I should have discussed the image that I included in yesterday’s post about eugenics. Believe it or not, the scale that is illustrated in that image – with “moron” at the top and “idiot” at the bottom – was used by physicians to aid their diagnoses.
Whether one was a moron, an imbecile (of high-, medium- or low-grade!) or an idiot depended upon one’s intelligence quotient (IQ), which was determined using the standardized test that was administered widely in the U.S. following its introduction in the early 20th century.
Anyone who scored an IQ of 70 or lower was considered to be “feeble-minded” or “mentally retarded”, and feeble-mindedness was further subdivided into categories: a “moron” had an IQ of 50-69, an “imbecile” had an IQ of 20-49 and an “idiot” had an IQ of 20 or below.
In 1927, U.S. Supreme Court passed a landmark ruling – Buck vs. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 – that upheld a statute for compulsory sterilization of those considered to be mentally retarded, “for the protection and health of the state”.
The state of Virginia had adopted the statue in 1924. On September 10th of that year, Dr. Albert Sidney Priddy, superintendant of the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, filed a petition to his board of directors to sterilize Carrie Buck, an 18-year-old patient at his institution.
Priddy told the board that Buck had a mental age of 9, that she was one of three children of unknown parentage, and that her 52-year-old mother, who had a mental age of 8, had a record of immorality and prostitution. Buck had by that time given birth to a child; the father was her adoptive mother’s nephew, who had raped the “feeble-minded” woman in 1923.
By the time the litigation got to the Supreme Court, Priddy had died and been replaced by his successor, Dr. James Hendren Bell. Presiding over the ruling was Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. – himself interested in eugenics – who infamously concluded the case a follows:
Carrie Buck…a feeble minded white woman…is the daughter of a feeble minded mother in the same institution, and the mother of an illegitimate feeble minded child.
It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind…Three generations of imbeciles are enough.
Thus, Virginia’s sterilization statute was upheld, and Carrie Buck became the first person in the state to be sterilized. (Virginia’s sterilization procedures were repealed in 1974).
But Virginia’s statute was not the first sterilization law. Other states already had such laws, but used them only inconsistently. Following the Buck vs. Bell ruling, dozens of other states added sterilization statues, and began to use them more systematically.
(Coincidentally, there’s a comprehensive and detailed post about the heritability of IQ at Three-Toed Sloth.)