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Eugenics Survey of Vermont

Studying Poverty & Disability

The Eugenics Survey of Vermont (ESV) took place from 1925-1936.

It consisted of seven major studies (see timeline below) under the direction of Henry F. Perkins at the University of Vermont. Some of the research conducted was used to justify Act 174: An Act for Human Betterment by Voluntary Sterilization that legalized voluntary eugenic sterilizations in 1931. Between 1930 and 1952, 256 known sterilizations took place in Vermont.

Read more about Henry F. Perkins’ objectives

According to Henry F. Perkins, the founder of the Vermont Eugenics Survey, the “Essentials of a Good Eugenics Program” were: 

  1. Routine physical and mental examinations of school children with registration of defectives. 
  2. Special classes in the public schools. (In rural as well as urban and village.)
  3. Clinics (some of them travelling) for use of schools, courts, prisons, welfare societies, orphanages, public health nurses, etc. etc. 
  4. Mental Hygiene Society whose object shall be the education of public opinion so that both public and private funds may be available for a good Eugenics and Mental Hygiene program. Such a society should be in a position to give aid to local communities who wish to inaugurate a eugenics program. 
  5. Social Workers to do follow‐up work for state institutions and clinics. 
  6. Colonies for the Feeble Minded. 
  7. Sterilization Law. 
  8. Maternity and Prenatal Care. 
  9. Visiting Teachers.

Timeline of Eugenics Studies

Family Studies of the Rural Poor

The researchers started by looking for evidence of “defective germplasm” in poor, rural families. Over the course of three years, they studied 62 families by reading case records from public and private institutions and conducting interviews with community members who knew the family (teachers, clergy, etc.), as well as members of the family themselves. The results of this study were used to make a case for sterilization legislation.

1925-1928
National Committee on Mental Hygiene Survey of Vermont School Children

After a high percentage of Vermonters failed the WWI draft test, a team of psychologists questioned if Vermont had a high percentage of children with disabilities. The researchers conducted IQ and personality tests on over 1000 public school children and children in special education programs. They were investigating if students’ results varied by race or socioeconomic status. They did not find a correlation and they found Vermont’s rates similar to the national average.

1926-1927
Key Families in Rural Vermont Towns

This study looked at families in Sandgate, Williston, and Lincoln. They continued to look for “bad heredity.” However, after being criticized for putting too much emphasis on heredity, Perkins published Francis Conklin’s 1928 study of “Better Branches of Degenerate Families” and wrote “Most families, perhaps all, both add and detract from the welfare of their communities,” in the Survey’s annual report.

1928-1929
The Women at the Rutland Reformatory

In 1929, a Eugenics Survey researcher conducted IQ tests on the inmates of the Women’s Reformatory at Rutland, a rehabilitation program for females convicted of crimes, including 45% for “sex offenses,” such as adultery or cohabitation. The study concluded that while “mental deficiency is a powerful factor” in determining risk of conviction, “Most of the women came from unfavorable homes and lacked the school training that we now consider as the minimum essential for meeting the problems of adult life.”

1929
Brandon Waiting List

This study looked at children on the waiting list for the State School for the Feebleminded to evaluate their outcomes in the community without the school’s training. Researchers communicated with public agencies, family, and community members and conducted home visits with the children. They continued to consult “pedigree” charts created in earlier studies to look for correlations between families with “bad heredity” and the “degree of social and economic adjustment” of the children.

1929
Migration Study

Researchers lived in three Vermont towns, Waitsfield, Cornwall, and Jamaica, for eight weeks to get to know the character and demographics of each. Specifically, they were interested in why people chose to stay in or leave a town and how that impacted the town’s “character.” The final recommendation of the study was that rural areas with fertile land be improved so that people would choose to stay there and migrate out of areas with poor farmland.

1930-1931
Ethnic Study of Burlington

The first ESV study that looked specifically at ethnicity, it examined the different factors that influenced achievement between different ethnic groups in Burlington: “Old Americans, Italians, French Canadians, Jews, Syrians, Greeks, Irish, Germans, and Nordic people.” It focused on how different ethnic groups think about relating with one another and advocates for groups to collaborate to build a stronger community and society.

1932-1936

Read primary source documents about these events


Sterilization

In 1931, An Act for Human Betterment by Voluntary Sterilization passed in the Vermont legislature.

Overall, about 256-259 people were sterilized in institutions between 1931 and 1968.

Where does this data come from?

The data in this graph comes from two separate sources which are placed next to each other to show their general agreement. 

In gold, are the totals by year from counting the specific records of individual who were sterilized. (Records in Vermont State Archive). Total 256.

In grey, are the numbers reported in “‘… Three Generations of Imbeciles Are Enough…’ State Eugenic Sterilization Laws in American Thought and Practice” by Julius Paul (1965). In the original document, cumulative numbers are reported every few years. For ease of comparison those numbers have been averaged out over the years they cover in this graph. Total 259.

In In 1981 and 2013, Vermont Sterilization laws were updated.

Current law now requires that for voluntary sterilizations an individual must be “over the age of 18” and allows involuntary sterilizations “only after a hearing in the Superior Court.”


Abenaki Connection

Claim: Military Vehicles and Mass Sterilizations

On November 4, 1995, in a letter to the editor of the Burlington Free Press titled, “Victims left out,” Charles Lawrence Delaney II of the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi claimed that: 

Without due process, summarily ignoring habeas corpus, Abenakis were sent to Windsor State Prison and Waterbury Hospital. Perkins, with help from Norwich University cadets, U.S. Army officers and military vehicles, assembled a mobile field hospital. Mass sterilizations and medical experimentation was the result of this effort.

Charles Lawrence Delaney II of the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi
Read the full article

Evaluation of Evidence

As cited above, about 256-259 people were sterilized over a period of 37 years. The vast majority of these were performed at the Brandon Training School on people who were deemed “feeble minded.”

The Eugenics in Vermont: A Chronology of “State-sanctioned eugenics policies and practices” was created as part of the proposed apology by the General Assembly of the State of Vermont for its part in eugenics and includes a timeline of “State Institutions, Agencies, and Acts with Eugenics Involvement Authorized and/or Funded by the Vermont Legislature.” 

According to this research, in 1925, the superintendents of the Vermont State Hospital for the Insane (Waterbury) and the Vermont State Prison and a Norwich University faculty member were on an “Advisory Committee” formed by Henry F. Perkins. However, there is no mention of a field hospital, army, or military involvement.

Claim: 3,400 Abenaki women sterilized

This number is quoted in various documents, including the UVM College of Education and Social Services “Abenaki Land Acknowledgement” which states:

Many familial groups that remained in Vermont were eradicated in the early 20th century through forced sterilization and pregnancy termination policies, with over 3,400 reported cases of sterilization.

UVM College of Education and Social Services “Abenaki Land Acknowledgement”

Also cited Burlington Free Press article, “Vermont Abenaki build cultural awareness” (2016).

Evaluation of Evidence

The paper Native American Women and Coerced Sterilization: On the Trail of Tears in the 1970s, describes a report from the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) which found that at Indian Health Services facilities in the Western United States, “although some kind of informed consent had been acquired from these women, no common consent form was used” in 3,406 sterilization procedures.

None of these facilities is in or near Vermont, and because the Vermont State Recognized Tribes are not Federally Recognized, they would not have had access to these facilities.

See an excerpt from the paper