Keeping America Sane: Psychiatry and Eugenics in the United States and Canada, 1880-1940

Keeping America Sane: Psychiatry and Eugenics in the United States and Canada, 1880-1940

Keeping America Sane: Psychiatry and Eugenics in the United States and Canada, 1880-1940

Keeping America Sane: Psychiatry and Eugenics in the United States and Canada, 1880-1940

Synopsis

What would bring a physician to conclude that sterilization is appropriate treatment for the mentally ill and mentally handicapped? Using archival sources, Ian Robert Dowbiggin documents the involvement of both American and Canadian psychiatrists in the eugenics movement of the early twentieth century. He explains why professional men and women committed to helping those less fortunate than themselves arrived at such morally and intellectually dubious conclusions.

Psychiatrists at the end of the nineteenth century felt professionally vulnerable, Dowbiggin explains, because they were under intense pressure from state and provincial governments and from other physicians to reform their specialty. Eugenic ideas, which dominated public health policy making, seemed the best vehicle for catching up with the progress of science. Among the prominent psychiatrist-eugenicists Dowbiggin considers are G. Alder Blumer, Charles Kirk Clarke, Thomas Salmon, Clare Hincks, and William Partlow.

Tracing psychiatric support,for eugenics throughout the interwar years, Dowbiggin pays special attention to the role of psychiatrists in the fierce debates about immigration policy. His examination of psychiatry's unfortunate flirtation with eugenics elucidates how professional groups come to think and act along common lines within specific historical contexts.

Excerpt

As Keeping America Sane predicted when it was first published in 1997, eugenics is a chapter from the past that simply refuses to go away. Just ask ex-farmer Fred Aslin. In 1936, at the age of ten, Aslin was institutionalized at Michigan’s Lapeer State Training School, along with eight of his siblings. Eight years later, diagnosed as a “feeble-minded moron,” Aslin was ordered to undergo a vasectomy.

Then, in 1996, he requested his files under the state’s freedom of information act. What he read so appalled him that he decided to file suit against the state of Michigan, seeking compensation for damages. Unhappily for Aslin, his claim was turned down in March 2002 because the statute of limitations had expired.

At about the same time Fred Aslin made his decision to take legal action, and half a continent away, the waitress Leilani Muir sued the Canadian province of Alberta for sterilizing her under its eugenics law of 1928, one of 2,822 Albertans to have suffered the same fate. She ended up having better luck than Aslin. In 1996, Muir was awarded $750,000 in compensation. This ruling opened the door to a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of 700 other victims of Alberta’s law, resulting in 1999 in a $82 million settlement that grabbed national headlines in Canada.

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