This book review originally appeared, in slightly different form, in Our Sunday Visitor, Jan. 16, 2000.

Book cover of Nancy L. Gallagher's <em>Breeding Better Vermonters</em>

Review of Breeding Better Vermonters: The Eugenics Project in the Green Mountain State, by Nancy L. Gallagher. University Press of New England, 1999, 237 pp.

Reviewed by Mary Meehan

If she were still in the classroom today, Vermont writer Nancy L. Gallagher said in a recent interview, "I'd probably be teaching a lot differently."

A former high school biology teacher, she recently spent several years researching the history of eugenics--the effort to breed better humans--in her state. She believes it's important for students to understand this history as they consider eugenics-related issues today.

Her book, Breeding Better Vermonters, has made quite a stir because of its information on eugenic sterilization of "feeble-minded" and insane state residents in the early and middle decades of the twentieth century.

Vermont did not record nearly as many eugenic sterilizations as some other states did. Gallagher noted that Vermont officially reported 253 "up until 1965." But she is not sure that figure is accurate; and another expert, cited by the Boston Globe last summer, said the real number may be in the thousands. In any case, Gallagher hopes her book will provide "an anchor for the oral tradition and the personal stories" some Vermonters have.

She remarked that people "think of eugenics as ending in World War II," but that "certainly sterilization and institutionalization of people didn't." Eugenic attitudes, she added, "still persist today." She regularly talks to people who believe eugenics "was a good idea" and that "they should have done more of it."

Gallagher shows how eugenics propaganda prepared the way for Vermont's 1931 sterilization law. That law provided that "it shall be the policy of the state to prevent procreation of idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded or insane persons" when their welfare and "the public welfare" could be improved by "voluntary sterilization." There are questions about how "voluntary" decisions for sterilizations were, since doctors and legal guardians could make or heavily influence them. But sterilization was not supposed to be done unless the person voluntarily submitted to it.

Invalidated by a court challenge about 20 years ago, the law was replaced by one which allows a mentally-incompetent person to petition a court for sterilization. Gallagher called this "a very strange law" and said that "I don't even know if it's used" or "how much it's used."

In her book, she suggests that eugenics propaganda and research on allegedly "degenerate" families may have harmed individuals, whether or not they were sterilized. Abenaki Indians, French-Canadian Catholics, and the rural poor apparently provided most of the target families for eugenicists. (Gallagher has a Protestant background, but her husband is a Catholic whose parents came from rural Ireland. "So I've had cross-cultural experience in my own family," she remarked.)

The key figure in her book is Prof. Harry Perkins (1877-1956), a prominent zoology professor at the University of Vermont who once was president of the American Eugenics Society. His ancestors were "old New England stock" who had settled in America in the 1600s. He was concerned about preserving the old Yankee families as his state faced rural depopulation and stagnation. He also focused on Vermont's many poor people of French-Canadian descent; another eugenicist had suggested that the French-Canadians had "an undue proportion of defectives."

Perkins launched the Eugenics Survey of Vermont in 1925 and kept it going until 1936. He saw it as a way to study "defective" and "degenerate" families and, in Gallagher's words, to merge "eugenics with progressive social reform." He found allies in the state government and the Vermont Children's Aid Society--"reformers" who wanted to improve services for people with mental disabilities, but also wanted to prevent the births of more such people.

Reformers had already been involved in breaking up problem families and sending their members to jails, reform schools and mental institutions. Severe poverty played a major role in the problems of many such families. Rural population decline and isolation, aggravated by the closing of some churches and schools, probably contributed to family pathologies such as alcoholism and incest. But eugenicists tended to overlook these factors as they searched for hereditary problems.

The Eugenics Survey researcher had access to both private and government records on "defective" families. She also made intrusive investigations in towns where some families lived, requesting information from "neighbors, teachers, ministers, and relatives willing to cooperate with the survey."

Prof. Perkins had a high-powered advisory committee for his Eugenics Survey, including superintendents of Vermont prisons and institutions for the mentally-disabled. But the committee "included no representatives of Vermont's working class or of ethnic minorities." The most vulnerable minority, perhaps, consisted of Native Americans. Gallagher notes that one group studied by the survey, called the Gypsy family, was actually a collection of Abenaki Indian families. (She told Our Sunday Visitor that many young Abenakis, sent to reform school, "never had children" after their release.)

While the Eugenics Survey records are now open to researchers, the sterilization records are not; so Gallagher can't prove a direct link between Eugenics Survey studies and the sterilization of individuals. But it's clear that the 1931 sterilization law was a major goal of Prof. Perkins and that he was a key figure in its passage.

Elin Anderson, a Canadian sociologist, was able to moderate the Perkins view of eugenics. Her 1937 study of ethnic relations in Burlington, Vt., done for the Eugenics Survey, exposed prejudice against Jewish and French-Canadian Vermonters. Prof. Perkins encouraged publication of her study partly because, Gallagher believes, he wanted to disassociate the American version of eugenics from the Nazi version. But Perkins continued to support eugenic sterilization of people with mental disabilities.

Gallagher offers valuable information on other efforts of Perkins and Frederick Osborn (the central figure in American eugenics for many decades) to distance themselves from both the Nazis and the openly bigoted past of the American Eugenics Society. But other researchers have shown that racial and class prejudice, as well as disdain for people with mental disabilities, remained strong in American eugenics after its supposed "reform" by Osborn and friends.

While she has not traced the activities of most current eugenicists, Gallagher is aware of their influence--as well as the results of decades of eugenics thought on science teaching and on public policy. She is concerned about the possible abuse of genetic information that could result from the Human Genome Project. She also worries about today's invasive social research and surveillance. In the interview, she referred to "our own at-risk groups today, that we seem to continually survey and profile and study" and asked, "Are they the grandchildren, perhaps, of the people who were studied by the Eugenics Survey?"

And in an essay provided by her publisher, Gallagher remarked: "Hearing strident arguments for reproductive control of incompetent parents (and specific examples of people who should be sterilized) and seeing bumper stickers on Vermont cars like The Stupid Should Not Reproduce or Thank You for Not Breeding has convinced me that eugenics thinking in Vermont is alive and well, just as Harry Perkins predicted it would be."