Joseph Spencer DeJarnette

Joseph Spencer DeJarnette (1866–1957)

Joseph Spencer DeJarnette was a physician and eugenicist who performed hundreds of involuntary sterilizations at Western State Hospital in Staunton. DeJarnette's early career fit the reform ethos of the Progressive period and he modernized treatment of patients as superintendent of the hospital. He also began to advocate for forced sterilizations, which he believed would improve society. DeJarnette testified in the landmark case Buck v. Bell (1927), in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Virginia's sterilization statute. He took pride in the state's aggressive approach to sterilization, but felt the state was not acting fast enough and publicly admired Nazi Germany's more ambitious plan. DeJarnette defended sterilization and racial segregation until his death in 1957. In 2001 the General Assembly denounced and expressed regret over Virginia's eugenics program. MORE...

 

DeJarnette was born on September 29, 1866, in Spotsylvania County. He was the son of Elliott Hawes DeJarnette, formerly a captain in the Confederate States Army, and Evelyn May Magruder DeJarnette. His uncle, Daniel Coleman DeJarnette, served in both the United States and Confederate States House of Representatives. After the American Civil War (1861–1865), his mother wrote stories, many in the then-popular Negro dialect genre, for national periodicals, including Century Illustrated Magazine and Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly. She educated DeJarnette and prepared him to enter the Medical College of Virginia, from which he graduated in 1888. He considered himself the genetically gifted descendant of colonial Virginians and practiced at Richmond's R. E. Lee Camp Confederate Soldiers' Home for a year before joining the staff of Western Lunatic Asylum (after 1894 Western State Hospital) in Staunton. On February 14, 1906, he married a colleague and fellow physician, Chertsey Hopkins. They had no children. She discontinued practicing medicine after their marriage and died on December 7, 1947.

DeJarnette became the first president of the Augusta County Medical Society in 1904, and in 1906 he was appointed superintendent of Western State Hospital. Reflecting the reform ethos of the Progressive period, he revamped the hospital's therapeutic standards, banned physical restraints, unlocked many patients' rooms, and instituted more sympathetic treatment. During his administration the hospital expanded in size, including a number of buildings and additions DeJarnette designed himself and one of which bore his name. In 1932 adjacent to Western State he opened a self-supporting, semiprivate mental hospital for middle-income patients, which two years later the General Assembly renamed the DeJarnette State Sanatorium.

DeJarnette was in the vanguard of Virginia's eugenic sterilization movement. In his 1908 annual report he recommended that the state prohibit marriage among the insane, alcoholics, epileptics, syphilitics, people with tuberculosis, and the feebleminded. DeJarnette argued that mentally disabled people should be sterilized because it amounted to a crime and a burden on society to allow them to procreate. He relentlessly demanded that the state pass a sterilization statute, and building on the eugenic theories of the country's most prominent scientists he gained recognition as a leading authority.

After sixteen years of lobbying, during which DeJarnette spoke before medical societies, social workers, university students, and reformers, the General Assembly authorized eugenic sterilization in 1924. He then took part in arranging a court case to test the statute's constitutionality. DeJarnette testified in support of the state's involuntary sterilization of Carrie Elizabeth Buck, an allegedly feebleminded eighteen-year-old Charlottesville woman. In Buck v. Bell (1927), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Virginia's sterilization statute, a ruling that authorized the sterilizations of about 8,300 Virginians and 60,000 other Americans before 1980 in the more than thirty states that enacted similar laws. DeJarnette performed many of the 1,200 operations that occurred at Western State during his tenure.

The vigorous implementation of Virginia's eugenic sterilization statute (Virginia trailed only California in the total number of people sterilized) did not satisfy DeJarnette. By May 1930 he had sterilized thirty-three women by tubal ligation, sixty men by vasectomy, and five people by x-ray exposure. He remarked in the January 1931 issue of Virginia Medical Monthly, "We are just getting into good working trim, and expect to sterilize 500 per year in the five hospitals" that the state operated. Beginning in 1933, when Nazi Germany instituted the world's most ambitious sterilization program, DeJarnette closely watched its progress and in his published annual reports reported favorably on Germany's programs. In 1934 he implored the General Assembly to broaden the scope of Virginia's sterilization law; "the Germans," he complained, "are beating us at our own game and are more progressive than we are." DeJarnette never wavered in his advocacy of eugenics, not even after the revelation of the Nazi Holocaust, and he often recited or appended to his publications on eugenic sterilization a poem that he had composed, "Mendel's Law: A Plea for a Better Race of Men."

In 1943 DeJarnette was criticized before the State Hospital Board for his autocratic style and the decrepitude of Western State Hospital. His staff defended him, but the board removed him from the superintendency effective on November 15 of that year. DeJarnette remained in charge of the DeJarnette State Sanatorium until 1947. Condemnations of eugenic sterilization after his death tarnished DeJarnette's reputation, and in 1980 the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the state on behalf of four people who had been sterilized in Virginia hospitals. In February 2001 the General Assembly denounced "the now-discredited pseudo-science of eugenics" and expressed "profound regret" for the "incalculable human damage" that the state's eugenics program had done. That same year the state removed his name from the DeJarnette Center, a hospital in Staunton for children with severe emotional disorders that had succeeded the DeJarnette State Sanatorium.

DeJarnette defended eugenic sterilization and unrelenting racial segregation until his death at his home in Staunton on September 3, 1957. He was buried beside his wife in the Hopkins family section of Warm Springs Cemetery in Warm Springs, Bath County.

Time Line

  • September 29, 1866 - Joseph Spencer DeJarnette is born in Spotsylvania County. He is the son of Elliott Hawes DeJarnette and Evelyn May Magruder DeJarnette.
  • 1888 - Joseph Spencer DeJarnette graduates from the Medical College of Virginia.
  • 1904 - Joseph Spencer DeJarnette becomes the first president of the Augusta County Medical Society.
  • 1906 - Joseph Spencer DeJarnette is appointed superintendent of Western State Hospital.
  • February 14, 1906 - Joseph Spencer DeJarnette marries Chertsey Hopkins. They will have no children.
  • 1908 - In his annual report, Joseph Spencer DeJarnette recommends that the state prohibit marriage among the insane, alcoholics, epileptics, syphilitics, people with tuberculosis, and the feebleminded.
  • March 20, 1924 - The General Assembly passes a bill that allows for the state-enforced sterilization of those deemed genetically unfit for procreation.
  • April 22, 1927 - The U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments in the case of Buck v. Bell, appealing an order to sterilize Carrie Buck.
  • May 2, 1927 - In Buck v. Bell, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a Virginia order to sterilize Carrie Buck.
  • May 1930 - By this time, Joseph Spencer DeJarnette has sterilized thirty-three women by tubal ligation, sixty men by vasectomy, and five people by x-ray exposure.
  • 1932 - Joseph Spencer DeJarnette opens a self-supporting, semiprivate mental hospital for middle-income patients. The General Assembly will rename the hospital the DeJarnette State Sanatorium in 1934.
  • 1943 - Joseph Spencer DeJarnette is criticized before the State Hospital Board for his autocratic style and the decrepitude of Western State Hospital.
  • November 15, 1943 - The State Hospital Board removes Joseph Spencer DeJarnette as superintendent of Western State Hospital. He remains in charge of the DeJarnette State Sanatorium until 1947.
  • September 3, 1957 - Joseph Spencer DeJarnette dies in his home in Staunton. He is buried in Warm Springs Cemetery in Warm Springs, Bath County.
  • 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.
  • 2001 - The DeJarnette Center, a hospital in Staunton for children with severe emotional disorders that had succeeded the DeJarnette State Sanatorium, is renamed the Commonwealth Center for Children and Adolescents.
  • 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.
Further Reading
Bruinius, Harry. Better for All the World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America's Quest for Racial Purity. New York: A. A. Knopf, 2006.
Dorr, Gregory Michael. "Defective or Disabled? Race, Medicine, and Eugenics in Progressive Era Virginia and Alabama." Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 5 (2006): 359–392.
Dorr, Gregory Michael. Segregation's Science: Eugenics and Society in Virginia. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008.
Lombardo, Paul A. Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell. Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.
Pulley, Raymond H. Old Virginia Restored: An Interpretation of the Progressive Impulse, 1870–1930. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1968.
Smith, J. David and K. Ray Nelson. The Sterilization of Carrie Buck. Far Hill, New Jersey: New Horizon Press, 1989.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Dorr, G. M., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Joseph Spencer DeJarnette (1866–1957). (2014, February 6). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/DeJarnette_Joseph_Spencer_1866-1957.

  • MLA Citation:

    Dorr, Gregory Michael and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Joseph Spencer DeJarnette (1866–1957)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 6 Feb. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: July 8, 2013 | Last modified: February 6, 2014


Contributed by Gregory Michael Dorr and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Gregory Michael Dorr is a visiting assistant professor at Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts. He is the author of Segregation's Science: Eugenics and Society in Virginia (2008).