Dark Response to Our 'Fecund Mental Derelicts'

The aged and often dingy Salem hospital (shown here) was replaced in 2011 by a new 620-bed hospital offering modern treatment and recovery facilities. Photograph by Audrey Lawson

To our current sensibilities, historic accounts of treatments for the mentally ill may seem as twisted and macabre as some of the patients' most tortured hallucinations. Since it was established in 1883, the Oregon State Hospital in Salem has used the accepted treatments of the day—which have, at times, included lobotomies, dangerous medications, electroshock, and sterilization. In the following excerpt from Inside the Oregon State Hospital: A History of Tragedy and Triumph (History Press, 2013), author Diane Goeres-Gardner '71, MA '83, recounts the history of forced sterilization at the facility and chronicles how beliefs about the practice changed over time.

The aged and often dingy Salem hospital (pictured above) was replaced in 2011 by a new 620-bed hospital offering modern treatment and recovery facilities.

To our current sensibilities, historic accounts of treatments for the mentally ill may seem as twisted and macabre as some of the patients' most tortured hallucinations. Since it was established in 1883, the Oregon State Hospital in Salem has used the accepted treatments of the day—which have, at times, included lobotomies, dangerous medications, electroshock, and sterilization. In the following excerpt from Inside the Oregon State Hospital: A History of Tragedy and Triumph (History Press, 2013), author Diane Goeres-Gardner '71, MA '83, recounts the history of forced sterilization at the facility and chronicles how beliefs about the practice changed over time.

The history of the Eugenics Movement shows us that absolute power unhampered by conscience or compassion results in abuse of those who are the most defenseless. In Oregon it was those judged to be mentally ill or homosexual.

Between 1917 and 1983 it's estimated 2,648 Oregon citizens were forcibly sterilized by the state. Oregon became notorious for targeting young people labeled delinquent, women who'd given birth to illegitimate children, and homosexual men. Most of the operations were castrations for men and ovariotomies for women—the most severe forms of sterilization.

Eugenics is the applied science of a biological and social movement, which advocated sterilizing, or preventing the procreation of undesirable human populations to improve the genetic composition of humanity. The philosophy became widely popular in the mid-1920s and continued until the 1940s when the Holocaust was discovered in Germany. Eugenics theory rested on the presumption that people could measure and evaluate what constituted better or best in another human being. In the early 1900s intelligence as perceived by social class, education, income, and race became the primary focus of the Eugenicists.

It's claimed that 59 percent of the 509 sterilizations performed at OSH between 1918 and 1941 were women who received salpingectomies (removal of the fallopian tubes) or had their ovaries removed. The majority of the men were castrated (68 percent) while the remainder received vasectomies. If birth control was the real goal, vasectomies would have been enough to accomplish their purpose and castrations would not have been necessary.

In 1936 OSH superintendent R. E. Lee Steiner wrote the following: "Sterilization has been 'advocated for all cases of insanity.' Nevertheless it was carried out in but few cases because of legal restrictions; the patient and his next friend must both sign the petition." Later he went on to advocate a change in Oregon's marriage laws to prevent marriage between epileptics, those who were feebleminded, mentally sick, chronic criminals, and degenerates of every sort. "Such an act would be a most potent factor in the program of prevention."

The men serving on the Board of Eugenics were intensely verbal about their support of Eugenics theory and their animosity toward the mentally ill in Oregon. Dr. John C. Evans, superintendent of OSH from 1937 through 1948, supported the Oregon sterilization law and believed it should also be extended to those outside Oregon's institutions. He stated that the law, "which he held weak in that it deals only with persons already locked up and not high-grade morons, potential and prolific breeders of the unfit." He also supported the proposed marriage laws to be voted on in the fall of 1938 and believed that the physical exams required before marriage should be extended to include women, and both sexes should undergo mental exams as well. This would determine whether women were epileptic or unfit in any way for motherhood.

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The largest newspaper in Oregon, the Republican-controlled Oregonian, supported Eugenics and used its power to inflame public opinion. In a news article headlined "Fecund Mental Derelicts of Oregon Called Menace by State Health Official," Dr. Floyd South, a member of the Oregon State Board of Health and the Board of Eugenics, stated on June 17, 1938, "Feeble-minded, insane, and otherwise mentally and physically incompetent persons in Oregon are reproducing twice as fast as normal persons." He went on to state that within 200 years half the state's population would be confined to public institutions if rigid sterilization laws were not enforced. This applied to the insane as well as "mentally weak persons."

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In 1940 Dr. Richard B. Dillehunt, dean of the University of Oregon Medical School and chairman of the committee appointed by Governor Charles H. Martin to analyze Oregon's responsibility to the insane, wrote a series of articles for the Oregon Journal reporting his findings. He believed mental illness could be prevented by marriage laws and sterilization. He stated, "Idiots, imbeciles and morons are singularly moved by the primitive biologic impulses and spawn prodigiously. Here is a place where social groups and others might get together and make an effort: for, mark my word, with the prolificacy and multiplication of the feeble-minded, such social groups might soon find themselves on the defensive instead of in a position to help."

The admitted number of people sterilized under Oregon's law varies from 2,341 to 2,648. Approximately 65 percent were women and 35 percent were men. One-third were diagnosed as mentally ill. The surgery center at the Oregon State Hospital served as the main facility for the operations. The last case was considered in 1981 and Senator John Kitzhaber pushed the legislature to abolish the State Board for Social Protection in December 1983.

Men who were castrated as young as age 16 suffered the lack of face and body hair and eventually high blood pressure throughout their whole lives. Many didn't know what was happening to them or suffered severe pain during the surgery as a result of inadequate anesthesia. At least 100 young girls living at the state training school for delinquent girls were sterilized before 1941. At least one Oregon woman died as a result of a forced hysterectomy.

In August 2002, news that Oregon's Eugenics records had been shredded provided incentive for Oregon to acknowledge what had been done to thousands of 
Oregonians against their will. On December 2, 2002, Oregon became the second state to issue a public apology. Governor John Kitzhaber apologized to the 2,600 Oregonians sterilized during the last 60 years in a ceremony held at the state capital. "The state forcibly sterilized children," the governor told the crowd, "as well as people with mental disorders, disabilities, epilepsy, and criminal records. Nearly all of them were vulnerable, helpless citizens entrusted to the care of the state by their families or by the courts."

—By Diane Goeres-Gardner '78, MA '83