The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era


Defective or Disabled?: Race, Medicine, and Eugenics in Progressive Era Virginia and Alabama1

Gregory Michael Dorra1

a1 Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Something was menacing the South during the Progressive Era. Southern physicians located the threat in the “germ plasm,” the genes, of the region's inhabitants. Writing in a now-infamous 1893 “open letter” published in the Virginia Medical Monthly, Hunter Holmes McGuire, a Richmond physician and president of the American Medical Association, asked for “some scientific explanation of the sexual perversion in the negro of the present day.” McGuire's correspondent, Chicago physician G. Frank Lydston, replied that African-American men raped white women because of “[h]ereditary influences descending from the uncivilized ancestors of our negroes.” Lydston's solution to this problem was not lynching, but surgical castration which “prevents the criminal from perpetuating his kind.” Eight years later in Alabama, Dr. John E. Purdon opined, “It is a proved fact of experience that the inveterate criminal tends to propagates a race of criminals, and that the undeveloped or degraded nerve-tissue will duplicate itself in the next generation.” Dr. Purdon then declared, “Emasculation is the simplest and most perfect plan that can be adopted to secure the perfection of the race.” Twenty-three years later, in 1924, Harry Hamilton Laughlin testified in support of a Virginia law providing for the eugenic sterilization of the “shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South,” who allegedly created social problems for “normal” people. The multiplication of these “defective delinquents,” Laughlin and Virginia officials claimed, could only be controlled by restricting their procreation.

Gregory Michael Dorr is a postdoctoral associate at the Center for the Study of Diversity in Science, Technology, and Medicine at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was previously an assistant professor of history at the University of Alabama. He has published a number of articles on southern eugenics.


1 The author would like to thank K. Holly Gallivan, M.D, M.P.H., for her extensive editorial assistance, Hasan Kwame Jeffries, George Williamson, and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful suggestions, and archivists Tim Pennycuff (University of Alabama at Birmingham), Joan Klein (University of Virginia Medical Center), and Jodi Koste (Medical College of Virginia) for assistance collecting images. David Jones and MIT's Center for the Study of Diversity in Science, Technology, and Medicine supported the paper's completion.