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Three Generations, No Imbeciles

Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell

Paul A. Lombardo

Publication Year: 2010

“Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Few lines from Supreme Court opinions are as memorable as this declaration by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in the landmark 1927 case Buck v. Bell. The ruling allowed states to forcibly sterilize residents in order to prevent “feebleminded and socially inadequate” people from having children. It is the only time the Supreme Court endorsed surgery as a tool of government policy. Paul Lombardo’s startling narrative exposes the Buck case’s fraudulent roots. In 1924 Carrie Buck—involuntarily institutionalized by the State of Virginia after she was raped and impregnated—challenged the state’s plan to sterilize her. Having already judged her mother and daughter mentally deficient, Virginia wanted to make Buck the first person sterilized under a new law designed to prevent hereditarily “defective” people from reproducing. Lombardo’s more than twenty-five years of research and his own interview with Buck before she died demonstrate conclusively that she was destined to lose the case before it had even begun. Neither Carrie Buck nor her mother and daughter were the "imbeciles" condemned in the Holmes opinion. Her lawyer—a founder of the institution where she was held—never challenged Virginia’s arguments and called no witnesses on Buck’s behalf. And judges who heard her case, from state courts up to the U.S. Supreme Court, sympathized with the eugenics movement. Virginia had Carrie Buck sterilized shortly after the 1927 decision. Though Buck set the stage for more than sixty thousand involuntary sterilizations in the United States and was cited at the Nuremberg trials in defense of Nazi sterilization experiments, it has never been overturned. Three Generations, No Imbeciles tracks the notorious case through its history, revealing that it remains a potent symbol of government control of reproduction and a troubling precedent for the human genome era.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

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pp. ix-xiv

That headline interrupted my breakfast one day in 1980, and it continues to echo more than twenty-five years later. At the time I had only a passing acquaintance with the U.S. eugenics movement, but I would soon learn that its legal high point was the 1927 United States Supreme Court case of Buck v. Bell, Carrie Buck was sterilized following the Court’s validation of ...

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Prologue: The Expert Witness

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pp. 1-6

Aubrey Strode was desperate. After twenty-five years as a lawyer, he knew that there was no substitute in court for strong evidence. For months he thought he had the perfect case to prove the power of heredity: three generations from the same family, all feebleminded. Even the world’s most prominent authority on sterilization had never seen one like it, with a ...

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1 Problem Families

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pp. 7-19

Francis Galton (1822–1911) coined the term eugenics. The English gentle-man scholar’s elaborate definition encompassed “all influences that tend in however remote a degree to give to the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable.”¹ The term would eventually become popular as a label for the field concerned...

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2 Sex and Surgery

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pp. 20-29

The idea that surgery could be used to eradicate sexual deviance and the mental illness it was thought to cause was not uncommon among doctors in the nineteenth century, though it was controversial. For example, J. H. Kellogg of Battle Creek, Michigan, believed that “imbecility and idiocy” resulted from “that solitary vice,” masturbation. He described one frustrated ...

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3 The Pedigree Factory

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pp. 30-41

In 1865, Gregor Mendel (1822–1884) published the paper on the inherited characteristics of sweet peas that laid the foundation for studying genetics. During his lifetime, however, the German monk’s work went almost entirely unnoticed. Scientists working independently in England, Holland, Germany, and Austria rediscovered Mendel’s seminal paper in 1900.¹ ...

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4 Studying Sterilization

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pp. 42-57

Even before the Eugenics Record Office began its work, Charles Davenport was involved with the American Breeders Association Committee on Eugenics, and he used that forum to advocate further research to advance the new field.1 He hoped to deter the potential “volunteer army of Utopians, freelovers, muddy thinkers” and the like who had already tried to claim ...

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5 The Mallory Case

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pp. 58-77

Linking public health concerns to eugenics was commonplace in Virginia, where lawmakers were quick to grasp the power of arguments using the public’s health as a justification for restrictive legislation. Early attention to the dangers of transmitting diseases prompted attempts to regulate all manner of intimacy. A 1902 bill considered by the Virginia General ...

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6 Laughlin’s Book

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pp. 78-90

By 1920, Harry Laughlin had established an international reputation as an expert on eugenic sterilization. Governments as far away as Germany consulted him for information on U.S. sterilization practices.

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7 A Virginia Sterilization Law

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pp. 91-102

At the time Harry Laughlin’s Model Law was first published in 1914, twelve states had enacted sterilization laws.¹ During that same period, four others passed bills that governors subsequently vetoed, and two existing state laws were invalidated by the courts. Between 1914 and 1922, the year that Laughlin’s book appeared, five other states passed laws—but one early ...

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8 Choosing Carrie Buck

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pp. 103-111

In the fall of 1923, Alice Dobbs discovered that she had a serious problem. Her seventeen-year-old foster child Carrie Buck was pregnant. By Thanksgiving the condition was apparent; by Christmas it could no longer be hidden. By New Years Day, Mrs. Dobbs knew that she must do with Carrie what was always done for ...

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9 Carrie Buck versus Dr. Priddy

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pp. 112-135

The morning of the Buck trial was unusually cold. Snow in mid-November was rare enough, but getting up before dawn for a train ride to court was not a prospect that most of the witnesses relished. As they made their way up the brick walkway to the County Courthouse, each visitor saw the obelisk placed by the Daughters of the Confederacy to honor the “sons of Amherst County” who ...

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10 Defenseless

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pp. 136-148

Aubrey Strode’s presentation had followed a simple pattern. He asked for details of Carrie’s life and the lives of Carrie’s family members. Fastening upon the most useful details such as her mental slowness, her bad temper, or her moral weakness, Strode led the witnesses to a conclusion about Carrie. Would these negative traits, he asked, lead a person of professional ...

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11 On Appeal: Buck v. Bell

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pp. 149-156

The trial had gone well for Albert Priddy. The doctor’s witnesses testified as expected, and Judge Gordon made encouraging comments after the trial ended, promising a written opinion as soon as his schedule allowed. Priddy told Caroline Wilhelm how satisfied he was “with the way in which we presented our case,” noting his expectation that ...

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12 In the Supreme Court

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pp. 157-173

As Strode predicted, the final act in the Buck legal drama played out before the U.S. Supreme Court. The case was accepted for review in September 1926, and both lawyers prepared new briefs. Strode repeated the arguments he had made previously, paying particular attention to the use of state police power to enforce eugenical laws. Again he cited the 1905 ...

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13 Reactions and Repercussions

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pp. 174-184

There was strong public reaction to Holmes’ opinion. Some, like Holmes’ “crank” correspondent, saw blasphemous intent in a law that would negate the divine command to “be fruitful and multiply.” Others welcomed the decision as a powerful stroke in favor of social progress. News of the Holmes opinion made its way into dozens of papers in every corner of the country. ...

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14 After the Supreme Court

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pp. 185-198

With all appeals in the Buck case exhausted, the Supreme Court decision was no longer in doubt, and Dr. John Bell could finally plan for surgery. On the morning of October 19, 1927, Carrie Buck was taken to the infirmary of the Colony; at nine thirty, she was given drugs to prepare her for sterilization. At ten o’clock she entered the operating room fortified with ...

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15 Sterilizing Germans

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pp. 199-218

By the 1930s, the links between German and U.S. eugenicists were well established. In the shadow of the Nazi Holocaust, such relationships seem sinister, but as they were developing they were entirely acceptable and even predictable. In the late nineteenth century, German scholars were preeminent in the sciences; it was commonplace for U.S. students early in the ...

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16 Skinner v. Oklahoma

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pp. 219-235

The Supreme Court decision in Buck provided a firm precedent and legal foundation for state sterilization laws. Yet arguments against surgical eugenics persisted, and when public debate over the need for a sterilization law in Oklahoma began in 1929, the superintendent of one of the state’s largest asylums spoke up against the measure. Dr. D. W. Griffin of Central ...

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17 Buck, at Nuremberg and After

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pp. 236-249

The many motives for government sterilization policies—ranging from concern for a deteriorating standard of national heredity to growing health and welfare expenditures to higher crime rates to ethnic or racial bigotry—would be dramatized as World War II came to an end. After the Allied victory in Europe was assured, President Harry S. Truman took the ...

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18 Rediscovering Buck

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pp. 250-266

Virginia periodically amended its laws to satisfy developing definitions in the field of mental health, and small changes were also made to the sterilization law. The listing of the “insane, idiotic, imbecile, feeble-minded or epileptic” was shortened in 1950 to include the “mentally ill, mentally deficient or epileptic” among those subject to surgery. In 1968 the General ...

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Epilogue: Reconsidering Buck

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pp. 267-279

How would Carrie Buck fare under the law if she actually were a person with diminished mental capacity related to an inherited disease, living in Virginia today? Virginia adopted a new law on involuntary sterilization in the early 1980s. Among the several states having such laws, Virginia is one of the most protective. ...

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pp. 281-283

I owe thanks to many people for their support while this book was in its long gestation, but I would be remiss if I did not thank James H. Jones first. Jim read my dissertation more than twenty-five years ago, and he responded to it with honest criticism that challenged me to pursue the Buck story further. Many years later, he repeatedly encouraged me to start thinking seriously about ...

APPENDIX A. The Supreme Court Opinion in Buck v. Bell

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pp. 285-287

APPENDIX B. Virginia Eugenical Sterilization Act, 1924

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pp. 288-292

APPENDIX C. Laws and Sterilizations by State

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pp. 293-294


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pp. 295-353

A Note on Sources

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pp. 355-356


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pp. 357-365

E-ISBN-13: 9780801898815
E-ISBN-10: 0801898811
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801898242
Print-ISBN-10: 0801898242

Page Count: 384
Illustrations: 17 halftones, 8 line drawings
Publication Year: 2010