Skip to content

Eugenics | Mandatory Sterilization in the Early 20th Century

Eugenics tree

Eugenics was a very popular and successful program which occurred in the early 20th century – and was most definitely not covered in my high school history book or class. The basic premise was to sterilize the “feeble-minded” in order to force Darwin’s Theory, “Survival of the Fittest” upon society. Additionally, American studies were actually the originator of the purification of the Aryan race strongly supported by Hitler.

In the last 19th century, masturbation, then called onanism, was presented in medical schools as the first biological theory of the cause of degeneracy. Fear of degeneracy through masturbation led Harry Clay Sharp, a prison physician in Jeffersonville IN, to carry out vasectomies on prisoners beginning in 1899. Enacted in 1907, this was the first eugenic sterilization law in the US.

Eugenicists argues that “defectives” should be prevented from breeding, through custody in asylums or compulsory sterilization. Most doctors probably felt that sterilization was a more humane way of dealing with people who could not help themselves. Eugenicists encouraged reproduction of the “best and the brightest” and discouraged reproduction of the “unfit” — including criminals, alcoholics, psychotics, the retarded, paupers, and those in poor physical health. By sterilizing the mentally ill and restricting foreign immigration, eugenicists sought to isolate the American genetic stock from the taint of allegedly bad genes.

Cumulative record of operations for eugenical sterilization in the United States from 1907-1935

Although I was aware of historical America’s disdain towards those who were not deemed as “normal,” I was completely shocked as to the extent that our country went both in research as well as forced sterilization. The similarities between the United States and Nazi Germany are, without a doubt, a shameful past that has been brushed under the rug. It horrified me to find out that our country really was not much different from Hitler’s regime. Hitler simply took the same concept to the extreme.

Here are some brief samples from the Eugenics Archives. This just barely scratches the surface of the information available in the archive website. All information and images obtained from Eugenics Archives. Images may be used for news and educational purposes, but not for sale, resale or profit.

Clicking on any image will bring up full size to be able to read the text. Just click your “back” button to return to the article.

US and Nazi Germany Eugenic Relationship

In 1927, the Rockefeller Foundation provided funds to construct the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics in Berlin, which came under the directorship of the appropriately named Eugen Fischer. Adolf Hitler read Fischer’s textbook Principles of Human Heredity and Race Hygiene while in prison at Landsberg and used eugenical notions to support the ideal of a pure “Aryan” society in his manifesto, Mein Kampf (My Struggle).

In this Eugenical News article, American Eugenics supports the efforts put forth in Germany:

“It is unfortunate that the anti-Nazi propaganda with which all countries have been flooded has gone far to obscure the correct understanding and the great importance of the German racial policy….”

In “The German Sterilization Law,” by Paul Popenoe, Journal of Heredity (vol. 25), the author writes about how “[Hitler] has long been a convinced advocate of race betterment through eugenic measures.” Popenoe further writes about Hitler’s book:

” ‘He who is not sound and worthy in body and mind, should not perpetuate his handicaps in the bodies of his children,’ Hitler declares in this book.

‘The state must take care that only he who is sound shall be a parent.’ “

Criminal Behavior

Eugenicists claimed that criminal behavior was a result of defective genes. Most eugenicists adhered to the prevailing social theory of the early decades of the twentieth century that “culture does not make the man, but man makes the culture,” meaning that poor people gravitate toward and contribute to a poverty-stricken environment, and thus create their own degenerate conditions. Thus, while not denying that poor social and cultural background might contribute to criminality, eugenicists argued that criminality, like many other social traits, was ultimately biological in origin.

Prison mug shot of Edgar V428 and corresponding entry in The Jukes in 1915, by AH Estabrook

Prison mug shot of VII20 and corresponding entry in Estabrook’s typescript The Jukes Data

Intelligence Tests

Intelligence tests took human measurement to new levels. In 1905, the French psychologist Alfred Binet developed a measure of “mental age” to help steer elementary students to academic or vocational tracks. Under this system, a child of average intelligence has a mental age equal to his chronological age. By 1910, Binet’s mental age was used to generate an intelligence quotient or IQ (mental age/chronological age x 100). IQ scores range from 0 to 200 and fit a bell-shaped curve, with an average IQ of 100. Normal intelligence ranges from 86 to 115. Terms like “moron,” “imbecile,” and “idiot” described persons with IQ’s below 86, while “bright” and “genius” were used for scores above 115.

Eugenicists rapidly employed IQ or other intelligence tests to compare different racial and ethnic groups. These comparisons purportedly showed whites were more intelligent than blacks, native-born Americans were more intelligent than immigrants, and northern Europeans were more intelligent than southern Europeans. Educational psychologists believed IQ tests measured innate intelligence, but mostly they measured knowledge of white American culture and language. This underestimated the intelligence of new immigrants and disenfranchised Americans.

Better Babies

At the beginning of the 20th century, citizens concerned about high infant mortality in the United States took up the call of “baby saving.” These initiatives relied on standards for normal child development, as well as input from healthcare professionals and public health officials. Better Babies Contests addressed this concern for child welfare and physical development, becoming the first eugenic competitions held at state fairs.

Could this be the origin of our modern-day baby and child beauty pageants?

Poverty and Degeneracy

By the turn of the 20th century, large-scale public welfare programs and institutions were replacing local charity. Isolated within these often-bleak institutions, the poor and the handicapped were easily derided as a burden to society. The eugenicists blamed poverty on bad genes and were quick to calculate the costs of maintaining the “socially inadequate” in public institutions.

Few scholars today support the notion that poverty and vagrancy are associated with defective heredity. We now recognize that the reasons for failure to succeed in society are many and complex. Where the eugenicists saw the inheritance of bad genes, we now see a vicious cycle of poverty and lack of opportunity.

Circus Performers

Eugenicists were interested in various human disabilities, which they thought would give evidence to support theories of inherited characteristics. Though the performers in circus “freak shows” were intended as “curiosities,” eugenicists interpreted their disabilities as examples of degenerate heredity. They thought such people should be sterilized or prevented from marrying.


Eugenicists envisioned a society that perpetuated white middle and upper class power. Eugenic leaders thought they were endowed with wisdom and had the right to pass judgement on others in the name of progress. Positive eugenic ideas about family planning and public health may seem in tune with views common in American society today, although many people would fail to see any connection. However, the coercive tactics of eugenics — race separation, marriage restriction, immigration restriction, and sterilization — fly in the face of current ideals for a compassionate, pluralistic society.

Click on any image below to view in full size.
You may then scroll through all images at your own pace.


  1. That is such a horrible thing. I saw part of a documentary about this, but it is still unbelievable. Your point about the beauty pageants was a good one too.

    • I had no idea that we did this. I vaguely knew studies were done and that the people who were targeted for sterilization were not treated well over all. But I had no idea that we went to these extremes… and the number of people that were sterilized. Horrible. We resembled a watered down version of a Hitler camp.

  2. I first became aware of this when I read Jodi Picoult’s book, “Second Glance” I believe was the title. It was not in my history lessons but thankfully my children have learned about this. Great, super great article! Praises galore on the thought and energy you placed into your post! I’m gushing over you but it’s well deserved.

Go ahead... I can hear your thoughts. Please share with the rest!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: