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Buck vs. Bell

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Gene Almanac

None Without Hope:
Buck vs. Bell at 75

David Micklos, Director
Dolan DNA Learning Center, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Carrie and Emma Buck

May 2nd marked the 75th anniversary of a nadir in American law and society. On this day in 1927, the United States Supreme Court upheld the concept of eugenic sterilization for people considered genetically "unfit." The Court's decision, delivered by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., included the infamous phrase "Three generations of imbeciles are enough." Upholding Virginia's sterilization statute provided the green light for similar laws in 30 states, under which an estimated 65,000 Americans were sterilized without their own consent or that of a family member.

To commemorate the event, the state of Virginia erected a roadside marker in Charlottesville, home town of Carrie Buck, the plaintiff of the Supreme Court case. Carrie, like her mother Emma, had been committed to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble Minded in Lynchburg, Virginia at age 17. Carrie and Emma were both judged to be "feebleminded" and promiscuous, primarily because they had both had borne children out of wedlock. Carrie's child, Vivian, was judged to be "feebleminded" at seven months of age. Hence, three generations of "imbeciles" became the "perfect" family for Virginia officials to use as a test case in favor of the eugenic sterilization law enacted in 1924.

During the first quarter of the 20th Century, the reproduction of "feebleminded" people had become a major concern of the eugenics movement in the United States. The term eugenics – meaning well born – was coined in 1883 by the english scientist Francis Galton. While British eugenicists continued to focus on "positive" measures to encourage people to improve their family's genetic endowment, American eugenicists fostered "negative eugenics" legislation to prevent the contamination of the American germplasm with supposedly unfit traits.

In 1907, Indiana passed the first eugenic sterilization law. Clearly, the laws enacted in Indiana and other states were meant to keep "defective" individuals from reproducing amongst themselves and, thus, reduce the burden of "social dependents" who would have to be supported in state institutions. Less clear, perhaps, was the intent to prevent mildly retarded people from reproducing with normal people, and thus, contaminating good genetic stock. This fear was generated by Henry H. Goddard's case study of Martin Kallikak (1912), a normal man who sired a "defective" line after having an illicit affair with an attractive, but feebleminded girl – not unlike Carrie Buck.

Carrie's baby, Vivian, with Mrs. Dobbs.

However, many of the early sterilization laws were legally flawed and did not meet the challenge of state court tests. As part of its role as the leader in American eugenics research and social policy, the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) at Cold Spring Harbor designed a model eugenic law that was reviewed by legal experts. The Virginia statute of 1924 was closely based on this model.

Arthur Estabrook

On the eve of the Virginia legal contest, the Eugenics Record Office dispatched its field worker, Dr. Arthur Estabrook, to provide expert testimony. It was Estabrook who, after some cursory examination, testified that the seven-month-old Vivian "showed backwardness." The Superintendent of the Virginia Colony, Dr. Albert Priddy, testified that members of the Buck family "belong to the shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South."

Upon reviewing the case, the Supreme Court concurred "that Carrie Buck is the probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring, likewise afflicted, that she may be sexually sterilized without detriment to her general health and that her welfare and that of society will be promoted by her sterilization….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. Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

Eugenics Record Office, Cold Spring Harbor

By the time of the Supreme Court decision, many notable geneticists had become openly critical of the eugenics movement. In 1935, a scientific visiting committee found the ERO's work without scientific merit and urged that it cease promoting social programs, including sterilization. Growing awareness of the heinous ends the Nazis pursued in the name of racial purity led to a popular abandonment of eugenics in the United States, and the ERO closed on December 31, 1939.

Although, in 1942, the Supreme Court struck down a law allowing the involuntary sterilization of criminals, it never reversed the general concept of eugenic sterilization. Last year, the Virginia General Assembly acknowledged that the sterilization law was based on faulty science and expressed its "profound regret over the Commonwealth's role in the eugenics movement in this country and over the damage done in the name of eugenics."

Although it was a bona fide medical diagnosis in its day, "feeblemindeness" is no longer used in medical terminology. It was clearly a catch-all term that had virtually no clinical meaning. Many people who were classified as feebleminded would now be called mildly retarded, learning disabled, or simply underachievers. Although the eugenicists saw the Buck family as a pedigree of degeneracy, many would now say that they had few problems a bit of money, education, and opportunity would not have solved. Their only sin was to have been born poor women in the impoverished South.

It is impossible to judge whether or not Carrie was "feebleminded" by the standards of her time, but she was not patently promiscuous. Vivian's conception was the result of Carrie's rape by the nephew of her foster parents. She, probably like many unwed mothers of that time, was institutionalized to prevent further shame to the family.

Just as clearly, Vivian was no imbecile. Vivian's first grade report card from the Venable School in Charlottesville showed that this daughter of a supposed social degenerate got straight "As" in deportment (conduct) and even made the honor role in April, 1931. She died a year later of an intestinal disorder.

The Buck v. Bell decision sanctioned the notion that the state has the right to control who should reproduce and who shouldn't. It was based on the biblical concept that "like breeds like," to which eugenics researchers provided a scientific gloss. The fact that Carrie Buck, a girl of humble background, could bear a child that would become an honor student is proof enough that this is wrong headed. Added proof comes with the legions of geniuses and leaders – Nobel laureates and Pulitzer prize winners included – who are the offspring of modest parents.

Halsey-Jennings building where Carrie was sterilized October, 1924. (Image courtesy Paul Lombardo.)

Carrie Buck was sterilized because it was thought that she carried a gene that condemned her and her offspring to substandard intelligence and immoral behavior. Hers was deemed a worthless lineage to be snuffed out.

In the near future, we will certainly begin to know some of the genes that are involved in how we think and behave. But, almost certainly, most human behaviors will turn out to be the combined products of many genes acting together – and further modified by early childhood experiences. Working in one complex combination, a specific gene variant might predispose a person to autism; in another combination, it might predispose to genius.

Each parent brings to his or her children a unique legacy of tens of thousands of gene variations accumulated since the dawn of humans. So, two entirely different gene worlds collide when sperm meets egg. The gene combinations are almost infinite.

That is the beauty of sexual reproduction, in wedlock or out. One can never predict where genius will arise. No human lineage is without hope. That is the lesson that Emma, Carrie, and Vivian Buck might wish us to carry with us into our Brave New World.

Visit the Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement web site for more images from the eugenics movement.