Course Creates Definitive Online Eugenics Resource
Jon C. Reidel - 03-04-2009
When Bryan Petrow signed up for the Honors College course “Disability as Deviance” he wasn’t expecting to become immersed in one of the darker, lesser-known chapters in U.S. history, much less build the definitive website documenting the history of American eugenics. Studying the practice of compulsory sterilization of individuals deemed “disabled” was emotionally taxing, but according to the senior biology major, well worth the time and effort it took to finally give them a voice.
“It was a difficult subject to spend a semester on, but it was one that had been buried and needed to be told,” said Petrow, who worked with fellow Champlain Valley Union High graduate Charles Carpenter on the Vermont write-up. “I felt like we did something that needed to be done 50 years ago. It seems like it belongs in a science fiction novel rather than part of national policy.”
For many of the students in the course, the idea was inconceivable that states passed laws in the first decades of the 20th Century that led to the sterilization of more than 60,000 Americans who were mentally disabled or ill, who belonged to a socially disadvantaged group or were considered morally corrupt. That was the kind of thing that happened in Germany (the National Socialist sterilization program in Germany was considered a stepping stone to the Holocaust), not the United States. Even harder to digest was the revelation that 253 sterilizations occurred in Vermont (25th most nationally) beginning in 1931 and continuing as late as 1957 under the guidance of a state-sponsored program run by Henry F. Perkins, a professor of zoology at UVM from 1902-1945.