The Cruel History of Eugenics in America: An Interview with Adam Cohen

In the 1920s, some American families competed in state and county fairs to be judged the “fittest human stock.” Families deemed the “most perfectly developed” were awarded blue ribbons, just like cows and pigs.

These Fitter Family Contests were but one reflection then of the infatuation with eugenics across the United States—especially by the elite institutions of science, law, and academia—in an effort to purge the nation of the unfit. Eugenists promoted the reproduction of the healthiest citizens while eliminating the “feebleminded” through policies such as immigration restriction and anti-miscegenation and compulsory sterilization laws.

Acclaimed author Adam Cohen traces the grim history of American eugenics in his groundbreaking new book Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck (Penguin Press). The book focuses on one of vilest Supreme Court decisions in U.S. history when, in 1927, celebrated Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a brief and disturbing opinion allowing the forced sterilization of Carrie Buck, a young Virginia woman with a limited education (Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927)). The decision led to the mass forced sterilization of tens of thousands more Americans, mostly poor and powerless women, who were considered “feebleminded.”

As he illuminates this gross injustice, Mr. Cohen limns the world of Carrie Buck and the prominent scientists, lawyers and judges who wanted to end her family line. He also explores the wide influence of the American eugenics movement that demonized the weak and vulnerable as it inspired Hitler’s ideas on creating an Aryan master race. His book is based on exhaustive research into materials from medical, legal, academic, and other archives, including extensive documents on the legal proceedings against Ms. Buck from the trial court stage to the Supreme Court proceedings...


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