Blogs > HNN > Stephen Murdoch: Review of Paul Lombardo’s Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008).

Jan 13, 2009 10:08 pm

Stephen Murdoch: Review of Paul Lombardo’s Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008).

[Mr. Murdoch is the author of IQ: A Smart History of a Failed Idea (Wiley, 2007).]

Obsessing about the feebleminded is no longer in vogue, but in the years leading up to WWII many people believed that the mentally retarded were the scourge of society. Weeding them out in various ways, they thought, was a panacea. A 1923 Chicago Daily Tribune headline, “Breeding Better Folks Held Way to Lower Taxes,” more than hints at the penchant for creative, sloppy, and dangerous thinking about the feebleminded. From today’s vantage point, much of the conversation seems quaint and old fashioned. Even the word “feebleminded” now has a comic ring to it, as do the once technical terms “idiot,” “imbecile,” and “moron.”

The sting has left these words, having entered the playground vernacular, but at the time they had real bite. US doctors administered IQ tests on Ellis Island, as did psychologists for the army, to keep the feebleminded from our shores and ranks. The mentally retarded were sequestered in institutions for our protection, as well as theirs, and much worse than that was done in the name of eugenics, that pseudo-scientific field of human breeding designed to rid us of the genetically inferior.

Paul Lombardo, historian, lawyer, and author of Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court and Buck v. Bell, has given us a sad and fascinating book illustrating exactly how powerful and destructive the “fear of the feebleminded” was. Lombardo’s compelling book centers on Carrie Buck, a poor, disenfranchised young woman from Virginia in the 1920s whose medical rights case would notoriously go to the US Supreme Court. At issue in the 1927 Buck vs. Bell was whether or not it was legal to forcibly sterilize Carrie Buck on the grounds that she was “feebleminded of the lowest grade Moron class.” Oliver Wendell Holmes decided that the Virginia law providing for the procedure was constitutional, penning the eminently quotable if lamentable line, “Three generations of imbeciles is enough” (which referred to Carrie Buck’s mother, Buck herself, and her six-month-old infant).

Holmes’s decision meant that coercive, eugenic sterilization was legal throughout the US, and the impact was far greater than even most educated Americans are aware of today. After Buck, by the 1930s, a majority of US states had passed sterilization laws to allow for the eradication of the unfit. As far as can be measured, more than 60,000 Americans were sexually sterilized against their will. Holmes’s opinion also had an impact beyond our borders. The Nazis, who sterilized more than 400,000 people before and during the War, used Buck v. Bell in their propaganda. If the world’s greatest democracy could force sterilization, who could complain?

In the first part of his book, Lombardo adroitly places the Buck decision in the historical context of progressivism and eugenics. While much of this disturbing cocktail of morality, science, social movement, medicine, and law has been covered elsewhere, it is rarely stated as clearly and effectively. More importantly, however, Lombardo uncovers the human details of lies, pettiness, collusion, flabby science, and abuse of government power behind one of the 20th Century’s most notorious cases. And for this we owe him a debt of gratitude. Three Generations: No Imbeciles is the result of years of passionate investigation (sleuthing, really) that began when Lombardo was a graduate student at the University of Virginia, and lasted well into middle age.

Lombardo has uncovered a doozy of a story. When Carrie Buck was 19, her foster parents (more akin to employers, really) institutionalized her to cover up the fact that their nephew had raped and impregnated her. The pregnant young Buck shamed them, and was not as useful around the house, so they sent her away. They claimed she was feebleminded, which turns out—based on school records Lombardo unearthed—to be unfounded.

After extremely poor and loose intelligence testing, the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded labeled Buck a moron “from a shiftless, ignorant and moving class of people.” Her institutionalization could not have come at a worse time, for the Colony’s doctor was on the lookout for a good case to establish the legality of Virginia’s new sterilization law (before her case, many state laws had been struck down as unconstitutional). With this goal in mind, the doctor and the Colony’s Board of Directors hired a lawyer—a former board member and banking lawyer, of all things—to sue them on Carrie Buck’s behalf. They also hired the lawyer who had drafted the Virginia sterilization law to represent the Colony. All of the players were friends, associates, and ardent eugenicists intent upon solidifying the law.

There are rules against this kind of legal orchestration, of course. To say that Buck’s lawyer was conflicted is an understatement, because it implies that he had her interests in mind at all. Among other omissions at trial, Buck’s lawyer didn’t offer her grades in defense of her mental abilities, or that she was pregnant due to rape in defense of her morality (which was certainly on trial, as well). But this phlegmatic representation was the Virginia eugenicists’ very intent: the case was founded on collusion, pure and simple. 

As Lombardo writes, “Buck earns a place in the legal hall of shame not only because Holmes’ opinion was unnecessarily callous but also because it was based on deceit and betrayal.” Bringing the sordid details of Buck v. Bell and its various dubious participants to light is Lombardo’s greatest achievement.

Given Buck’s dramatic facts, its impact, and how profoundly intrusive coercive sexual sterilization is, why is the case so obscure? Politicians on the left and the right simply need to mention Roe v Wade to get a response. And similarly, more Americans know Plessy v Fergusson than Buck v Bell. Perhaps that’s not so surprising, considering how inflammatory race and abortion are in our country, but Plessy is no longer good law, while Buck is, which is worth knowing.

Buck is probably not well known today because eugenics has passed from our national dialogue like an unsuccessful genetic strain. No longer are illiterate men induced to carry placards stating, “I cannot read this sign. By what rights have I children?” Congress no longer has an “Expert Eugenics Agent,” as it once did. Fear of the feebleminded is a dead obsession, thanks in large part to the Nazi atrocities sullying such ideas.

But what’s interesting about Three Generations, No Imbeciles is that each reader will take away his or her own lessons, and that these lines of thought will often say more about the reader than the book. Those who oppose teaching evolution in our schools will use the story to argue the dangers of Darwinism. Libertarians will latch onto it to warn us of the evils of government and its abuse of power. Eugenicists, still lurking in our midst like foot fungus that recedes but never goes away entirely, will argue that our tools for measuring human worth have improved in the past 80 years.

Reading Three Generations, No Imbeciles made me—a political liberal—think about fear and its manipulation, especially after eight years of the Bush Administration. Eugenics has waned, but we are not free from widespread, irrational, and politically useful fear. Invading Iraq while citing September 11 wasn’t logical, but designed to play on our fears. Our civil liberties have been curtailed in recent years in the same way. But the fear of the feebleminded is probably more akin to the fear of illegal immigration today. People who are obsessed with the “alien invasion,” as CNN’s Lou Dobbs likes to say, tend to link them to everything negative in the country, much as the feebleminded were in the first half of the 20th Century: problems in public education, crime, dropping wages, the economy, and even health. And ultimately, the underlying fears of illegal immigration and the feebleminded are that our better instincts—to care and treat people individually and humanely—are actually vices.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in math problems given to German students before and during the War. “The construction of an insane asylum requires 6 million RM [Reichmarks]. How many housing units @ 15,000 RM could be built for the amount spent on insane asylums?”

Fortunately, Lombardo doesn’t succumb to ideological posturing, although you can still feel that young graduate student’s piqued anger in his book. Just as interesting as the details of the Buck case are the complicated skein of medical privacy laws and cases, as well as difficult-to-resolve ethics issues, which he guides us through clearly in the last chapters. With his legal and historical background, Lombardo is particularly suited to give us a book that explains a surprisingly ignored injustice, its antecedents and consequences, and helps us to think about the ongoing struggle to find a healthy balance between privacy and government power.

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Nicholas Clifford - 2/9/2009

The impact of eugenic thinking on single (albeit small) state has been very ably examined in Nancy Gallagher's "Breeding Better Vermonters" (U.Press of New England, 1999).
But there are cautionary tales here other than simply likening fear of the "unfit" to racial or nationalist fears, as Murdock's review seems to do. Though I haven't read Lombardo's book and don't know how he handles it, as Gallagher points out, Big Science and its allies back then (Holmes, Darrow, the Social Science Research Council and Rockefeller Foundations, among others) all played a role in backing what now seems to us clearly quasi-racist thinking. A warning about what happens when scientific "progress" dismisses any connections to ethical foundations, perhaps.
Those interested in the subject beyond the US might also look at Frank Dikötter's "Imperfect Conceptions" (Columbia, 1998) about the flourishing of eugenics thought in today's China.