Be it enacted by the General Assembly of Virginia, That whenever the Superintendent of the Western State Hospital, or of the Eastern State Hospital, or of the Southwestern State Hospital, or of the State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded, shall be of opinion that it is for the best interests of the patients and of society that any inmate of the institution under his care should be sexually sterilized, such superintendent is hereby authorized to perform, or cause to be performed by some capable physician or surgeon, the operation of sterilization on any such patient confined in such institution afflicted with hereditary forms of insanity that are recurrent, idiocy, imbecility, feeble-mindedness or epilepsy; provided that such superintendent shall have first complied with the requirements of this act.
Article One, An Act to Provide for the Sexual Sterilization of Inmates of State Institutions in Certain Cases, Commonwealth of Virginia. Enacted 1924.
Dr. Joseph S. DeJarnette, director of Western State Hospital from 1905-1943, was one of Virginia’s leading voices in the 20th century social movement known as Eugenics—the belief that information about heredity can be used to improve the human race. For Americans who feared the potential degradation of their race and culture, eugenics offered a convenient and scientifically plausible response to those fears.
Between 1927 and 1979, the state sterilized 8,300 residents thought ‘unfit’ for general society, including blacks, Native Americans, the feeble-minded, the promiscuous and the poor.
Mendel’s Law — A Plea for a Better Race of Men
Oh, why are you men so foolish-
You breeders who breed our men
Let the fools, the weaklings and crazy
Keep breeding, and breeding again? …
Retired Montgomery County Welfare Director Kate Bolton recalled with pride, “The children were legally committed by the court for being feebleminded, and there was a waiting list from here to Lynchburg.” She added, “If you’ve seen as much suffering and depravity as I have, you can only hope and pray no one else goes through something like that. We had to stop it at the root.”
“People as a whole were very much in favor of what was going on,” recalled Howard Hale, a former Montgomery County supervisor, as he relived the period for a local Virginia newspaper reporter a half century later. “They couldn’t see more people coming into the world to get on the welfare. Everybody who was drawing from welfare then was scared they were going to have it done on them.
“They were hiding all through these mountains, and the sheriff and his men had to go up after them…They really got them up on Brush Mountain. The sheriff went up there and loaded all of them in a couple of cars and ran them down to Staunton so they could sterilize them.”
DeJarnette’s testimony before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1927 about Virginia’s sterilization policy convinced the court to uphold the Racial Integrity Law.
“Germany in six years has sterilized about 80,000 of her unfit,” he noted in 1938, “while the United States with approximately twice the population has only sterilized about 27,869 to January 1, 1938, in the past 20 years… The fact that there are 12,000,000 defectives in the US should arouse our best endeavors to push this procedure to the maximum.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Adolf Hitler’s 1933 Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases contained language that echoed the Virginia statute.
Despite the fact that the Racial Integrity Law was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1967, the state of Virginia nonetheless in 1972 named its new children’s psychiatric ward at Western State the DeJarnette Center in memoriam for the institution’s steadfast director.
[Mendel’s Law poem:]www.healthsystem.virginia.edu/internet/library/wdc-lib/historical/eugenics/exhibit4-3.cfm