In the first chapter of Acquaintance, I introduce a number of the major themes in my Medicine for the Blues trilogy. One important subject in the political milieu of 1923 Portland, Oregon, was the eugenics movement and human sterilization bills.

In the book, Dr. Carl Holman attends a eugenics lecture with his old friend Gwen Cook, a lesbian. The lecture they hear in Chapter 2 is given by a woman doctor, who is based loosely on a prominent Oregon eugenics supporter, Dr. Bethenia Owens-Adair.

Eugenics was a mainstream topic in the US in the early 1900s. Its ideas were supported by well-known people like Luther Burbank (the plant breeder), Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt, Hellen Keller, H. G. Wells, and George Bernard Shaw. Another prominent Oregonian, Cornelia Marvin Pierce, a public library champion and later wife of Governor Walter Pierce, supported Owens-Adair in her efforts to get sterilization bills through the state legislature. So did Governor Pierce, who was a cattle breeder. Some of the ideas of this American eugenics movement were later adopted by Adolf Hitler.

Two methods were pushed by this movement: 1) Positive eugenics promoted marriage and childbearing by the fittest couples, who were thought to be of white Northern European stock, hence the belief in limiting immigration from all but that part of the map. 2) Negative eugenics discouraged propagation by the “lower” races or by so-called mental defectives, moral degenerates, and sexual deviants (homosexuals). The sterilization bills mandated the involuntary sterilization of people in mental institutions and prisons to prevent them from passing on their genes.

Owens-Adair advocated for a bill that was passed by the Oregon Legislature in 1909 but later vetoed by the governor. A similar bill was passed in 1913 and was signed into law, but the Oregon Anti-Sterilization League put an initiative on the ballot that repealed it in November of that year. It was opposed because of the sweeping authority it granted the state.

Finally in 1923, a bill with some safeguards, including a review board, passed and was signed by Governor Pierce. It remained on the books until 1983—60 years! During that time, over 2500 mental patients and prisoners were forcibly sterilized, many for consensual homosexual acts.

In 2002, Governor John Kitzhaber formally apologized to those victimized by these laws over the years.


Read more about Pacific Northwest history in my novel Acquaintance. Buy the book HERE.

For Bibliography references click here, then scroll down to the EUGENICS section.


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