck v. Bell – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

US eugenics legacy: Ruling on Buck sterilization still stands – usa today

The Forgotten Lessons of the American Eugenics Movement – The …

Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and …

The United States Once Sterilized Tens of Thousands –Here’s How …

‘Imbeciles’ and ‘Illiberal Reformers’ – The New York Times

Carrie Buck Revisited and Virginia’s Apology for Eugenics | Eugenics …

Eugenics & The Story of Carrie Buck | World of Psychology

Buck, Carrie (1906?1983) – Encyclopedia Virginia

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