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Colorado's Descent into Eugenics

Colorado was home to a robust eugenics movement, and a Colorado hospital forcibly sterilized women.

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
This article originally was published by Complete Colorado on January 29, 2024. Following the main article is a short piece on science, pseudo-science, and religious faith, as well as additional notes about Colorado's eugenics era.

"Build the wall," Trump says, for immigrants are "poisoning the blood" of our country. Many Americans agree. A CBS/YouGov poll asked, "Do you agree or disagree with the statement that immigrants entering the U.S. illegally are 'poisoning the blood' of the country?" 45% agreed, 55% disagreed. Among Republican registered voters, 72% agreed, and 82% did when the language was attributed to Trump.

We like to think that the eugenics movement is far behind us and a campaign only of Nazis. Not so. Rhetoric about immigrants "poisoning our blood" harks back to America's extremely popular eugenics movement of the early 1900s. The Nazis based their own sterilization law partly on the sterilization laws passed by a majority of U.S. states, partly on model legislation crafted by American Harry Laughlin. Hitler called The Passing of the Great Race, by American Madison Grant, his "Bible." U.S. immigration restrictions of the time, which prevented many Jews caught in the Nazi scourge from finding refuge in America, were in part an outgrowth of the eugenics movement.

Recently, in horror, I watched the PBS documentary The Eugenics Crusade. The film relates that on October 19, 1927, Carrie Buck of Virginia was forcibly sterilized after she was raped and her foster parents had her committed to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded.

The resulting court case wound to the Supreme Court, where Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes defended sterilization, lest the country be "swamped with incompetence." He wrote, "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."

State governments went on to forcibly sterilize tens of thousands of American women over the next few decades.

Although Colorado never had a strong forced sterilization law, our state was home to a robust eugenics movement. Some legislators tried but failed to pass a sterilization law, and at least one Colorado hospital forcibly sterilized women despite the lack of legal authorization.

Eugenics in Colorado

"Eugenics society formed in Denver," proclaimed the Rocky Mountain News on January 26, 1913. This new organization, "backed by Denver physicians and the leading exponents of child welfare in all parts of the country," planned to "make a baby show a feature each year in connection with the National Western Stock and Horse show." As part of a nationwide contest this would reveal the "perfect baby."

On January 24, 1915, the Rocky Mountain News announced the winner of that year's Champion Baby contest, complete with photos. "Of the 244 babies entered, the largest number of babies ever shown in any contest in Denver, William Garland Gentry, 34 months old and weighing thirty-four pounds, was declared the Champion baby, winning the sweepstakes and carrying three ribbons away with him. Young William is a perfect specimen of the 100 per cent baby. He is a sturdy youngster with light hair, blue eyes and ruddy red cheeks."

The Mirror, the "official Colorado state teachers college publication," reported on December 15, 1927: "The American Eugenics Society, which has for its aim the betterment of racial standards throughout the country, reports that the teaching of the science of eugenics in American colleges has been expanding widely since the introduction of the subject into the curricula about 25 years ago."

Work called for "eliminating the unfit"

Near Pueblo, "Hubert Work established the Colorado State Insane Asylum," later renamed the Colorado State Hospital, writes University of Colorado undergrad Michala Whitmore.

The July 1912 American Journal of Insanity published Work's "president's annual address at the . . . meeting of the American Medico-Psychological Association." Here is some of what the Colorado doctor had to say:

Assuming that the human family, as we know it, has evolved . . . it becomes evident that such evolution must have been impossible unless defectives had been allowed to perish and the stronger perpetuate the species.

With the refinements of intellectual development came as its crowning glory the ethical sense, prompting us to protect each other, especially the weakling. He is, therefore, no longer allowed to perish but is matured in charity, to perpetuate his defects, incapable of personal control, much less self-support.

Our high intellectual development has devised means of keeping alive a defective type of humanity which has already impressed itself upon the race, as 4% of our children to-day are feeble-minded with a larger unknown proportion defective to a lesser degree. . . .

Applied eugenics mean, to-day, that we must advise against the perpetuation of known defects of mind, whether inherited or acquired. . . .

Much has been said against the marriage of the unfit. Acts have been framed and a few laws have been enacted only to prove futile except so far as such discussions tend to direct the public mind to a matter of national moment—the breeding of the highest type of humanity by eliminating the unfit.

Zimmerman sterilized women

Dr. Frank Zimmerman pursued Work's agenda at the institution Work founded, as a November 21, 1999 article by Mike Anton for the Rocky Mountain News relates. In May of 1941, staff at the Colorado State Hospital forcibly removed the fallopian tubes of Lucille Schreiber, then a 17-year-old girl, "a repeat runaway" and a rebellious and "nervous kid with an IQ of 99." (Anton didn't use her name but Whitmore, who discusses Anton's piece, includes it.)

Schreiber told Anton, who interviewed her at age 75, "I try to act like it never happened, but I'm just like a female spayed animal. They got away with murder. They took out my heart and left a stone."

Anton says Schreiber's "willingness to step forward in court 41 years ago in a lawsuit she filed against three state hospital administrators . . . provides the only evidence that Colorado ever sterilized women mental patients."

He continues: "Testimony during the 1958 trial revealed that for more than 30 years, beginning in the 1920s, doctors at Colorado's primary mental institution robbed dozens of women of their fertility even though the state never had a law allowing it."

Anton reports that "Frank Zimmerman, the hospital's superintendent, wrote Attorney General William Boatright in 1928, not long after the legislature voted down a sterilization law," inquiring about the legality of sterilization. The AG told Zimmerman, "It is my opinion that there is no authority at the present time for performing such operations." That didn't stop Zimmerman. When one of Schreiber's lawyers asked Zimmerman if Colorado had such a law, Zimmerman replied there was "no law forbidding it."

A jury exonerated Zimmerman and his associates, Anton reports.

Snyder wanted to breed brains

On July 10, 1912, under the headline, "Need Not Sacrifice Love to Breed Super-Man," the Rocky Mountain News published Alice Rohe's interview with Zachariah Xenophon Snyder, then the president of the teachers college in Greeley. (Rohe also wrote a glowing full-page review of the book The Super Race.)

Here is part of what Snyder told Rohe:

Eugenics will never warrant breaking down the home. What we call the super-race will be the outcome of the natural attraction of fine types to each other. . . .

Of course, there are eugenics and eugenics. I do not believe in the cold-blooded teachings that say, put out of existence all individuals below normal. That doctrine will never take hold of the human heart. [!]

After an individual is brought into the world, it is the duty of mankind to make the best of that individual's life. We have not reached a stage of disinterested race development where we can kill. The sub-normal individuals should be given every chance at betterment, for they were brought into the world not at their own volition. What society should do in the way of eugenics is to prevent defectives of any class from perpetuating their kind.

Rohe asked, "By raising the standard of the race through the gradual elimination of defectives—the race will be perfected to such a point that offsprings will be superior types?" Snyder replied, "That is my belief."

Rohe asked, "Do you believe eugenics has solved the problem of breeding mental as well as physical perfection?" Snyder replied, "It is just as easy to breed brains as beef."

Corwin called for "improving the human stock"

Richard Warren Corwin, namesake of the St. Mary-Corwin Hospital in Pueblo (as well as namesake for a school), was "perhaps the most prominent practitioner of this [eugenics] ideology in Colorado during its heyday," reports History Colorado.

Here is what Corwin thought about eugenics:

In our schools we find 2 percent of children known to be feeble-minded; in some schools, they average as high as 30 percent—and this does not include the morons, the higher class of defectives: . . . it is well known that the feeble-minded constitute the major portion of criminals, prostitutes, epileptics, drunkards, neurotics, paupers . . . found in and out of prisons . . . .

If for the next hundred years our schools would discontinue all higher and aesthetic education and devote their energy to improving the human stock; to feeding and breeding; to teaching that acquired traits die with the body, that inherited traits pass to the next generation, and that the laws of heredity are constant and are the same for bug and man . . . and to educating the people to know that environment is important but heredity more important, and eugenics most important, and that thru eugenics is the only hope of improving our race or saving our nation—if this were done, at the end of the century we should find the people not only 100 years older but 100 percent better, stronger, and wiser.

Love tried to pass sterilization law

Predictably, the eugenicists overlapped with the Ku Klux Klan, also active in Colorado a century ago. Here is what historian Robert Alan Goldberg writes in his book, Hooded Empire: The Ku Klux Klan in Colorado:

Individual Klan members in the Denver House delegation framed their own regressive legislation. . . . Representative Charles Bigelow proposed a bill which prohibited epileptics, drug addicts, drunkards, or persons charged with a felony from marrying. Marriages between Orientals and whites would also be barred in Colorado. Klanswoman Minnie C. T. Love introduced legislation which authorized the sterilization of epileptics, the retarded, and the insane if procreation might result in "defective or feeble-minded children with criminal tendencies."

Some legislators still were trying to pass a sterilization bill as of 1929, when a bill passed the house. Historian Lutz Kaelber points out that "the Catholic circles of Colorado such as the Knights of Columbus" voiced strong opposition to all such bills.

Cockerell called for society's "restraining hand"

Another University of Colorado undergrad, Ciara O'Neil, learned that Theodore Dru Alison "Theo" Cockerell, who co-founded the university's Museum of Natural History, also was "a member of the national Eugenics Committee who gave lectures on the topic," a campus publication relates.

CU reports that Cockerell's 1920 textbook, Zoology: A Textbook for Colleges and Universities, contained a chapter on eugenics that said the following:

[T]wo persons having a certain type of feeble-mindedness will certainly have only feeble-minded or mentally defective children. It does not appear very radical or extreme to postulate that no one has the right deliberately to bring feeble-minded offspring into the world. To be sure, those doing this are not capable of judging of their actions; but society is capable, and society may well put forth a restraining hand.

O'Neil notes that, before college, she never learned about the U.S. eugenics movement in school. O'Neil concludes, "The U.S. history and role that it played in eugenics is important to recognize and understand in order to take proper action to correct our mistakes and prevent history from repeating itself."

Science, Pseudo-Science, and Faith

Recently Representative Scott Bottoms called biological evolution a hoax and said, "If you believe in evolution, why don't you just kill people?"

True, leaders of the eugenics movement explicitly tied their doctrines to evolution. Snyder was "easily the leading public school man championing the theories of Huxley, Darwin and Tyndall," wrote one of Snyder's friends. Cockerell was a leading entomologist. Francis Galton, one of the founders of the eugenics movement who coined the term, was Darwin's half-cousin.

But eugenics is not science; it is pseudo-science. It is not an extension of evolutionary biology but a corruption of it.

The PBS documentary reviews several ways that eugenics failed the basic tests of science. Eugenicists relied on obviously biased "intelligence" tests that had more to do with cultural literacy; they cherry-picked family histories, either emphasizing or downplaying "bad" links depending on the subject; they relied on highly subjective and biased designations including "feeble minded," "moron," and "mental defective"; they were obvious racists who cherry-picked data to demonize Jews, Eastern Europeans, African Americans, and others; they grossly oversimplified human heredity, largely ignoring the role of environment (and, I would add, choice); and they pretended that the study of natural selection somehow supports human-forced selection.

If eugenics is a story of science gone wrong—and, unquestionably, many scientists of the day accepted and promoted it—it is also a story of the self-corrective tendencies of the scientific process. Most scientists turned against eugenics long before much of the public did.

Historian Jonathan Spiro told PBS concerning the 1932 Eugenics Congress, "Almost nobody comes, because, among scientists, eugenics is now viewed as the purview of a bunch of old white cranks whom science has passed by." The geneticist and eventual Nobel winner Hermann Muller did show up but to condemn eugenics at least as then practiced, declaring, "There is no scientific basis for the conclusion that the socially lower classes have genetically inferior intellectual equipment." Instead, he blamed slum conditions for poor outcomes.

If science was stained by eugenics then so was faith. Love, for example, also was a member of Christian organizations. The KKK was an explicitly and proudly Protestant organization that existed to promote alleged Protestant values (however much other Protestants will deny doctrinal affinity).

To some, religion and eugenics went hand-in-hand. Henry Fairfield Osborn, for example, "equated the spiritual struggle for salvation with the physical struggle for evolutionary advancement," writes Graham Baker. Osborn excitedly announced that a Catholic organization endorsed the Eugenics Congress of 1921. "Religious ideology was also incorporated into one of the most successful outreach strategies employed by the AES [American Eugenics Society], that of the 'fitter family contests' that were held at fairs across the nation," Baker writes.

Of course many religious people rejected eugenics—by 1930 the Catholic Church officially did so—and to a large degree eugenicists strategically tailored their message to a religious audience. Still, the notion that the rise of eugenics uniformly condemns science and exonerates religious faith is doubly wrong. In a deeper sense, the eugenicists, despite their pseudo-scientific trappings, turned their movement into a sort of religion, or at least something akin to religion, complete with its irrational orthodoxies and utopian evangelism.

Supplemental Materials

Following are a smattering of additional details about the eugenics movement in the U.S. and in Colorado.

Davenport on building a wall

Charles Davenport, one of the founders of America's eugenics movement, sometimes is quoted as saying, "Can we build a wall high enough around this country so as to keep out these cheaper races?" But Davenport, although a despicable racist, actually was casting doubt on the idea that such a wall was the way to deal with immigration.

Following is Davenport's full quote, as passed on by Madison Grant:

There can be no doubt that the prolific shall inherit the earth or the proletariat shall inherit the earth, which is etymologically the same thing. We see this law in action in Russia to-day. . . . Can we build a wall high enough around this country, so as to keep out these cheaper races, or will it be only a feeble dam which will make the flood all 303the worse when it breaks? Or should we admit the four million picks and shovels which many of our capitalists are urging Congress to admit in order to secure what wealth we can for the moment, leaving it for our descendants to abandon the country to the blacks, browns and yellows, and seek an asylum in New Zealand? I am inclined to think that the thing to do is to make better selection of immigrants, admitting them in fairly large numbers so long as we can sift out the defective strains.

Holmes on imbeciles

Here is the fuller quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes:

We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. 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. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

Coolidge on "ethnic law"

Calvin Coolidge signed immigration restrictions on explicitly racist grounds. Coolidge wrote:

There are racial considerations too grave to be brushed aside for any sentimental reasons. Biological laws tell us that certain divergent people will not mix or blend. The Nordics propagate themselves successfully. With our races, the outcome shows deterioration on both sides. Quality of mind and body suggests that observance of ethnic law is as great a necessity to a nation as immigration law.

More from the teachers college

Here is the fuller quote from the teachers college publication:

The American Eugenics Society, which has for its aim the betterment of racial standards throughout the country, reports that the teaching of the science of eugenics in American colleges has been expanding widely since the introduction of the subject into the curricula about 25 years ago. . . .

Scientists and biologists canvassed by the same committee for their opinions on methods of teaching the subject agreed that caution should be used to preserve the scientific aspect of eugenics instruction and prevent it from becoming sensational and pseudo-scientific. They advised care in the selection of teachers, with preference given to accredited biologists, because the fundamental knowledge of I the subject demands a good biological foundation. Teaching of the subject by enthusiasts was deprecated.

That state universities are perhaps more liberal in their treatment of I problems of human biology is indicated, Doctor [C. C.] Little [president of the University of Michigan] points out, by the fact that state institutions of the West indulge more freely in teaching eugenics. He observes that "along with an impersonal and non-emotional source of support there may have grown up a more active appreciation of the responsibility of the individual to the state."

Some skepticism about the eugenics movement

A January 15, 1914 column from the Walsenburg World predicted that "public feeling will go against the man who thinks that eugenics alone will arrange matrimonial alliances. It would be a great pity if eugenics should. What would become of St. Valentine's day?" The column continues its half-hearted endorsement: "As for eugenics It is all right, but it is not everything, and it is not going to turn back the course of nature."

The Rocky Mountain News published an April 18, 1915 article titled, "This father spurns all eugenics ideas." The article quotes "Alfred r. Adamo, a bright-eyed, good-looking young Italian, who was known to a lot of folks when he worked up at the statehouse." Adamo told the paper, "Everything eugenics says not to do, my boy does. Eugenics says my boy should not eat this and should not eat that. My boy eats what he likes." (Eugenics counseled not only "proper" genetic breeding but various "health" practices.) The article made no serious attempt to rebut eugenicist premises.

The Great Divide published a column by Elbert Hubbard (April 12, 1915) questioning aspects of eugenics while accepting parts of it:

Men have failed to have even a simple understanding of eugenics. . . . Man has the ideal. Hie dreams of the superman. He criticises deficient and defective. He realizes the mental, moral and physical incompleteness of human beings. Degenerates are many. The superman is not yet. . . . But the numbers of difficulties that stand in the way, confronting Engenics, are legion. One is the element of time required to grow a man. . . .

Some say eugenic children lack spontaneity, the exuberant joy that is the natural right of every animal. . . . However, no one has denied that eugenic children have this advantage which eugenists claim for them; that they have physically perfect bodies and are healthy and wholesome. . . .

But man is something beside a physical being or he is not man. That something is what we term, for lack of understanding and a better name, the spirit in man. It is spirit which makes one man superior to another. It is spirit which differentiates one man from another. It is spirit which makes a man a genius in spite of physical deformity. It is spirit which made men confused with the dwellers on Olympus. But he has the desire to know.

This last bit reminds me of the 1997 film Gattaca. What Hubbard calls "spirit" I'd call will.

Details about Snyder

A. E. Winship wrote a glowing memorial of Snyder for the October 25, 1923 Journal of Education. Winship calls Snyder a "pioneer in education." Snyder first regarded the invitation to come to Greeley "to become the president of the then quite new State Teachers College . . . as a joke," Winship writes. Snyder's wife thought the couple would never leave Pennsylvania "for the deserts in the New West." But Snyder was persuaded to come, and "immediately he placed the Greeley State Teachers College at the front in scholarship, in science, and in modern psychology," Winship writes.

"I first knew the Snyders when he was superintendent of schools at Greensburg, Westmoreland county, Pennsylvania. He was even then a young man of distinction, easily the leading public school man championing the theories of Huxley, Darwin and Tyndall," Winship writes.

Colorado law on sterilization

It was not until 1973, Anton reports, that Colorado got a law expressly restricting forced sterilizations:

A 1973 Colorado law prohibits the sterilization of a mentally ill person without their consent. Eight years later, the Colorado Supreme Court addressed the issue of mentally ill minors for the first time. . . .

The court, noting the history of abuse in such cases, said that the parents of a 15-year-old Adams County girl couldn't consent to their daughter's involuntary hysterectomy. Only a judge using uniform criteria could do that. The justices wrote, "It is not the welfare of society, or the convenience or peace of mind of parents or guardians that these standards are intended to protect. The purpose of the standards is to protect the health of the minor retarded person, and to prevent that person's fundamental procreative rights from being abridged."

Colorado Statute 25.5-10-231 states, "No person with an intellectual and developmental disability who is over eighteen years of age and has the capacity to participate in the decision-making process regarding sterilization shall be sterilized in the absence of the person’s informed consent. No minor may be sterilized without a court order pursuant to section 25.5-10-233."

Section 233 allows court-ordered sterilization but at least puts in safeguards. It requires "clear and convincing evidence that the sterilization is medically necessary to preserve the life or physical or mental health of the person" and a demonstration "that other less intrusive measures were considered."

Details about Love

A 1927 biography of Love by the State Historical and Natural History Society of Colorado was not put off by her eugenics or by her association with the KKK. The publication describes her as "one of Denver's prominent and most highly esteemed women physicians, . . . making a splendid record as a member of the Colorado legislature."

Here is a paradox: Love, this publication says, went to Howard University, "when few colleges were open to women for professional work." "Dr. Love was the only white person in her class." Love also was a suffragette, she "served for six years on the state board of health," and she went on to serve on the Denver school board. She also helped to found the institution that later would be called Children's Hospital Colorado.

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