Eugenics captured Americans' attention at the turn of the twentieth century. Many reformers believed that social problems such as alcoholism, criminality, poverty, prostitution, vagrancy, and venereal disease stemmed from unfit people's heredity. Reformers claimed that the "feebleminded"—mentally impaired individuals—disproportionately comprised the antisocial class menacing civilization.
Authorities used intelligence tests to identify the feebleminded, segregating them in institutions to prevent their procreation. Institutionalizing people was expensive. Eugenic sterilization promised savings: once sterilized, individuals could be released without fear of procreating. Sterilized feebleminded people could support themselves, rather than burdening society.
Virginia and Forced Sterilization
Leading advocates of eugenics in Virginia included Walter Plecker, first registrar for the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics and one of the most aggressive lobbyists for the 1924 Racial Integrity Act, and Dr. Albert Sydney Priddy, superintendent and physician of the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded in Lynchburg. Priddy had the colony's lawyer, Aubrey Strode, draft Virginia's sterilization bill, which was signed into law on March 18, 1924. Priddy and Strode then looked for a test case to prove the law's constitutionality.
Carrie Buck's family became a model for eugenic reform. Born in Charlottesville on July 2, 1906, to a poor mother named Emma A. Harlow Buck, Carrie Buck, at age three, was removed from her mother's care and placed with foster parents, John and Alice Dobbs. Judging Emma to be promiscuous for having a child out of wedlock and a "low grade moron," authorities committed her to the Virginia Colony in 1920. In the summer of 1923, the Dobbs's nephew raped Carrie Buck and she became pregnant. To hide their shame, the Dobbses had Buck declared feebleminded and committed to the Virginia Colony with her mother. On March 28, 1924, Buck gave birth to a daughter, Vivian, and the Dobbses became Vivian's foster parents. In June, just before the sterilization act went into effect, Buck was sent to the colony.
Whitehead filed Buck v. Priddy in the Amherst County court in November 1924. After establishing that Emma, Carrie, and Doris Buck were all feebleminded, Strode called a social worker to testify about Carrie Buck's daughter Vivian. The social worker declared Vivian "not quite a normal baby." Three generations of alleged feeblemindedness, and Whitehead's weak defense of Buck, secured victories in Amherst County and the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals by June 1925. Priddy died between cases, but eugenics enthusiast Dr. John H. Bell succeeded Priddy as superintendent and as the suit's nominal defendant. Buck v. Bell then went before the Supreme Court of the United States.
Strode and Whitehead argued the case on April 22, 1927. Justice Holmes delivered the 8 to 1 decision on May 2, 1927. In the majority opinion, Holmes reasoned, "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 … Three generations of imbeciles are enough." Justice Butler, the lone dissenter, did not file an opinion explaining his objection. On October 19, 1927, Dr. Bell sterilized Carrie Buck.
The Legacy of Buck v. Bell
Although compulsory sterilization is now seen as an abuse of human rights and eugenics is a discredited science, Buck v. Bell was never overturned, and Virginia did not repeal its sterilization law until 1974. On December 29, 1980, the American Civil Liberties Union filed the civil lawsuit Poe v. Lynchburg Training School and Hospital on behalf of all sterilization victims, male and female. (Men comprised roughly one-third of the total number of sterilizations.) The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia ruled that because Buck v. Bell continued to be the controlling authority, the sterilizations were legal. After all, Buck had already established the constitutionality of sterilization and the minimum standard for due process and equal protection. To the court, the fact that the law had been repealed was beside the point. What the court also found, however, was that the allegations that hospital authorities did not scrupulously follow procedure were plausible, compelling, and worthy of further invesitgation. Failure to follow procedure would have left the state liable to violations of due process and legal protection. As a result, the plaintiffs and the state of Virginia later settled out of court, with the state agreeing to attempt to locate all persons who were sterilized and inform them of the consequences of the operation, and to provide them with counseling and medical treatment.
Historians have since found evidence that neither Carrie Buck nor her daughter was mentally retarded and that Bell's sterilization relied on a false diagnosis. Vivian Dobbs, Carrie Buck's daughter, was placed on the honor roll at her elementary school in 1931, a year before she died at the age of eight. Carrie Buck died in a nursing home in Waynesboro on January 28, 1983, and was buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Charlottesville. On May 2, 2002, the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Buck decision, Virginia governor Mark Warner apologized for Virginia's eugenics program, calling the movement "a shameful effort in which state government never should have been involved." A state historical highway marker was dedicated to Buck v. Bell in Charlottesville on that day.
July 2, 1906 - Carrie Buck is born in Charlottesville to Frank W. Buck, a tinner, and Emma A. Harlow Buck.
1910 - At age three, Carrie Buck is taken from the care of her mother, Emma A. Harlow Buck, and placed with foster parents.
April 1920 - Authorities deem Emma Buck a "low grade moron" and promiscuous for having a child out of wedlock and commit her to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded in Lynchburg.
Summer 1923 - John and Alice Dobbs's nephew rapes Carrie Buck, their foster child, and she becomes pregnant.
March 18, 1924 - A bill that allows for the state-enforced sterilization of those deemed genetically unfit for procreation is passed.
March 28, 1924 - Carrie Buck gives birth to an illegitimate daughter, Vivian Alice Elaine Buck.
June 4, 1924 - Just before Virginia's new state-enforced sterilization act goes into effect, Carrie Buck is sent to the Virginia Colony for the Epileptic and Feeble-Minded in Lynchburg.
November 19, 1924 - After filing Buck v. Priddy on behalf of Carrie Buck, Irving Whitehead argues the case before Judge Bennett Gordon in the Circuit Court of Amherst County. The case is meant to test the legality of Virginia's recently passed sterilization bill.
April 22, 1927 - Buck v. Bell, a case challenging the constitutionality of a Virginia law that allows state-enforced sterilization, is argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.
May 2, 1927 - On behalf of an 8 to 1 majority, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes affirms the constitutionality of Virginia's law allowing state-enforced sterilization.
October 19, 1927 - Dr. John H. Bell performs the operation to sterilize Carrie Buck several months after the U.S. Supreme Court upholds, in Buck v. Bell, the constitutionality of a Virginia law allowing state-enforced sterilization.
April 1931 - Vivian Dobbs, the daughter of Carrie Buck, is placed on the honor roll at the Venable Public Elementary School in Charlottesville.
July 3, 1932 - Vivian Dobbs, the daughter of Carrie Buck, dies of enterocolitis at the age of eight.
1974 - Virginia repeals its 1924 law allowing state-enforced sterilization. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling Buck v. Bell (1927) affirming the law's constitutionality has yet to be overturned.
December 29, 1980 - The American Civil Liberties Union files the civil lawsuit Poe v. Lynchburg Training School and Hospital on behalf of all sterilization victims, male and female, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia.
January 28, 1983 - Carrie Elizabeth Buck Eagle Detamore dies in a nursing home in Waynesboro and is buried in Charlottesville's Oakwood Cemetery with her husband, Charlie Detamore.
February 14, 2001 - The Senate of Virginia agrees to House Joint Resolution No. 607 expressing "regret for Virginia's experience with Eugenics." The House of Delegates had agreed to the resolution on February 2.
May 2, 2002 - Virginia governor Mark Warner apologizes for Virginia's eugenics program, and a state historic highway marker in Charlottesville is dedicated to Buck v. Bell.
- Eugenics Image Archive and Entry on Buck v. Bell
- Claude Moore Health Sciences Library Exhibit: Eugenics: Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Virginia, Eugenics & Buck v. Bell
- Buck v. Bell: Law Library - American Law and Legal Information
- Buck v. Bell Highway Historical Marker
- Excerpt from Stephen Jay Gould's Carrie Buck's Daughter
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Dorr, G. M. Buck v. Bell (1927). (2013, May 31). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Buck_v_Bell_1927.
- MLA Citation:
Dorr, Gregory Michael. "Buck v. Bell (1927)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 31 May. 2013. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: November 6, 2008 | Last modified: May 31, 2013
Contributed by Gregory Michael Dorr, a visiting assistant professor at Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts. He is the author of Segregation's Science: Eugenics and Society in Virginia (2008).