"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.
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
145 pages/ 3.7MB
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.
132 pages/ 8.43MB
Mental Defectives in Virginia: A Special Report of the State Board of Charities and Corrections to the General Assembly of 1916, on Weak Mindedness in the State of Virginia; together with a Plan for the Training, Segregation, and Prevention of the Procreation of the Feeble-Minded(1916)
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.
Sex and Surgery
2 pages/ 312.65KB
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."
6 pages/ 899.5KB
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.
The Pedigree Factory
21 pages/ 3.15MB
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."
129 pages/ 5.28MB
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.
171 pages/ 1.52MB
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."
11 pages/ 1.52MB
Van Wagenen, “Preliminary Report of the Committee of the Eugenic Section of the American Breeders’ Association to Study and to Report on the Best Practical Means for Cutting Off the Defective Germ-Plasm in the Human Population” (1912)
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."
11 pages/ 1.33MB
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.
69 pages/ 2.02MB
Harry H. Laughlin, “Report of the Committee to Study and to Report on the Best Practical Means of Cutting Off the Defective Germ-Plasm in the American Population: The Scope of the Committee’s Work.” (1914)
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."
88 pages/ 9.2MB
Harry H. Laughlin, “Report of the Committee to Study and to Report on the Best Practical Means of Cutting Off the Defective Germ-Plasm in the American Population: Legal, Legislative and Administrative Aspects of Sterilization” (1914)
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.
The Mallory Case
Briefs, records, depositions and letters in the Mallory cases: (1917 - 1918)
109 pages/ 6.79MB
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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.
Choosing Carrie Buck
4 pages/ 356.68KB
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."
Carrie Buck versus Dr. Priddy
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Pages 51-100/ 1.89MB
Pages 101-116/ 653.06KB
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.
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."
1 page/ 624.75KB
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.
3 pages/ 235KB
In the Supreme Court
Pages 157, 158, 167-169
50 pages/ 1.63MB
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.
Reactions and Repercussions
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.
After the Supreme Court
2 pages/ 1.03MB
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.
Vivian Buck Death Certificate, (1932)
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.
8 pages/ 680.57KB
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."
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.
Skinner v. Oklahoma
13 pages/ 586.77KB
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."
Buck at Nuremberg and After
11 pages/ 4.03MB
Buck Citations in Nuremberg Documents (1946-1949)
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."
27 pages/ 629.4KB
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Poe v. Lynchburg Settlement (1985)
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.
Program and Agenda (2002)
1 page/ 1.68MB
Carrie Buck Resolution (2002)
1 page/ 16.18KB
Raymond Hudlow Resolution (2002)
1 page/ 39.23KB
Governor Warner Apology (2002)