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Eugenics and Sterilization in North Dakota, 1913


Historically speaking, the term “eugenics” has had a troubled legacy.  Eugenics came from a Greek word meaning “good birth,” and the eugenics movement of the 1800s and early 1900s sought to apply principles of heredity to improve the human race.


    Proponents of eugenics wanted to increase the number of children produced by persons who were supposedly “superior,” while advocating a reduction in the number of children from parents they considered to be physically or mentally inferior.

    There were two branches.  Positive eugenics encouraged larger families for superior parents, while negative eugenics wanted to reduce the number of children by defective parents.

    On this date in 1913, the Bismarck Tribune published the text of a speech on eugenics given in Bismarck by Dr. E.P. Quain, a local physician.  Dr. Quain spoke favorably of positive eugenics, stating that North Dakota should try to make a better overall environment for parents to raise children.  Quain also advocated negative eugenics by asserting that North Dakota’s government should institute “sterilization of all defectives” considered as “incurable mentally, morally, or physically, and therefore unfit for procreation.”

    The state legislature passed a law authorizing sterilization of criminals and so-called defectives in 1913, largely with the backing of Dr. W.M. Hotchkiss, superintendent of the Jamestown State Hospital. However, sterilization was rarely used from 1913 to 1930, with only 39 instances.  A State Board of Control, with medical experts included, judged which individuals were to undergo the procedure.

    In 1925, Attorney General George Schafer ruled the sterilization law invalid because it failed to fully recognize the rights of those affected.  An attempt to address that shortcoming came in 1927 when the state established an appeals process.

    From 1933 to 1943, there were reportedly 580 sterilizations, probably more motivated by a desire to reduce institutional costs than for genetic protections.  Overall, about 40 percent of the patients were mentally ill, with the others developmentally disadvantaged.

    Due to World War II and the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust of Adolf Hitler, who also advocated forced sterilizations, the eugenics movement was forever stained. In the US, about 30 states had used sterilizations.

    North Dakota repealed its sterilization law in 1965, having turned to more humane treatment for individuals in prisons and other state institutions, opting for tranquilizers and other medications.  Altogether, there had been 1,049 eugenical-sterilizations in the state, a regrettable chapter of the state’s history.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSU Moorhead History Department.

Sources:  “Eugenics Was Title Of Paper Read By Dr. Quain To Friendless Society,” Bismarck Tribune, January 26, 1913, p. 2.

“Important Laws Enacted,” Williston Graphic, March 20, 1913, p. 5.

“Will Sterilize Insane Subjects,” Grand Forks Herald, August 7, 1913, p. 3.

“Cost For Care . . . In State Increasing,” Bismarck Tribune, October 2, 1934, p. 3.

“Way Back When; October 25, 1925,” Bismarck Tribune, October 25, 1980, p. 4.

“Sterilization Move Launched in Germany,” Bismarck Tribune, December 20, 1933, p. 2.

“Would Administer Sterilization Law Through Commission,” Bismarck Tribune, August 20, 1925, p. 2.

“Sterilization Law,” Bismarck Tribune, January 4, 1927, p. 2.

Janell Cole, “N.D. State Hospital’s History Marked by Politics,” In-Forum, https://archive.is/Jn48m, accessed on December 18, 2017.

Lutz Kaelber, “North Dakota Eugenics,” https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/ND/ND.html, accessed November 14, 2017.

Harry H. Laughlin, Eugenical Sterilization in the United States (Chicago: Psychopathic Laboratory of the Municipal Court of Chicago, 1922), p. 26-28.