University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

Eugenics in Virginia: Buck v. Bell

Photograph of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Photograph of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. [1.1] Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in Buck v. Bell

“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.” ~Oliver Wendell Holmes

Writing for the majority in the Supreme Court’s affirmative decision of this landmark case, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. described Charlottesville native Carrie Buck as the “probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring, likewise afflicted” stating that “her welfare and that of society will be promoted by her sterilization.”

Current scholarship shows that Carrie Buck’s sterilization relied on a false diagnosis premised on the now discredited science of eugenics. It is likely that Carrie’s mother, Emma Buck, was committed to a state institution because she was considered sexually promiscuous, that the same diagnosis was made about Carrie when she became an unwed mother at the age of 17 due to being raped, and that her daughter Vivian was diagnosed as “not quite normal” at the age of six months largely in support of the legal effort to sterilize Carrie.


© 2004 Claude Moore Health Sciences Library