Buck, Carrie (?–1983)

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Buck, Carrie (?–1983)

First American woman sterilized under the Virginia Compulsory Sterilization Law. Born Carrie Buck in Charlottesville, Virginia; died in 1983 in Waynesboro, Virginia; only daughter of Emma and Frank Buck; married William Davis Eagle, on May 14, 1932 (died); married Charles Albert Detamore, April 25, 1965; children: one child, Vivian Elaine, born out of wedlock (d. 1932).

Sometimes an event goes virtually unnoticed only to later surface as an incident of monumental consequence. The operation to sterilize Carrie Buck, carried out on the cloudy morning of October 19, 1927, at the State Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded in Lynchburg, Virginia, was performed without Buck's understanding or agreement and was sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court. The procedure ultimately altered the lives of thousands in the States, and, arguably, had worldwide implications, influencing the German policy of eugenics or "Aryan cleansing" under the Nazi regime, causing the sterilization of over two million.

From early childhood, Carrie Buck was victimized by local and state court systems, which, lacking provisions for child advocacy, eventually led to her surgery under Virginia's Compulsory Sterilization Law. Her natural mother Emma, widowed at an early age, had to make her living on the street in order to provide for Carrie and Carrie's half siblings Doris and Roy. At age three, Carrie became the ward of J.T. and Alice Dobbs , who sought to save her from the squalor of the street but were unable to provide a warm and nurturing environment; much of the time, she was treated like household help, leaving her feeling alienated and lonely.

Buck attended school through the fifth grade before she was withdrawn to help with family chores. She was considered a normal student, and her last teacher pronounced her "very good" in deportment and lessons. Around the age of 16, she was raped by a member of the Dobbs family, a nephew she had known and trusted. When she became pregnant, the family sought to rid themselves of her as quickly as possible by having her certified feebleminded by the local court. J.T. Dobbs understood the workings of the system, having overseen Buck's mother's commitment on the same charge three years earlier. Emma Buck remained institutionalized for 24 years, until she died of pneumonia on April 19, 1944. Buck's half-sister Doris would also be admitted to the Colony in December 1927. Her half-brother Roy was evidently legally adopted by another family, thereby escaping institutionalization.

After hearing testimony attesting to her hallucinations, temper tantrums, dishonesty, and morally delinquency, the Court for the City of Charlottesville pronounced Carrie Buck a suitable candidate for institutionalization. She was admitted to the Virginia Colony on June 4, 1924, after giving birth to a baby girl, Vivian Elaine, who remained in the care of the Dobbses. Carrie was allowed to visit Vivian only a few times before the child died of measles in 1932.

When Buck entered the Virginia Colony, the superintendent was Dr. Albert Sidney Priddy, a proponent of eugenics (human improvement through genetic control) who was classifying women at the Colony feebleminded on the basis of their sexual behavior alone and sterilizing them under the guise of treating them for pelvic diseases. After six months of observation, he determined Buck to be "feebleminded of the lowest grade Moron classification." He further judged her "a moral delinquent but physically capable of earning her own living if protected against childbearing by sterilization." At the time Buck was under evaluation, the institution was looking for a test case by which compulsory sterilization could be made law in Virginia. Buck was an ideal litigant, especially given her "feebleminded" mother and illegitimate baby.

Arguing Buck's fate in the courtroom were Aubrey Strode, a prominent Virginia politician and attorney for Albert Priddy, the Colony, and Virginia, and Buck's lawyer, Irving Whitehead, a close friend of Strode's. Presiding over the courtroom was Judge Bennett Gordon, who had known both lawyers since childhood. Strode's testimony was based on characterizations of the Buck family as poverty stricken, sexually promiscuous, and mentally retarded. Neighbors, teachers, and social workers corroborated his argument, which culminated with testimony from an expert and zealous supporter of compulsory sterilization from the Eugenics Record Office on Long Island. By all accounts, Whitehead's defense of Buck paled in light of Strode's prosecution. He called no witnesses and did not argue that there were contradictions in Buck's commitment record, nor that the Virginia sterilization law violated the U.S. Constitution, depriving Buck due process or equal protection under the law.

Judge Gordon took only a few weeks to decide in favor of the State, and he ordered Buck to be sterilized. Dr. Priddy, who died of Hodgkins disease before the judgment, was succeeded by Dr. J.H. Bell, his assistant at the Virginia Colony. The verdict was subsequently sent to the Virginia Court of Appeals as Buck v. Bell, where it was affirmed. The case was heard by the Supreme Court in April of 1927. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes delivered the majority opinion (there was but one dissenting judge on the nine-member Court), which found that "Virginia's sterilization act satisfied both due process requirements and equal protection guarantees." Holmes went on to argue that sterilization was "not too great a sacrifice" to ask of Carrie Buck, and that "three generations of imbeciles" were indeed "enough."

Buck's sterilization was followed by 4,000 others at the Virginia Colony, including that of her sister Doris, who was told she was undergoing an appendectomy and did not discover what had been done to her until years later. Within ten years, more than 27,000 compulsory sterilizations had been performed in the United States, and 30 states had passed sterilization laws, many of them based on the Virginia model. In July 1934, the model sterilization act, developed in the United States and used in Virginia, became law in Germany, implemented by Adolf Hitler as the Hereditary Health Law, to insure that the inferior genes of "less worthy" members of the Third Reich were not passed on. It has been estimated that by the end of the first year that the law was in effect, over 56,000 in Germany were found defective and had been sterilized; between 1933 and 1945, two million in Germany met the same fate. Testimony at the Nuremberg war trials cited the Carrie Buck case as the precedent for Nazi race hygiene and sterilization programs.

After Buck's sterilization, the Dobbses refused to take her back, and she was placed in the home of a family named Coleman as a domestic servant. A subsequent placement with the Newbery family in Bland, Virginia, proved to be a nurturing environment for Buck, perhaps her first. Writing to the institution, Mrs. Newbery remarked on Buck's seemingly normal intelligence and inquired why she had ever been institutionalized. During this time, Buck also began a correspondence with her mother, proving that neither of them was illiterate.

In 1932, Buck married a 63-year-old widower and appeared to enjoy a comfortable, loving married life, attending church activities and taking great pleasure in gardening. After her husband died in 1941, she worked at a number of different jobs and suffered a period of ill health, losing a breast to cancer. She was finally hired by Lucille Lewis , who nursed her back to health and employed her as a companion for her aging parents, remarking "there was nothing wrong with that woman's mind." Buck married Charles Detamore, an orchard worker, in 1965.

In 1970, with her health beginning to fail, Buck and her husband returned to Charlottesville. They were brought to the District Home in Waynesboro, Virginia, after they were found living in poverty. Buck's final days were spent as an active resident of the Home. She enjoyed reading and music and was completely devoted to her husband. In 1980, Dr. K. Ray Nelson, then director of the Lynchburg Training Center (formerly the Virginia Colony), accompanied Buck and her sister back to the Colony so they could visit their mother's grave for the first time. Three years later, in 1983, Carrie Buck died and was buried with her daughter Vivian in the old section of Charlottesville.

Buck's half-sister Doris became part of a 1980 lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of 8,300 men and women who had been sterilized in Virginia institutions before the practice was halted in 1972. The hearing generated nationwide media coverage and brought to light the shocking revelation that 50,000 Americans, termed mentally ill or retarded, had been sterilized following the Supreme Court decision in the Carrie Buck case. In 1985, two years after Buck's death, a settlement was reached allowing for notification to former residents of state institutions that they could inquire, and be informed, as to whether or not they had been sterilized; the settlement also provided for psychological counseling. One year later, in 1986, a member of the Virginia Board of Social Services sent a letter to the General Assembly suggesting sterilization of welfare mothers as a way to break the welfare cycle among the poor.


Smith, David J., and K. Ray Nelson. The Sterilization of Carrie Buck. Far Hills, NJ: New Horizon Press, 1989.

related media:

"Against Her Will: The Carrie Buck Story," cable-television movie, starring Melissa Gilbert and Marlee Matlin , 1994.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts