“The Vermont Historical Society has recently published a book called ‘Vermont for the Vermonters’ which takes a very in-depth but also holistic look at the eugenics movement in Vermont,” Vermont Historical Society executive director Steve Perkins said. “Its author, Mercedes de Guardiola, is meeting us at a picnic table (in front of the former Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury).”
“Eugenics is the pseudo-scientific field of better human breeding, and it was a field that was started in Great Britain in 1883,” de Guardiola said. “Galton, who was the founder of eugenics…”
“Francis Galton,” Mike Hoey noted.
“He’s the half-cousin of Charles Darwin, so he gets a lot of inspiration from him,” de Guardiola said. “It was adopted by the majority of American states.”
“Leading to a great deal of devastation in a lot of people’s lives through forced sterilizations and other things,” Hoey said.
“In Vermont, we see sterilization under a 1931 law which mandated — theoretically — it would be voluntary sterilization,” de Guardiola added. “There’s a lot of issues with that idea of consent, mostly because you are targeting both children and then, also, people who are considered mentally disabled. So there is this question of ‘are you actually able to give consent?’, and we do have records that suggest in many of these cases that it was coercive.
“We also see segregations, to separate out populations that were considered ‘undesirable’ so that they could not procreate. We’re sitting right now at the Waterbury Hospital. We know, from several superintendents’ records, that they intended (that) certain people would be kept here for lifelong commitments so that they would be prevented from procreation.”
“Steve Perkins and I have touched upon poor farms in the past,” Hoey said. “And they entered into the eugenics movement in a way, too.”
“What that actually meant in many cases was people that were unwanted by society — the elderly, dependent children, people with mental disabilities, with physical disabilities, and those struggling with health problems,” de Guardiola noted. “It becomes part of the eugenics movement as so many of these people are moved from the poor farms into state institutions.
“The Waterbury State Hospital and its officials were some of the biggest supporters of eugenics, and unfortunately, that support grew out of how many people that they were housing here. Due to their own preexisting biases, they believed that the majority of cases were due to poor heredity, so they really lacked an understanding at the time of the various environmental factors that could play a role in health issues.
“We also see people who were sent here that were not mentally ill — but beyond that, because they were seeing such large numbers of people, Vermonters, come here, they began to believe that eugenics was the solution. We see that support strongly emerge as early as 1912 and continue into the (’20s and ’30s) Eugenics Survey, where the superintendent here, Dr. (Eugene) Stanley, was actually on the advisory committee of the Eugenics Survey and turned over records from the people institutionalized here.
“After World War II, eugenics has become associated with the horrors of Nazi Germany. Eugenicists are pretty upset about that in America, so what they do instead is that they rebrand it, and this is systematic even though eugenics policies and programs remain in place. Vermont’s 1931 sterilization law actually wasn’t overturned until the 1970s and there is a sterilization law that replaced it, though with non-eugenical language.
“What was really interesting to me as I carried out my research was how it emerged out of a public welfare and health crisis in the late 1800s. (It serves as) a sobering reminder to us how, as we let crises develop and also, unfortunately, as solutions may fail, how people can turn to extreme answers.
“The book will be available at the Vermont Historical Society and select indie bookstores across the state.”