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In the name of eugenics, Minnesota sterilized more than 2,000 people

After years of effort on the part of Charles Fremont Dight and his Eugenics Society, the Minnesota legislature passed a law authorizing sterilization of the “feebleminded” and the “insane” in 1925.

historical postcard depicting building
Postcard depicting the exterior of the Faribault State School for the Feeble-Minded in 1920. Photograph by A. J. Swanson.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Eugenics, meaning “good stock,” is a scientific doctrine of race. It aims to produce what are considered good racial traits and eliminate those deemed harmful or defective, with the goal of reaching an ideal of purity. To the people eugenics policies targeted, it said that their physical or mental differences made them deficient or immoral. It further implied that, due to characteristics deemed “undesirable” or low IQ test scores, their lives were not worth living.

Eugenics is a scientific doctrine that was developed and named by Francis Galton in England in the 1880s. Inspired by his relative Charles Darwin’s comments on variation in populations and Gregor Mendel’s genetic research on the inherited traits of peas, Galton posited that human beings could be selectively bred to cultivate traits deemed beneficial and eliminate those deemed defective.

After England, the United States was the first country to show broad professional and legislative support for eugenics. This popularity arose from studies on “degenerate” families funded by the national Eugenics Record Office based in Cold Spring Harbor, New York. These studies were intended to prove that physical differences, supposed mental inferiority, and the propensity to crime were hereditary traits passed on in families.

One such study, undertaken by Dr. Arthur C. Roger, the superintendent of the School for the Feebleminded from 1885–1917, helped pave the way to eugenics policy in Minnesota. (“Feebleminded” was a term used at the time for people of “deficient intelligence.”) In 1911, he received support from the Eugenics Record Office to produce a report on his pupils. In this report, he claimed to be studying the “feebleminded” population of a fictitious town. He concluded that “uncontrolled reproduction” was responsible for the poverty and criminality of the residents.

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In 1917, the Child Welfare Commission issued a report that recommended revisions of then current laws concerning children and resulted in the passing of thirty-five new laws. It underlined the state’s duty to involuntarily commit “feebleminded,” neglected, dependent, or “delinquent” children. This decisive legislation empowered county probate judges to commit children and any person considered “Feeble Minded, Inebriate, or Insane” without the consent of parents or guardians.

Probate judges, in collaboration with Mildred Thomson, the director of the control board’s Bureau for the Feebleminded and Epileptic from 1924–1959, used IQ scores, physical health, family relations, home environment, school or work records, and appearance to make their decisions. They were supposed to have two independent physicians present to help them make their decision. They could dispense with them, however, if the suspected person was considered “obviously feebleminded.”

Since atypical behavior and lower economic class were considered symptoms of “feeblemindedness,” the overwhelming majority of those committed were working-class women. Many of them did not fit standard definitions of normality. An unmarried woman who gave birth, for instance, could be labeled as feebleminded, as could an immigrant for whom English was a second language who failed the English-language IQ test.

The psychologist Frederick Kuhlmann, director of Faribault School for the Feebleminded in 1910, promoted IQ testing as a tool for assigning levels of defectiveness. He also helped develop special education classes in Minnesota’s public schools in the interest of segregating student populations. Later, he pushed for a statewide census of the feebleminded, which, despite Governor Floyd B. Olson’s support, was not carried out.

Charles Fremont Dight, Minnesota’s most avid and consistent supporter of eugenics, dominated the field until his death in 1938. Dight was a respected professor of medicine and politics before his involvement in the eugenics movement. Prior to coming to Minnesota, he was trained in medicine at the University of Michigan and took on a post as a professor of anatomy and physiology in Beirut between 1883 and 1889. After serving as a resident physician at Shattuck School in Faribault in 1889, he later returned to the Twin Cities and began working at Hamline University in 1899, where he taught until 1907. In the interim, he also held positions at the University of Minnesota and the Ministers’ Life and Casualty Union.

Dight was consistently interested in social reform and utopian politics, and was elected alderman from the twelfth ward in Minneapolis in 1914. His most lasting legacy lies with the Minnesota Eugenics Society, which he founded in 1923. He served as president until his death in 1938. The main function of the society was to educate the public on heredity in an effort to encourage the reproduction of the “fit” (those with desirable traits). It also published reports and lobbied for policy that would curtail the reproduction of the “unfit” (those with traits considered undesirable) through sterilization, segregation, or limitations placed on marriages.

After years of effort on the part of Dight and his Eugenics Society, the Minnesota legislature passed a law authorizing sterilization of the “feebleminded” and the “insane” in 1925. Unlike most other states, Minnesota required the consent of the person being operated on or their guardian. However, in cases of people deemed incompetent, as most of those called feebleminded and insane were, the state was endowed with the ability to make this choice in the absence of a parent or guardian.

Between 1925 and 1945, at least 2,204 people were sterilized. This number is uncertain since Minnesota, unlike other states, did not have a central eugenics board that kept track of all sterilizations. 77 percent of known sterilizations were performed on women.

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Eugenics enjoyed wide approval in the general public and in professional circles in Minnesota for decades. Dight Avenue in Minneapolis is named after Charles Dight. Respected figures like Dr. Charles Mayo (one of the founders of the Mayo Clinic) and Charles Lindbergh were longtime supporters of eugenic sentiments and the practice of sterilizing the “unfit.”

Zealots like Dight were interested in curing society’s ills through science in an effort to achieve a racial utopia devoid of any “degenerate” traits. The state, meanwhile, was caught between two opposing interests. On the one hand, officials believed sterilization could reduce welfare costs and prevent overcrowding in the state schools and hospitals. On the other, the large inmate populations of these institutions could provide cheap labor. Several high-profile stories in the 1940s damaged eugenics’ image and slowly swayed the public against sterilization.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.