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Eugenics in Minnesota

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Members and staff of the Minnesota Board of Control in Faribault, 1936. Fourteenth from the left in the bottom row is Mildred Thomson.

Members and staff of the Minnesota Board of Control in Faribault, 1936.

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 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.

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.

Dight was the most tireless of the eugenics crusaders. He published hundreds of articles and editorials in the 1920s and 30s and gave dozens of talks over radio and at universities on race betterment and the elimination of social ills and crime through better breeding. In his writing, he often compared the reproduction of the human race to selective breeding techniques used in agriculture.

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.

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.

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An Act Providing for the Examination, Commitment, Care and Maintenance, Release and Discharge of Persons Alleged to be Feeble Minded, Inebriate or Insane. Minnesota Statutes, Laws, Chapter 344 (1917).
https://www.revisor.mn.gov/laws/1917/0/Session+Law/Chapter/344/pdf

An Act to Provide for the Sterilization of Feeble-Minded and Insane Persons. Minnesota Statutes, Laws, Chapter 154 (1925).
https://www.revisor.mn.gov/laws/1925/0/Session+Law/Chapter/154/pdf

Dight, Charles Fremont. History of the Early Stages of the Organized Eugenics Movement for Human Betterment in Minnesota, by Charles F. Dight. Minneapolis: Minnesota Eugenics Society, 1935.

——— . Human Thoroughbreds—Why Not? Minneapolis: N.p., 1922.

Ladd-Taylor, Molly. “Eugenic Sterilization in Minnesota: Coping with a ‘Public Menace.’” Minnesota History 59, no. 6 (Summer 2005): 237–248.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/59/v59i06p237-248.pdf

Oliver, Clarence P. “Report on the Organization and Aims of the Dight Institute and its Accomplishments for the Year Ending June 30, 1942.” The Dight Institute of the University of Minnesota Bulletin Number 1. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1943.

Phelps, Gary. “The Eugenics Crusade of Charles Fremont Dight,” Minnesota History 49, no. 3 (Fall 1984): 99–108.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/49/v49i03p099-108.pdf

Report of the Minnesota Child Welfare Commission, with Bills Recommended and Synopses of All Changes from Present Law, 1917. St. Paul: Office of the Commission, 1917.

Swanson, Evadene Burris. “Biographical Sketch of Charles Fremont Dight, M.D.” The Dight Institute of the University of Minnesota Bulletin Number 1. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1943.

Thomson, Mildred. Prologue; a Minnesota Story of Mental Retardation Showing Changing Attitudes and Philosophies Prior to September 1, 1959. Minneapolis: Gilbert Publishing Company, 1963.

Related Images

Members and staff of the Minnesota Board of Control in Faribault, 1936. Fourteenth from the left in the bottom row is Mildred Thomson.
Members and staff of the Minnesota Board of Control in Faribault, 1936. Fourteenth from the left in the bottom row is Mildred Thomson.
The Exhibit of Institutions under the charge of the State Board of Control at the Minnesota State Fair in 1915.
The Exhibit of Institutions under the charge of the State Board of Control at the Minnesota State Fair in 1915.
Postcard depicting the exterior of the Faribault State School for the Feeble-Minded in 1920. Photograph by A. J. Swanson.
Postcard depicting the exterior of the Faribault State School for the Feeble-Minded in 1920. Photograph by A. J. Swanson.
Dr. Frederick Kuhlmann, Director of the Division of Research under the State Board of Control. Photograph for the St. Paul Daily News, ca. 1930.
Dr. Frederick Kuhlmann, Director of the Division of Research under the State Board of Control. Photograph for the St. Paul Daily News, ca. 1930.
Portrait of Charles Fremont Dight, president and founder of the Minnesota Eugenics Society, undated.
Portrait of Charles Fremont Dight, president and founder of the Minnesota Eugenics Society, undated.
Treehouse residence of Dr. Charles F. Dight, 4818 Thirty-ninth Avenue South, Minneapolis, July 21, 1930.
Treehouse residence of Dr. Charles F. Dight, 4818 Thirty-ninth Avenue South, Minneapolis, July 21, 1930.
A letter Charles Dight sent to Adolf Hitler in 1933, congratulating him on the advancement of National Socialist eugenics in Germany. Hitler responded by inviting Dight to a lecture in Munich. From the Charles Fremont Dight papers, 1883–1984. Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
A letter Charles Dight sent to Adolf Hitler in 1933, congratulating him on the advancement of National Socialist eugenics in Germany. Hitler responded by inviting Dight to a lecture in Munich. From the Charles Fremont Dight papers, 1883–1984. Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.

Turning Point

On account of the tireless efforts of eugenics advocates like Charles Fremont Dight, and in the stated interests of the state of Minnesota, the legislature passes a bill in 1925 that authorizes the sterilization of the so-called “feeble-minded” and the “insane.”

Chronology

1901

The Minnesota legislature passes a law that forbids men and women under age forty-five considered “imbecilic, feebleminded, insane, or epileptic” from marrying each other.

1907

Indiana becomes the first place in the world to pass a compulsory sterilization law.

1913

A bill authorizing the sterilization of the “Feebleminded, Epileptics, Rapists, Certain Criminals, and other Defectives” passes in the Minnesota house, but fails in the senate.

1917

The Child Welfare Commission issues a report that results in thirty-five new laws concerning children, which includes the creation of a state children’s bureau and county child-welfare boards, extending state’s responsibility into rural areas.

1922

Charles Fremont Dight self-publishes his first pamphlet on eugenics Human Thoroughbreds—Why Not?

1923

The Minnesota Eugenics Society is organized under the leadership of Charles Fremont Dight.

1924

Eugenicists succeed in lobbying Congress to pass the Immigration Act. The act ends immigration from Asia and suppresses Italian, Eastern European, and Jewish immigration. It also results in the creation of the US Border Patrol.

1925

The Minnesota legislature and Governor Theodore Christianson pass a bill that authorizes the sterilization of the “Feeble-Minded” and the “Insane” (the latter only so long as they had been institutionalized for at least six months).

1927

The Buck v. Bell US Supreme Court decision upholds compulsory sterilization, which, as of 2020, has not been overturned.

1933

Charles Fremont Dight sends a letter to Adolf Hitler congratulating him on his “plan to stamp out mental inferiority” in Germany. Hitler writes back thanking Dight and extends an invitation to attend a lecture in Munich.

1938

Charles Fremont Dight dies on June 20.

1941

The Dight Institute for Human Genetics, which offers genetic counseling services and makes predictions about heredity, is founded at the University of Minnesota.

1942

The US Supreme Court rules in Skinner v. Oklahoma that the compulsory sterilization of prisoners is unconstitutional if it is implemented unequally, which ends the practice of punitive sterilization.

1945

Many become aware of the horrors of the Holocaust fueled in part by the advancement of Nazi eugenics through the 1930s and 40s, which was inspired by US eugenic policies and bolstered by American eugenicists’ financial and scholarly contributions.

1972

Testimony of the United States Senate Committee reveals that at least 2,000 Black women had been involuntarily sterilized without their consent or knowledge, oftentimes under threat of losing government benefits.

1973

The Southern Poverty Law Center charges that the Relf sisters were sterilized without consent. Investigations reveal that the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare sterilizes over 100,000 people every year without their consent.

1976

An investigation of four out of twelve Indian Health Service regions done by the US General Accounting Office reveals that widespread sterilizations of Native American women took place every year, including in Minnesota.

2016

The Eugenics Compensation Act is signed into law and living survivors of sterilization in Virginia and North Carolina receive compensatory payments.