The Vermont eugenics survey began with the rural exodus of Vermont farmers and didn’t end until well after Hitler used its ‘philosophy’ to justify his race experiments.
The state’s eugenics supporters thought the westward migration had skimmed the cream from country farms and villages. They believed the people who remained lacked the intelligence and drive of the Yankee Protestants who created Vermont.
Eugenics aims to improve the genetic quality of the human population by promoting more reproduction among ‘biologically fit’ people and less reproduction among ‘degenerates.’
Though eugenicists claimed they based their views on science, the Vermont eugenics survey actually responded to increased immigration from Europe and Canada. It sought to eliminate from the population such traits as harelips, sloppiness, tuberculosis and poor memory. Eugenicists even believed poverty was hereditary.
Inventor Alexander Graham Bell was a proponent. So was birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger. Even W.E.B. Du Bois believed in developing the best versions of African Americans in order for his race to succeed.
Vermont was far from the only state to use eugenics to breed a better population. Connecticut started the ball rolling in 1896, with a marriage law that prohibited anyone who was epileptic or feebleminded from marrying. The next year, Michigan started compulsory sterilization, which spread to 32 states. In the end, state governments forcibly sterilized 65,000 people, mostly women.
Henry Farnham Perkins
The Vermont eugenics survey began with Henry Farnham Perkins, a Mayflower descendant who married another Mayflower descendant. Both came from families of distinguished academics.
Perkins was born in 1877 in the wealthy section of Burlington, Vt. He graduated from the University of Vermont in 1898, and in 1903 got a job at the college as associate professor of Zoology. That same year, the American Breeder’s Association was created to study eugenics.
He plodded along for nearly two decades until he learned of a U.S. Army study after World War I ended. The Army had used the study as part of the draft process, and concluded that men from Vermont had an inordinately high rate of ‘defects, such as diabetes, epilepsy, deformities and mental deficiency.
Perkins set about to correct that problem and preserve Vermont’s Yankee Protestant identity through ‘investigation and social reform.’
The Vermont Eugenics Survey
Perkins started off in 1922 by revamping his Zoology curriculum and started teaching courses on heredity and evolution. He taught that social ills had biological links, and that certain groups of people exhibited a general deterioration toward mental illness, criminality and promiscuity.
That inspired the Vermont eugenics survey, which studied rural Vermonters. Perkins hired fieldworkers to hunt degenerate families in the Vermont countryside. They looked for three categories of degeneracy: chorea, or people with Huntington’s disease; pirates, or people who lived on houseboats; and gypsies, people with dark skin.
In reality, they targeted French Canadians, Indians, African-Americans and immigrants.
Perkins revealed his animus toward immigrants in a comment about French Canadians: You cannot believe a thing they tell you…They are a pretty genial folk but many have a pretty low I.Q….the French are a complacent people; it would be impossible to have a French Mussolini for instance. That kind of drive is lacking…
At least, he thought, they were better than the Irish.
One fieldworker, Harriet Abbot, gathered information on 4,642 people by the end of 1927. Sometimes they disclosed their family histories to her because they thought she was writing a book.
“Unwittingly, her informants opened up their homes and hearts to her, completely unaware of the real purpose of her research,” wrote Kevin Dann and Christie Carter in From Degeneration to Regeneration: The Eugenics Survey of Vermont, 1925-1936.
She and other Vermont eugenics survey fieldworkers identified such traits as illiterate, illegitimate, insane, thief, queer, pauper, immoral, dishonest, rape, syphilis, liar, epileptic, twin, stillborn, dependent, alcoholic, a little odd, wanderer, wild, cruel, one eye and shiftless.
Fieldworkers went to the Rutland Reformatory for Women, a home for the wayward. The fieldworkers believed the institution’s ‘sex delinquents’ were bad women, and got that way through heredity.
Purifying the State’s Polluted Protoplasm
In 1927, Perkins got funding for a bigger survey, called the Vermont Commission on Country Life. Through it, he developed a program that called for Vermonters to ‘wake up’ so that their grandchildren wouldn’t be dragged down by ‘avoidable low-grade Vermonters.’
The commission concluded that Vermont should prevent the marriage and reproduction of its ‘feeble-minded’ citizens.
On the positive side, the VCCL urged Vermonters to keep track and study their families. “It is the patriotic duty of every normal couple to have children in sufficient number to keep up to par ‘the good old Vermont stock,” the commission reported.
It also recommended ways to promote tourism in order to attract economically successful – therefore biologically fit – visitors and summer residents. Vermont implemented many of those ideas, such as banning billboards, licensing cabins, building highways and encouraging summer homes.
Eventually the Vermont eugenics survey took over the VCCL. Then in 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Buck v. Bell that forced sterilization was constitutional. That opened the floodgates for Vermont and other states to pass and enforce their compulsory sterilization laws.
Vermont passed its compulsory sterilization law in 1931, the 25th state to do so. The law targeted ‘idiots,’ ‘imbeciles,’ ‘feeble-minded’ or ‘insane’ persons living in state institutions.
Many state laws targeted the mentally ill, the intellectually disabled, the epileptic, the deaf, the blind and the physically deformed. But at the time, many women deemed ‘feeble-minded’ went to state institutions. In reality, they had had sex or gotten pregnant outside of marriage.
In 1936, a publication of the American Neurological Association reported data on sterilizations in the New England states. Vermont had the lowest disparity between men and women, with 65 women sterilized and 32 men. Connecticut had the worst disparity, sterilizing 372 women, but only 19 men. Maine sterilized 78 women and seven men, while New Hampshire sterilized 170 women and 29 men.
A Bad Name
But eugenics was losing steam in the 1930s. Hitler’s rise to power gave eugenics a bad name, and scientists began to think environment played a large role in human development.
Then in 1942, another U.S. Supreme Court case, Skinner v. Oklahoma, raised legal questions about the practice and discouraged further sterilization. Vermont, however, continued sterilizing its people until 1963. In the end, Vermont sterilized more than 250 people it deemed degenerate — mostly women.
Though Henry Farnham Perkins identified alcoholism as a degenerate trait, he died of liver failure, a bedridden alcoholic, in 1956.
Images: Chester, Vt., By Kenneth C. Zirkel – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61935149. Two cretins By https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/63/91/55df9a057497dbe426d95a9fd0bb.jpgGallery: https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/L0013872.htmlWellcome Collection gallery (2018-03-21): https://wellcomecollection.org/works/v2un3ra7 CC-BY-4.0, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35966587. This story was updated in 2023.