'Imbeciles' Explores Legacy Of Eugenics In America Adam Cohen's new book tells the story of the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell. The ruling permitted the state of Virginia to sterilize an "imbecile" — a scientific term of the day.

'Imbeciles' Explores Legacy Of Eugenics In America

'Imbeciles' Explores Legacy Of Eugenics In America

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Adam Cohen's new book tells the story of the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell. The ruling permitted the state of Virginia to sterilize an "imbecile" — a scientific term of the day. Cohen discusses the decision, and its legacy, with NPR's Robert Siegel.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Dr. Wieck, you referred to novel National Socialist measure introduced, among them sexual sterilization.


When I was 14, back in 1961, I saw Stanley Kramer's brilliant movie "Judgment At Nuremberg." It was about the war crimes trial of Nazis after World War II. There was a stunning scene in which a witness, a Dr. Wieck, is testifying about novel techniques of the Nazis, like the sexual sterilization of those considered physically or mentally weak. The German defense lawyer, played by Maximilian Schell, who won an Oscar for that performance, reminds the witness that sterilization in the name of improving the gene pool didn't begin with the Nazis or in Germany. And he read from a High Court ruling in another country that defended the practice. That ruling justified sterilization in order to prevent our being swamped by incompetence. Why wait for the imbeciles - that was the scientific term of the day - to starve or turn to crime?


MAXIMILIAN SCHELL: (As Hans Rolfe) Society can prevent their propagation by medical means in the first place. Three generations of imbeciles are enough. Do you recognize it now, Dr. Wieck?

JOHN WENGRAF: (As Karl Wieck) No, sir, I don't.

SCHELL: (As Hans Rolfe) Actually, there's no particular reason you should, since the opinion upholds the sterilization law in the state of Virginia, of the United States, and was written to deliver by that great American jurist, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

SIEGEL: The ruling in question was from the 1927 case, Buck v. Bell. And what brings that scene to mind is Adam Cohen's new book about the case. It's called "Imbeciles," and it's a reminder that ideas we associate with the worst tyranny of the 20th century were actually native to our country and very popular among its elites. Adam Cohen, welcome to the program.

ADAM COHEN: Good to be here. Thank you.

SIEGEL: Carrie Buck was a young woman in the custody of the commonwealth of Virginia, having been declared feebleminded, a term in use at the time. Doctors wanted to sterilize her, and ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court said they could. The way you describe it to me, it's essentially - she's the victim of a frame-up. Is that fair?

COHEN: Yeah, and also just of a very harsh life. She was born into a poor family - single mother, living a lot on the streets - taken in by a foster family, where they take her out of school so she can't pursue the education that she would need to not later be thought to be feebleminded. And then, she's raped, actually, by a relative of the family. And it's that pregnancy out of wedlock that led to her being sent away. And so she shows up at the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded right when they're looking for someone to sterilize to test the Virginia law.

SIEGEL: A kind of what used to be called an asylum. It wasn't quite a prison, and it wasn't exactly a hospital.

COHEN: Right, and with this open-air, sort of work-in-the-fields element as well, yeah.

SIEGEL: She had a lawyer - at least in name - and she was supposedly the plaintiff, but it was really a setup to get this law approved by the Supreme Court.

COHEN: Yes. He had been the chairman of the board of the very institution that was trying to sterilize her. And he wrote briefs that were not very helpful to her case. And he seemed, you know, quite pleased with her being sterilized in the end.

SIEGEL: The intellectual movement that provides the backdrop for the story of Carrie Buck is eugenics, the idea that it should be national policy to improve the gene pool. Described how popular in this country eugenics was a century ago.

COHEN: It's hard to imagine today, but it was such an enormous fad that it was in all the popular magazines. You know, it was being touted as a way to really uplift humanity. It was taught in hundreds of universities, all the best schools - Harvard, Berkeley. On and on, they taught eugenics courses. It was just everywhere, and it's striking how few opponents it had.

SIEGEL: How does someone - in this case, Carrie Buck - who, in later life, is remembered as somebody who, at the old-age home, read t newspaper every day and tried to do the crossword puzzle - how is somebody determined to be feebleminded when, indeed, there's no scientific basis for doing that?

COHEN: Yeah, part of it was the craziness of the intelligence testing of the time, which was just remarkably bad. I saw some of the questions that she was asked. The questions were so subjective. What do you do when a playmate hits you? That's an intelligence question - and other things like that. They used this really bogus test to determine that she was a moron, as they said at the time. And, you know, these tests were being badly used everywhere.

SIEGEL: You write a good deal about Oliver Wendell Holmes, and I could say you're trying to reconcile this opinion with Holmes' august record on the bench, but actually, what you're doing more is impeaching that record on the bench. You find this a man who was seriously lacking in some compassion for people.

COHEN: That's correct. I mean - and it pains me a bit because when I was in law school he was held up as a great hero, but, in fact, he was on the wrong side of many issues. He had some terrible civil rights decisions involving poor blacks in the South, terrible immigration rulings. And on eugenics, he was a total eugenicist. He supported eugenics in his legal writings before this case came along. And in his opinion, he didn't just uphold the Virginia law, he wrote, really, a clarion call say, we need to do a lot more of this. Our nation is at risk. Go to it. Let's sterilize more people.

SIEGEL: The Supreme Court's ruling the case of Carrie Buck upheld the Virginia law on sterilization at time when states were actually - state courts were overturning their own laws on sterilization. It was influential. How many people, ultimately, in the U.S. do we think were sterilized under cover of such laws?

COHEN: Well, we think about 70,000, which is an extraordinary number. But then, an untold number of other people were just taken away, as Carrie Buck and her mother had been, and kept in colonies so that they couldn't reproduce. And that's another kind of punishment that eugenics inflicted on a large number of Americans. You know, there's one other group that, you know, was very terribly harmed, which is all the people who would've immigrated to America but for the 1924 immigration law that was enacted for eugenic reasons. And this intentionally shut off immigration of Jews, Italians and Asians, who were thought to be genetically less gifted, and prevented a lot of Jews from fleeing Nazi Germany. And as we know, some letters came to light some years ago in which Otto Frank wrote to the State Department trying to get visas for his family, including his daughter, Anne Frank. And they were turned down because of this 1924 law. So it's interesting that when we tell the story of Anne Frank we think that, you know, she died because the Nazis thought that Jews were inferior. But to some extent, she died because the American Congress thought that Jews and other people like that were inferior and closed the door to them.

SIEGEL: If the injustice done to women like Carrie Buck wasn't enough already, it was further compounded by the fact that, very often, women who were sterilized were not told that they'd been sterilized.

COHEN: That's correct, yeah. Carrie and her sister, Doris, were sterilized and for years did not know that they were. Both of them were married and were not aware that they were unable to have children. And her sister, Doris, later told someone who was investigating her situation that she and her husband had gone to the doctor, and she said that they told her when she was at the Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded that she'd had some kind of an appendectomy, but she never knew the reason. And when the word was finally given to her by a journalist later in her life, she and her husband began crying because, finally, it put in perspective what they had been struggling against for years that the state of Virginia not only did to them, but didn't tell them.

SIEGEL: Adam Cohen, thanks for talking with us about your book.

COHEN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Adam Cohen's book about the case Buck v. Bell is called "Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, And The Sterilization Of Carrie Buck." [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In an early version of this story, our guest incorrectly said that Anne Frank died at Auschwitz. She died at Bergen-Belsen.]

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Correction Feb. 26, 2016

In an early version of this story, our guest incorrectly said that Anne Frank died at Auschwitz. She died at Bergen-Belsen.