by When Montana U.S. Rep. Jeannette Rankin penned those words in March 1917 for the Chicago Sunday Herald, she was referring to the so-called feeble-minded, a label used at the time for people with real or perceived mental disabilities. Rankin concluded her commentary by noting, “our jails and prisons are filled with creatures of this type.”
Rankin has long been celebrated in Montana as a pacifist, a prominent advocate of women’s suffrage and the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress. But her view of developmentally disabled and mentally ill people has received scant attention in the popular celebration of her biography. Rankin’s article reflects a vision of society informed by eugenic science, which emerged in the late 1800s and centered on the belief that the reproductive pairings of certain individuals would lead to “fit” or “unfit” offspring. Throughout the nation, state governments sought to halt the proliferation of the “feeble-minded” and “insane” by implementing policies designed to prevent their reproduction through identification, segregation at institutions and, in some cases, forced sterilization.
While a number of prominent people during Rankin’s time expressed support for eugenic beliefs and policies, the “science” has since fallen out of favor in respectable circles. But eugenic attitudes live on, often recast as genetics. Many people continue to support gene-based efforts to eliminate disabilities by selecting for certain embryos during in vitro fertilization. Others advocate continued research into new gene-editing techniques, leading to debates about “designer babies” and how to define a “superior” human.
At its core, eugenics intended to define and separate supposedly inferior people from superior people, a legacy of segregation that continues to find traction among white-supremacist and anti-immigrant groups, as well as in government policies that broaden policing powers, expand the prison-industrial complex, and restrict or eliminate the rights of people of color, disabled people, and immigrants.
And eugenics in its unreconstructed historical form remains publicly visible today in Montana, where at least seven publicly and privately owned sites bear the names of physicians and officials who openly supported eugenic theories or helped impose forced sterilizations of disabled people.
‘SOMETHING THE NAZIS ENGAGED IN’
American understandings of eugenics are usually tied to Nazi Germany. Montana State University historian Robert Rydell, co-author of “Popular Eugenics,” said that’s in part a result of post-World War II education in the United States.
“To the extent American students learned about eugenics, they came to believe that it was something the Nazis engaged in,” Rydell said in a recent interview.
While the Nazi regime took eugenic attitudes to the extreme by murdering approximately 300,000 disabled persons in Germany from 1939 to 1945, eugenic ideas and actions in the United States preceded the rise of Nazism and continued after its demise. Eugenics made its way from the lectures and writings of scientists and medical professionals into various public and private realms across the nation, including marriage, reproduction, education, health care, child welfare and care of the mentally ill. Although it took root in various aspects of American life, Rydell noted that eugenic attitudes had a common denominator: “It was bound to intense prejudice, whether toward working-class people, non-white races, immigrants, women, or the ‘feebleminded’ and ‘insane.’”
Aside from a 1927 U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding the constitutionality of forced sterilizations by state actors, a ruling which has never been overturned, the federal government left the power to create eugenic laws, primarily aimed at prohibiting and preventing marriages or reproduction among “unfit” peoples, to the states. More than 30 states, including Montana, passed forced-sterilization laws from the early 1900s into the 1930s. In 1923, Montana enacted its “Eugenical Sterilization Law,” which targeted individuals committed to the two state-run mental health institutions at Boulder and Warm Springs. The law created a five-member Board of Eugenics with authority to approve or deny sterilizations recommended by physicians and superintendents at the two facilities.
Primary sources and contemporary news accounts indicate that from 1923 to the mid-1950s, at least 256 Montanans were involuntarily sterilized. In 1969, Montana’s Legislature passed a new sterilization law that was praised by its creators for requiring patients’ “voluntary consent” for sterilization, though some physicians, psychiatrists and mental institution directors spoke out against the law, challenging the idea that disabled people confined in institutional settings could provide truly informed consent. The new law, ultimately repealed in 1981, retained a state Board of Eugenics that approved sterilizations. From 1969 to 1974, at least 64 Montanans underwent sterilization operations at Boulder. The numbers reported by institutions don’t account for the forced sterilizations of Native American women on reservations in Montana, and in many other locations in the United States, by the Indian Health Service throughout the 1900s.
Patient files obtained from Boulder and Warm Springs reveal that the average age of Montanans sterilized at the two institutions was 17, and the youngest documented sterilization was performed on a 10-year-old girl. Many who underwent sterilization were members of the same family, usually siblings, and more than two-thirds were girls or women. According to Boulder institution records, at least seven surgical castrations of developmentally disabled men were approved by the Board of Eugenics and performed by physicians at Boulder in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In one case, a teenager was committed and castrated for stealing women’s underclothes in his community. The rest of the boys and men received castrations after commitment at Boulder. Records show that the reasons for removing their testicles included alleged homosexuality or sexual assaults while at the institution.
EUGENIC MARKERS IN MONTANA
I’ve been researching and writing about Montana’s history of eugenics since reading the unpublished memoirs of my late grandfather, Dr. Philip Pallister, who was a physician at the Boulder institution from the late 1940s into the 1980s and a geneticist who worked with Shodair Children’s Hospital in Helena. In one section of his memoir, Pallister acknowledged having performed eugenic sterilization operations under the 1923 law. I later learned that he received permission from the Board of Eugenics to perform castrations of men at Boulder he claimed were “sodomists” or sexual deviants. After Shodair honored his legacy as a geneticist in 2018 by naming a laboratory after him, I developed a deeper interest in the eugenic views and actions of Montanans in positions of power and prestige.
The Pallister Medical Genetics Laboratory at Shodair is one of a number of sites in the state that honor Montanans associated with eugenic attitudes and policies. The campus administrative building at Montana State University-Billings, McMullen Hall, a nationally registered historic site, is named for Lynn Banks McMullen, the first president of the school (then called Eastern Montana Normal School). McMullen argued during his tenure that Adolf Hitler’s sterilization program in Germany “will do more for the uplift of [German] society in the next 50 years, through sterilization, than we have done in 85 years through public education.”
On the University of Montana campus in Missoula, Elrod Hall and McGill Hall are named for Dr. Morton Elrod and Dr. Caroline McGill. Elrod was a professor and naturalist responsible for creating a eugenics course at the university. His papers, located in the university’s library, are filled with his eugenic views, as well as the racist, anti-immigrant, and misogynistic sentiments he passed on to his students. McGill was one of the first female physicians in the state and a member of the state’s first Board of Eugenics (the law required one female board member), and her signature appears on several permits issued by the board.
Montana State University in Bozeman is home to the Atkinson Quadrangle Residence Halls, named for Dr. Alfred Atkinson, a professor who later served as the university’s president from 1919 to 1937. In 1912, while a professor at what was then Montana State College, Atkinson delivered a speech titled “Eugenics” at the Second International Congress of Farm Women in British Columbia. He argued that “the limitation of marriage to the physically and mentally fit goes hand in hand with the preservation of a nation” and that “those unfit should be controlled by the state.” After his tenure in Bozeman, Atkinson served as president of the University of Arizona from 1937 to 1947.
One of the main campus buildings at St. Peter’s Health in Helena, the Maria Dean Medical Center, is named for Dr. Maria Dean, a noted suffragist and the first female physician in Helena. Dean was also an outspoken eugenicist. In two articles published by the Vineland Training School in New Jersey, a hotbed of eugenics research in the early 1900s, Dean described “feebleminded” persons as “social wreckage” who required segregation for life in order to “deplete all the various forms of social pestilence.”
On the state Capitol complex campus in Helena, the Cogswell Building, a nationally registered historic site that houses various state entities including Children’s Special Health Services and the Family and Community Health Bureau, is named for Dr. William F. Cogswell, a physician and epidemiologist who headed the state Board of Eugenics from its inception into the 1940s.
While many of these sites display signs or provide online information about their namesakes, none mentions eugenics.
MEMORY AND RECKONING
Multiple states have a eugenic past embedded in their institutions, though some states have addressed it more than others. In 2002, Virginia Gov. Mark Warner formally apologized for his state’s historical sterilization program. The same year, Oregon Gov. John Kitshaber publicly denounced Oregon’s sterilization program and simultaneously declared Dec. 10 “Human Rights Day” in the state. California, North Carolina and Virginia have offered apologies and reparations to survivors of their state-sponsored forced sterilization programs. In various states, public buildings, schools, parks and other sites named for eugenicists have been renamed.
Montana has not followed suit. Asked about Montana’s eugenic past in an interview with Montana Free Press, Brooke Stroyke, press secretary for Gov. Greg Gianforte, replied, in part, “the governor believes the historical practice of eugenics in Montana and the United States is reprehensible.” Stroyke did not respond to a question about whether the state government would consider offering a public apology to victims and descendants of the state’s sterilization program.
Individual institutions have on occasion been more responsive. In early 2022, I emailed my findings about Lynn Banks McMullen’s eugenic background to MSU-Billings Chancellor Dr. Stephanie Hicswa, who passed the information to the university’s history department for review. Keith Edgerton, professor and chair of the department, was one of the first to hear the news about McMullen’s eugenic past.
“We were totally blindsided by this. This was appalling to us in every way, and there was no debate from anyone about taking action,” Edgerton told MTFP. With Hicswa’s backing, Edgerton and the rest of the history faculty verified the information about McMullen before issuing a collective letter, which they circulated to Hicswa, Provost Sep Eskandari and the Academic Senate. The historians asked that the university “immediately cease to use the name ‘McMullen Hall’ and begin a formal process of renaming,” and that it issue a “swift public condemnation” of McMullen’s views. Hicswa appointed a committee, which included a student representative, to conduct further research and prepare a report for the Board of Regents, which has the power to rename the building. In an interview with MTFP, Emily Arendt, history professor and committee member, said a resolution to change the building’s name passed the Academic Senate without opposition, though how the Board of Regents votes, which Arendt hopes will occur in the coming academic year, remains to be seen. Still, according to Edgerton, change is in the works.
“Within a week the sign outside the building was gone,” he said.
In response to questions from MTFP, University of Montana President Seth Bodnar did not offer specific comments about Elrod or McGill or the buildings that bear their names. Bodnar condemned eugenics as “a harmful, misguided and immoral movement that fostered racism and exclusion and inflicted horrors on many individuals.” He said he has asked the university’s history department to carry out a “large-scale public history project to better understand the historical context of our campus,” but said that “at this time, we have no plans to begin the renaming process.”
Montana State University did not respond to questions about the Atkinson Residence Halls on its Bozeman campus.
In Helena, St. Peter’s Health Public Relations Specialist Jaque Tescher did not mention eugenics in her response to questions about Maria Dean, but emphasized the institution’s “commitment to innovation and treating every person with dignity, respect and loving-kindness.” Tescher would not speculate about whether the hospital had knowledge of Maria Dean’s eugenic views prior to the naming of the medical center.
“We intend to look further into this matter and determine an appropriate path forward that is in alignment with our core values,” Tescher said.
Geneticist Dr. Abdallah F. Elias, director of Shodair’s genetics laboratory, condemned eugenics and forced sterilization in an interview with MTFP, and claimed “the name dedication of the lab when Pallister died was not to glorify him as a person or to justify all his actions.” Elias argued that to learn from history “we need to look at the actions of individuals in a certain time.” Elias also stressed that while Pallister’s actions should not be glorified, it’s appropriate to distinguish between thought and action in defining a eugenicist: “Phil Pallister was not a eugenicist. He performed sterilizations that benefited eugenicists.” Elias said he would not recommend changing the Shodair laboratory’s name.
“I think we would take away an opportunity to learn from history,” he said.
Beyond renamings and apologies lie deeper questions about the impact of memory on the present and the future. Rydell, who has spoken and written about eugenics for many years, worried that “if the end result is only that — the renaming of buildings — that action is likely going to be forgotten unless there is a more thorough reckoning that culminates in actions.” If buildings are renamed, Rydell said, “there needs to be sustained recognition through some kind of prominent, public labeling that explains for future generations why the building was renamed.”
Like Rydell, Alexandra Minna Stern, professor of history at the University of Michigan and one of the country’s foremost historians of eugenics, sees renaming as part of a larger process of providing historical information, context and awareness to a wide array of people. “It’s the memory and reckoning that’s important,” she said. Even so, Stern argues that public displays say as much about contemporary mores as about who the buildings are named for.
“Building names symbolize our communities and how inclusive or exclusive we are, so that even if the sterilizer was a physician of his times, and did some good things, it still might be an excellent idea in the 21st century to change the building name to honor someone else who signifies a more inclusive medical system.” For Stern the key questions are “who is being remembered and forgotten?” and “how do place names reflect and represent Montanans?”
At MSU-Billings, the call for meaningful remembrance, education, and process seem to be playing out. The history faculty’s effort to rename the building is not about erasing McMullen’s legacy from the university’s story. Like Elias, the historians see the moment as a learning opportunity.
“We are also people of our times and we get to decide what’s important to us,” Arendt said in her interview with MTFP. “Naming landmarks is one of those things that reflects the values of contemporary society. Our institution is one of inclusion and diversity, so it’s incumbent on us to demonstrate that. There were enough people opposed to eugenics as science and policy at the time, so the ‘person of their times’ argument doesn’t hold weight.”
The department’s letter emphasized that a renaming plan should include “conversations with representation from Native American communities and persons with disabilities.” It also called for the university to invite scholars of eugenic history to speak on campus and to organize local panels and public discussions. Edgerton and Arendt say McMullen’s history is a chance to converse and connect rather than acknowledge and forget.
How other institutions in Montana choose to confront their eugenic associations remains to be seen. Rydell stressed that the process should not be taken lightly.
“Montana’s public and private institutions need to carefully examine their own past involvement with eugenics, whether in research, teaching, or practice, taking responsibility in the present for the consequences of what followed from what happened in the past. We need to understand that silences — in this case, those embedded in seemingly mute names on buildings — can have consequences in our own time.”
Those silences are evident in more than building names. On Aug. 3, 2022, a documentary titled “The Story of Us: The Women Who Shaped Montana” premiered at the Myrna Loy Center in Helena. The film, reportedly set to air on Montana PBS in the future, was produced by North by Northwest Digital Studio and sponsored by grants from the Montana Film Office, the Greater Montana Foundation, the Montana History Foundation, and Humanities Montana. It features the stories of four influential Montana women, including Maggie Smith Hathaway, the first woman elected to the state Legislature (1917-1921). Like other accounts of Hathaway, the film justly describes her as a powerful advocate of women’s suffrage, a trailblazer for the role of women in government throughout the nation, and an advocate for child welfare and education.
The film does not mention that Hathaway was the primary figure behind the drafting, lobbying, and passage of Montana’s Eugenical Sterilization Law in 1923. The law was a near replica of a proposal from the Montana Women’s Legislative Council, a statewide organization formed in 1922, of which Rankin was one of 30 delegates and Hathaway served as executive secretary and lobbyist. The council’s agenda included a plan for eugenic sterilization of “idiots, imbeciles, incurably insane, and epileptics.” Later, in her role as head of the state’s Children’s Bureau from 1925 to 1937, Hathaway argued that “feeble-minded” children should be ineligible for adoption as they could pass on “unfavorable tendencies.” She repeatedly linked “feeble-minded” people to high rates of crime and delinquency, and she recommended their “segregation and sterilization” as one remedy. At times, Hathaway wrote directly to the superintendents of the Boulder institution requesting sterilization of certain girls and women she had helped get committed. Like other Montana eugenicists, Hathaway’s views and actions are not hidden or difficult to locate in publicly accessible historical records.
As this shadowed history of Montana comes to light, complete with a more complicated story of the state’s long-celebrated heroes and the ways they are remembered and memorialized, important questions remain in the present: Who counts as “us,” and who gets to tell that story?
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