Paul A. Lombardo’s history of Buck v. Bell, Three Generations, No Imbeciles (2008. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.), is a terrific telling of case of Carrie Buck, a young woman sterilized by Virginia in 1927 in order to prevent her from having more “socially inadequate” offspring.

In 1924, supporters of a statute known as the Virginia Sterilization Act challenged the very law they helped author in hopes of gaining legal cover for their eugenic efforts. They claimed that reproduction among the “feebleminded” was a proximate threat to the body social. According to the “expert” brought in by counsel to defend the Act, Buck was the daughter of a feebleminded woman, was feebleminded herself, and had demonstrated that she was a danger to the community by bearing an illegitimate feebleminded daughter.

The case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In its 8-1 affirmation, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously opined, “Three generations of imbeciles is enough.”

Lombardo presents documentary proof that Carrie Buck and her daughter were perfectly normal, perhaps even a bit above average, and that the 1924 proceedings which led to the Supreme Court’s review were a sham, with prosecution and defense attorneys colluding to produce the desired outcome. Adding insult, Buck’s daughter, the birth of whom signaled to many that Carrie was genetically predisposed to promiscuity, was the product of an incestuous rape.

But Lombardo’s story is about much more than a poor court decision.

As Stephen Murdock writes in his excellent review for History News Network, the impact of Holmes’ decision “was far greater than even most educated Americans are aware of today.” Though eugenic sterilization laws were already on the books of 25 of the 32 states that would eventually adopt such statues, legal challenges and cultural “squeamishness” had, up to Buck v. Bell, kept the enthusiasm of a self-promoting class of bureaucrats in check.

Buck broke the barriers, and before the laws were overturned or grew moribund in the late 1970s, at least 60,000 eugenic sterilizations had been performed in the United States. A terrifying number made all the more horrible when one adds the 400,000 sterilizations performed in Nazi Germany based on the precedent set by the Virginia law’s promoters.

Though the category of “feeblemindedness,” as Murdock notes, today sounds “quaint,” at the time of Buck, the term was considered clinically descriptive.

Lombardo states that the category of feeblemindedness “opened clear avenues of activity for a professional class of reformers that could guide government policy in a progressive direction” (17).

As demonstrated (perhaps somewhat tediously) in many of the articles in this blog, biologists, particularly those inclined to public policy, leveraged eugenic enthusiasm for personal and institutional gain long after the science was discredited. Though genetic researchers working with mathematicians were able to demonstrate early in the twentieth century that even a massive program of selective reproduction would likely have little impact on the human gene pool, the excitement and prospect for power generated by the possibility that culture had a scientifically manageable biological component, once ignited, proved impossible to extinguish.

Lombardo tells a crackling tale, and tells it so passionately and so well that one barely notices that this is not a popularization or polemic, but a thoroughly documented work of history. His first 4 chapters are intended to serve mostly as a set up his central story of the legal history of eugenic laws in the United States. But in these 57 or so short pages, Lombardo contextualizes the cultural, political and scientific landscape that conditioned the passing and implementation of these laws better than any history I have yet read.

The author demonstrates a clear mastery of his material in the way he is able to pull quotes from an incredibly wide range of documents to create a novelistic narrative that never strays into territory not mapped by solid primary sources.

Lombardo challenges us to see Buck v. Bell not as miscarriage of justice committed in service to a since discredited “science,” but as a still relevant example of the dangers of rationalizing broad exceptions to personal liberty based on “emergency” conditions.

Carrie Buck’s “socially inadequate” baby was seen as a part of an invisible and fast moving invasion. Along with foreign germs, foreign ideas and foreigners, this invasion was viewed as a proximate threat to the body politic which demanded expert extra-legal action lest the battle be lost before the country’s slow moving constitutional system got around to okaying any action.

Sound familiar?