Part of the Past: Eugenics and UVM

The Vermont Eugenics Survey began at UVM during in the mid 1920s as a result of the New Deal as an attempt to “Breed Better Vermonters”.

Eugenics is a Social Darwinist idea created in the late nineteenth century by Sir Thomas Galton (Charles Darwin’s cousin).

Henry Perkins, UVM professor and chairman of the Zoology Department, as well as curator of the Fleming Museum, organized “The Eugenics Survey”. It was created to understand why Vermont had one of the highest rates of people rejected by the US draft.

The survey, which sought out the mentally and physically disabled of Vermont, was used to make pedigrees of genes to eliminate bad germ plasmas for the human and Vermont population.

According to Galton eugenics is the “study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations, whether physically or mentally.”

The goal of the movement was to “remove” the bad seeds from society in order to better it. The removal process included segregation, sterilization and hospitalization of people who were known as “feebleminded”. Today, feebleminded is synonymous with mentally challenged.

Though the feebleminded were the primary group that the eugenics movement aimed at eliminating, it was not limited to them. The poor and uneducated were also victims of the movement.

According to Perkins’s notes, eugenics researchers also wanted to eliminate those that they felt were immoral, insane, or dependent.

The forced segregation, sterilization, and hospitalization of the socially “inadequate” were known as Negative Eugenics, but there was an opposing side, Positive Eugenics. This side of the movement focused on encouraging the “socially superior” to reproduce move often in order to better society.

The movement in Vermont utilized both negative and positive eugenics in order to better the Vermont population.

One study said, “Society must look upon the germ plasm as belonging to the society and not merely to the individual who carries it.” Action was taken to an individual regardless of their desires because of the utilitarian basis of the movement.

Many ideas behind the eugenics movement were largely based on an individual’s race. Laws prohibited interracial marriages and blamed non Anglo Saxons for many social problems. According to Perkins, “statistics showed Vermont to be almost at the top of the list of physical and mental defectives. It has been suggested that this may be due to the large number of French Canadians in the population.”

The pamphlet of purposed laws, “Proposals for Improving Social Legislation in Vermont: Improved Laws rather than More Laws for the Commonwealth”, even had a swastika on the cover.

Perkins began the Eugenics Survey in 1925, using field investigators to identify families with “bad genes”. One investigator, Harriet Abbott, conducted researching records at “Waterbury State Hospital for the Insane, the Vermont State Prison, and the Brattleboro Retreat for family representation in those institutions” according to the UVM eugenics webpage.

“Her ‘field work’ consisted of interviews with teachers, ministers, neighbors, and town officials who knew the family and ‘friendly visiting’ with the family under investigation.” After field work, Abbott created charts and genealogies in order to estimate the monetary cost of socially “unfit”.

The information uncovered by field workers like Abbott was compiled and published into survey books annually from 1925 until the early 1930s. The Survey was also utilized in lawmaking in order to back new legislation regarding “the identification, registration, supervision, placement in institutions, and sterilization of theoretically ‘incompetent’ Vermonters.”

While the survey created rifts in Vermont communities, shunning whom Perkins and his researchers deemed “socially unfit”; it later helped demonstrate the unscientific methods used to categorize people.

The survey ended in 1936 when Perkins’s ten year agree-ment with the organization that funded him ended. The Vermont Department of Pub-lic Welfare took over Perkins’s role according to the UVM eugenics webpage. Perkins even admitted that the survey was not solely scientific.

The accepted nature of the eugenics movement ended in the 1940s after Nazi use was revealed.

Documents regarding eugenics in Vermont and Perkins’s survey (including copies of the survey from 1927-1931) can be found on the ground floor of the Bailey Howe Library.