Public Release: 

Symposium and exhibit recognize 100-year anniversary of Indiana eugenics legislation

Hoosier State led world in enactment of involuntary sterilization laws

Indiana University

INDIANAPOLIS -- One of the darkest chapters of social policy will be explored in a public symposium and exhibit in April focusing on Indiana's enactment of the world's first eugenic sterilization law in 1907. The event and exhibit will examine the relevance of the history of sterilization and other eugenic measures to contemporary issues in human genetics, public health, reproductive health, mental health, and the law.

In 1907, Indiana Gov. Frank Hanly signed into law the Compulsory Sterilization Law of Indiana, a bill providing for involuntary sterilization "to prevent procreation of confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists." Found unconstitutional by the Indiana Supreme Court 14 years later, a revised bill was enacted in 1927 applying to "inmates of state institutions, who are insane, idiotic, imbecile, feebleminded, and epileptic, and who by the laws of heredity are the probable potential parents of socially inadequate offspring likewise afflicted." This law remained in force until repealed by the Indiana General Assembly in 1974.

During the period the law was in force, approximately 2,500 of Indiana's most vulnerable citizens in state custody were involuntarily sterilized. Because similar laws were passed in 29 other states, historians estimate 65,000 people were involuntarily sterilized in the United States.

"A century ago supporters viewed surgical sterilization as part of a broader eugenics program, including immigration and marriage restriction, whose goal was to better the human race by preventing reproduction of those with 'inferior' hereditary traits, such as criminality and the other conditions described in the legislation. They claimed their policy was based on the best science of the day, and through the 1930s there was only ineffective opposition from the scientific and medical community," said William Schneider, Ph.D., professor of history and Constance M. Baker and Robert S. Ort Chair in International Healthcare Philanthropy at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Dr. Schneider is a medical historian and principal coordinator of the public symposium and exhibit being held to mark the centennial of the enactment of the first eugenics legislation.

"Eugenics has long occupied a frightening place in the history of medicine and science, from the Nazi death camps to the maltreatment of patients with mental disorders. We are only now beginning to study state-sponsored eugenics programs in the U.S.; what we learn from the past will help society make better decisions about how best to use the power of science for the good of humanity in the future," said Eric M. Meslin, Ph.D., director of the Indiana University Center for Bioethics and assistant dean for bioethics at the Indiana University School of Medicine.

The public symposium, "Indiana Eugenics: History and Legacy," will be at the Indiana State Library, 140 N. Senate Avenue, Indianapolis on April 12 from 8:30 am - noon. It is sponsored by the Indiana University schools of medicine, law and liberal arts at IUPUI. Featured speakers include Daniel Kevles, Ph.D., of Yale University and Joe Palca of National Public Radio. A roundtable discussion with Dr. Schneider, Dr. Meslin, and other professionals in medicine, law and history will follow from 2 to 5 p.m. also at the State Library.

A companion exhibit at the Indiana State Library featuring original documents from the period opens April 12 and will run through August. The exhibit was created in partnership with the Herron School of Art and Design at IUPUI and is open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. In addition to the general public, school and other groups are welcome. There is no admission fee.

Admission to the symposium is free, but space is limited and prior registration is required. To register, contact Judi Campbell at 317-274-4740, or For further information, including online media resources, visit the official Indiana Eugenics: History & Legacy website at


To request press credentials for the April 12 symposium or the exhibit or to arrange interviews prior to April 12 please contact 317-274-7722 or 317-274-7711.

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.