Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court and Buck v. Bell

"Three Generations, No Imbeciles" is a chronicle of the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell, which approved laws allowing states to perform surgery in order to prevent "feebleminded and socially inadequate" people from having children.The Buck case was the first and only time in Supreme Court history that an intrusive medical procedure - involuntary sterilization - was endorsed as a tool of government eugenic policy. It is doubly notorious for the court's decision, written by renowned Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Holmes' declaration that "Three generations of imbeciles are enough" led to lifelong infamy for Carrie Buck and her family.

Carrie Buck

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Carrie Buck was a patient sentenced tocompulsory sterilization

Carrie Buck (1906–1983) was a plaintiff in the United States Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell 274 U.S. 200 (1927), and was ordered to undergo compulsory sterilization for purportedly being "feeble-minded" as part of the state of Virginia's eugenics program while a patient at Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded. Carrie Buck was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, to Emma Buck. After her birth, Carrie was placed with foster parents, John and Alice Dobbs. She attended public school until the sixth grade and then continued to live with the Dobbs, helping out with chores around the house.

Carrie became pregnant when she was seventeen as a result of being raped.[1] Subsequently, on January 23, 1924, Carrie’s foster parents had committed her to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded on the grounds of feeblemindedness, incorrigible behavior and promiscuity. On March 28, 1924, she gave birth to a daughter, Vivian. Since Carrie 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 since Carrie's pregnancy was the result of being raped by the Dobbses’ nephew.

Carrie Buck was paroled shortly after her sterilization was performed. Carrie eventually wed William Eagle, and they remained married for twenty-five years before he died. As scholars and reporters visited Carrie, it became abundantly clear to everyone that she was a woman of normal intelligence. Later in life, she expressed regret that she had been unable to have additional children. Carrie Buck died alone in a nursing home in 1983; she was buried in Charlottesville near her only child, Vivian, who had died at age eight.

Paul Lombardo, a Professor of Law at Georgia State University, spent almost 25 years researching the Buck v. Bell case. He dug through case records and the papers of the lawyers who orchestrated the case. Lombardo eventually found Carrie Buck and was able to interview her shortly before her death. During the course of his research, he found Buck’s school report cards and her daughter Vivan's honor roll record, which contradicted Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.'s famous comment that "[t]hree generations of imbeciles are enough". While studying the papers of a former eugenics expert, Lombardo discovered that several people had manufactured evidence to make the state’s case against Carrie Buck. Other records confirmed the case was not only a tragedy, but also a legal sham. Professor Lombardo was one of the few people who attended Carrie Buck's funeral. In 2008, his book Three Generations, No Imbeciles, a complete history of the case and all its peripheral actors, was published by the Johns Hopkins University Press.

A historical marker was erected on May 2, 2002, in Charlottesville, Virginia where Carrie Buck was born. At that time, Virginia Governor Mark R. Warner offered the “Commonwealth's sincere apology for Virginia's participation in eugenics.”



Carrie was the first of three children born to Emma Buck; she was soon joined by a sister, Doris Buck, and a brother, Roy Smith. Little is known about Emma Buck other than that she was poor and married to, then abandoned by, Frederick Buck. Emma was committed to the Virginia Colony for the Epileptic and the Feeble-minded after being accused of immorality, prostitution, and having syphilis. In order to ensure that the family did not reproduce, Carrie Buck’s sister Doris was also sterilized when she was hospitalized for appendicitis, although she was never told that the operation 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.

Vivian Buck

Carrie had a daughter, Vivian Buck. Vivian Buck was adopted by the Dobbs family, who had also raised Carrie, for a time. Under the name "Vivian Alice Elaine Dobbs," she attended the Venable Public Elementary School of Charlottesville for four terms, from September 1930 until May 1932. Stephen Jay Gould wrote:

She was an [average student], 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 we used to say, 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.

By all accounts Vivian was of average intelligence, far from feeblemindedness. She died a month later at age eight of "enteric colitis", an intestinal disease.

Supreme Court

The legal challenge was likely collusive, brought on behalf of the state to test the legality of the statute. In an eight to one decision the U.S. Supreme Court found that the Virginia Sterilization Act of 1924 did not violate the U.S. Constitution. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes made clear that the challenge was not upon the medical procedure involved but on the process of the substantive law. The court was satisfied that the Virginia Sterilization Act complied with the requirements of due process since sterilization could not occur until a proper hearing had occurred at which the patient and a guardian could be present and the patient had the right to appeal the decision. They also found that since the procedure was limited to people housed in state institutions it did not deny the patient equal protection of the law. And finally, since the Virginia Sterilization Act was not a penal statute, the Court held that it did not violate the Eighth Amendment since it is not intended to be punitive. Citing the best interests of the state, Justice Holmes affirmed the value of a law like Virginia's in order to prevent the nation from being "swamped with incompetence." The Court accepted that Carrie and her mother were promiscuous and that the three generations of Bucks’ shared the genetic trait of feeblemindedness. Thus, it was in the state's best interest to have Carrie Buck sterilized. The decision was seen as a major victory for eugenicists.

Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote in 1927:

We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. 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. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

Popular culture

The story of Carrie Buck's sterilization and the court case was made into a television drama in 1994, Against Her Will: The Carrie Buck Story. "Virginia State Epileptic Colony", a song by the Manic Street Preachers on the album Journal for Plague Lovers, addresses the state's programme of eugenics.

See also

  • Buck v. Bell for more information about the case and its results

  • Carrie Buck's Daughter by Stephen Jay Gould[2]

  • Kühl, Stefan. The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism, and German National Socialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

  • Largent, Mark A. Breeding Contempt: The History of Coerced Sterilization in the United States. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2008.

  • Lombardo, Paul A. Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

  • Reilly, Philip R. “Involuntary Sterilization in the United States: A Surgical Solution.” The Quarterly Review of Biology 62.2 (1987): 153-170.


  1. ^ See The Lynchburg Project Directed by Steven Trombley, Video Cassette 1993

  2. ^ Findarticles.com

By scrolling through the documents and clicking on the highlighted link you can read the complete text of many articles, reports, books, or legal documents referred to in Three Generations, No Imbeciles. The description accompanying each link is taken from the relevant page of the book.

Document Description and Link

Chapter 1:

Problem Families

Page 9

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Richard Dugdale... published his findings in 1877 as The Jukes: A Study of Crime, Pauperism, Disease, and Heredity. Dugdale created the pseudonym "Jukes" as a label for a clan "so despised by the reputable community that their family name had come to be used generically as a term of reproach." The Jukes' world was mired in crime and poverty, shot through with the habit of illicit sex. Dugdale's litany of evils listed "crime, pauperism, fornication, prostitution, bastardy, exhaustion, intemperance, disease and extinction" as other common features of their lives.

Page 19

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Reverend Mastin hired a field worker to trace the family histories of streetwalking women … demanded laws to forbid marriage and prevent childbirth among the "feeble-minded" and urged the use of the Binet-Simon intelligence test to identify them. Mastin's report, Mental Defectives in Virginia, restated the conventional wisdom: mental defect was hereditary; charity only encouraged people to multiply irresponsibly; excessive tax money was spent on social welfare--and the amount was growing.

Chapter 2:

Sex and Surgery

Page 23

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In 1899, Dr. Albert Ochsner suggested a different operation to achieve infertility. In a discussion focused on treatments for prostate problems, Ochsner described how he surgically removed a portion of the cord technically known as the vas deferens, thereby permanently removing a route for the sperm to travel. Ochsner's surgery may have been the first reported vasectomy, but he specifically prescribed it as a means of preventing the procreation of convicted criminals. Since castration ignited "the strongest possible opposition," he recommended that vasectomy be considered not only for criminals but also for "chronic inebriates, imbeciles, perverts and paupers."

Page 24

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The person most famous for popularizing vasectomy was Harry C. Sharp of the Indiana Reformatory. Certain that the criminal class had inherited deficient faculties of self-restraint, Sharp believed that regardless of the virtue in their hearts, some criminals simply could not contain their passions.

Chapter 3

The Pedigree Factory

Page 31

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Less than a year before the formal founding of the ERO, Davenport gave a lecture at Yale University that summarized his position on the aims and the format of his brand of eugenics. He proposed a system that would survey family traits. Such a plan would "identify those lines which supply our families of great men." But studying the great families was only one goal of eugenics; Davenport also urged tracing the origins of "our 300,000 insane and feebleminded, our 160,000 blind or deaf, the 2,000,000 that are annually cared for by our hospitals and Homes, our 80,000 prisoners and thousands of criminals that are not in prison, and our 100,000 paupers in almshouses and out."

Page 36

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Estabrook’s study finally appeared as The Jukes in 1915. Estabrook confirmed some of Dugdale's environmentalist conclusions, determining, for example, that removal from the rural confines of the original family could have beneficial effects on some of the Jukes descendants. Others, however, succumbed to nature and followed the path of "criminality, harlotry and pauperism" determined by their heredity.

Page 38

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Goddard's parable of degeneracy was repeated in some of the most popular schoolbooks in America; for generations of readers The Kallikak Family offered solid examples to justify familiar Old Testament wisdom about unclean living and inheritance.4 As the Good Book said: "I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the third and the fourth generations."

Chapter 4

Studying Sterilization

Page 42

11 pages/ 1.52MB

At the  First International Congress of Eugenics in London in 1912, Bleecker Van Wagenen Van Wagenen declared that people of "defective inheritance" should be "eliminated from the human stock." Included among the "socially unfit" were the feebleminded, paupers, criminals, epileptics, the insane, the congenitally weak, people predisposed to specific diseases, the deformed, the blind, and the deaf. U.S. Census data from previous decades demonstrated that the number of people in institutions--such as prisons, hospitals, and asylums--totaled over 630,000 and was growing as a percentage of the population. Another three million people of "inferior blood" were not yet in institutions, and seven million others--10 percent of the total population--were carriers of hereditary maladies. All told, this mass of problematic heredity was "totally unfitted to become parents of useful citizens."

Page 47

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At the First National Conference on Race Betterment (1914)  Harry Laughlin presented a plan to eliminate "the great mass of defectiveness . . . menacing our national efficiency and happiness." His calculations assumed that the lowest 10 percent of "human stock" was so poorly prepared for civilization that its survival represented "a social menace." By Laughlin's calculations, a systematic program to purify the human "breeding stock" would require fifteen million sterilizations over approximately sixty-five years.

Page 49

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Laughlin’s  report began with an analysis of the "phenomenon of heredity" and its role in increasing the numbers of "socially inadequate" people in America. Taken together, said Laughlin, this "great mass of humanity is not only a social menace to the present generation, but it harbors the potential parenthood of the social misfits of our future generations." The defective traits common to these "socially inadequate" groups were inborn and must be cut off. "This is the natural outcome of an awakened social conscience; it is in keeping not only with humanitarianism, but with law and order, and national efficiency."

Page 51

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Laughlin’s conclusions stressed a broad program of education, segregation, marriage prohibition, and selective sterilization that would "largely but not entirely eliminate from the race the source of supply of the great anti-social human varieties" within two generations. First, there should be early identification and commitment of the socially inadequate in order to segregate them and prevent their reproduction. All institutionalized persons supported by public funds were to be examined and their family backgrounds investigated. Those "found to be potential parents with undesirable hereditary potentialities and not likely to be governed by the highest moral purpose" would be sterilized.    


Laughlin calculated that his institutional sterilization program would eventually require approximately 150 operations per year for every 100,000 people in the general population.

Chapter 5

The Mallory Case

Page 64-77

Briefs, records, depositions and letters in the Mallory cases: (1917 - 1918)

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Page 85

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Laughlin’s book chronicled the history of the legal movement for sterilization in the United States. Every law that was passed by a state legislature and every court opinion--whether upholding or striking down the law--was printed verbatim. The text of the Model Law was printed with extensive annotations on each of its sections, and Laughlin added a set of model legal forms that could be adapted by any state to guide administration of its eugenic bureaucracy.

Chapter 8

Choosing Carrie Buck

Page 103

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Mr. and Mrs. Dobbs described what they knew about Carrie in papers they filed with the court. She was born July 2, 1906, the daughter of Frank and Emma Buck. Emma was already a resident of the State Colony near Lynchburg, but Frank's whereabouts were unknown. Carrie had lived at the Dobbs's home since she was three or four years old and was in generally good health. She spent her time helping Mrs. Dobbs with chores around the house.

The Dobbs claimed that Carrie was subject to "some hallucinations and some outbreaks of temper" and that she was dishonest. They said that she had been born with an unusual mental condition that had been demonstrated by certain "peculiar actions." She had attended school five years and reached the sixth grade and had experienced no problems with liquor or drugs but was guilty of "moral delinquency."

Chapter 9

Carrie Buck versus Dr. Priddy

Page 112

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Aubrey Strode’s case was built on testimony from uniquely qualified witnesses. There were teachers who had observed the Buck family in school, and there were social workers from welfare agencies who had monitored similar problem families in the community. Strode even called several neighbors of the Buck family to show how ordinary people viewed the Bucks. But the most important witnesses were the experts, each with the title of "Doctor," all well versed in eugenic theory. Two medical doctors who ran asylums for the defective took the stand, and two eugenic scientists--authorities from out of state--added their opinions on the workings of heredity and the threat posed by girls like Carrie Buck.

Page 122

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DeJarnette set his policy preferences to verse, repeatedly publishing his doggerel in official reports to the Virginia legislature. He was especially proud of the poem "Mendel's Law: A Plea for a Better Race of Man," in which he railed against policies that allowed "the fools, the weaklings, and crazy [to] Keep breeding and breeding again."

Chapter 10


Page 139

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Frank and Emma Buck were married in 1896 and when Carrie was born in 1906, they were still married. They remained married until Frank Buck died.

Chapter 11

On Appeal

Pages 151-153

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Chapter 12

In the Supreme Court

Pages 157, 158, 167-169

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Jacobson v. Massachusetts involved a compulsory smallpox vaccination law. Reverend Henning Jacobson, a Swedish Lutheran minister in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had been vaccinated as a child and suffered a severe reaction. He maintained a strong objection to vaccination and refused to be revaccinated. A local court imposed a fine on Jacobson, but he appealed, arguing that medical procedures undertaken against the will of a patient were unconstitutional. The Supreme Court allowed the fine, saying that measures like vaccination, designed to protect public health and safety, were justified under a state's police power.

9 pages/ 

Oliver Wendell Holmes opinion in Buck v. Bell (1927)

Chapter 13

Reactions and Repercussions

9 pages/ 

Buck v. Bell - Petition for Rehearing, 1927The petition for rehearing--written not by Irving Whitehead but by lawyers for a Roman Catholic men's group--was the finest effort in Carrie Buck's defense. But by then, as Whitehead no doubt knew, there was little chance that the Court would reconsider.

Chapter 14

After the Supreme Court

Page 190

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Vivian Buck Grades, (1930-1931)

Back in Charlottesville, eight-year-old Vivian Buck was completing the second grade. She was an average student during her brief school career; at its high point, she earned a spot on her school's honor roll.

Page 191

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In late June Vivian came down with the measles; she developed a secondaryintestinal infection and died soon thereafter. She was buried on July 3, 1932 as Vivian Alice Elaine Dobbs.

Page 192

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Paul Popenoe’s article included  a picture of Dr. Bell alongside Carrie Buck's wedding picture. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was shown above his memorable quotation, shortened to "Three Generations Enough," which was followed by an account of the Supreme Court test case and the full Buck opinion. The caption under the Holmes picture characterized his opinion as a "fair minded balancing of the somewhat conflicting claims of the individual and society."

Page 195

39 pages

Laughlin crafted a special pedigree chart showing evidence presented at the Buck trial describing the "Most immediate Blood Kin of Carrie Buck, Showing illegitimacy and hereditary feeblemindedness." Laughlin declared that following Buck, the operation of eugenical sterilization would no longer be considered "a wild or radical proposition" but would be seen by most Americans as "a reasonable and conservative matter." Laughlin emphasized that the endorsement of state authority to perform compulsory operations without regard for the consent of the patient or his family was an "outstanding feature" of the Buck decision. It constituted an application of the scientific method to statecraft, and employed the "modern sciences" of law and eugenics.

Chapter 16

Skinner v. Oklahoma

Page 229

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Justice Douglas used the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to fashion an entirely new constitutional standard. "This case touches a sensitive and important area of human rights. Oklahoma deprives certain individuals of a right which is basic to the perpetuation of a race--the right to have offspring." Later Douglas reiterated: "We are dealing here with legislation which involves one of the basic civil rights of man. Marriage and procreation are fundamental to the very existence and survival of the race." This was the first step along the way to later Supreme Court decisions describing reproduction as a "fundamental right."

Chapter 17

Buck at Nuremberg and After

Page 239

11 pages/ 4.03MB

Karl Brandt was the chief Nazi medical officer; he was also Adolf Hitler's personal physician. Brandt's attorney introduced documents quoting extensively from the eugenics literature. He cited Harry Laughlin's 1914 proposal calling for the sterilization of fifteen million Americans, and also quoted a translation of the Buck opinion from a German text on eugenics. Other Nuremberg defendants also cited Buck, and a translation of the Holmes opinion appeared again as a defense example in the exhibit "Race Protection Laws of Other Countries."

Chapter 18

Rediscovering Buck

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In December of 1980 the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the state of Virginia on behalf of four unnamed patients and other victims of sterilization in Virginia. The suit was designed to overturn the precedent of Buck v. Bell. The case was named Poe v. Lynchburg Training School and Hospital.

Virginia Apology


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