Eugenics is a well-known low point in the modern history of science. In the United States, from the late nineteenth century to the 1940s, credence was given to this pseudoscience focused on the notional ‘improvement’ of human populations by halting the reproduction of supposedly lesser genes. Less well known is the story of how US law rendered eugenics intellectually respectable across the world, supporting programmes from Canada to Sweden. Ultimately, this egregious failing led to the enforced sterilization of at least 60,000 US citizens, and was used by the Nazi regime to justify its own programme of sterilization and, later, extermination.
Adam Cohen’s Imbeciles relates a key chapter in this story, the 1927 US Supreme Court case known as Buck v. Bell. The case began in September 1924, when Albert Priddy, head of the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, an asylum near Lynchburg, asserted that Carrie Buck, a teenage mother who had entered the asylum that June, was an “imbecile” — a term used at the time to signify intellectual disability. Priddy petitioned the asylum’s board of directors to sterilize Buck.