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Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and <I>Buck v. Bell</I> Hardcover – October 6, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Law professor and historian Lombardo does a superb job of revealing, for the first time, all the facts in the infamous Buck v. Bell case of the 1920s, the Supreme Court decision ratifying Virginia's compulsory sterilization of feebleminded people. In the majority decision, Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. called the plaintiffs manifestly unfit both mentally and morally, and insisted that three generations of imbeciles are enough. This decision—which has never been overturned—led to tens of thousands of involuntary sterilizations. Lombardo interviewed the last survivor of the three Buck women who were plaintiffs; turned up indisputable evidence that there was no feeblemindedness in that family; unearthed previously unknown correspondence of Carrie Buck's attorney, who, believing the law to be necessary, mounted a deliberately insufficient defense; and documented the private family tragedy (an incestuous rape and resulting pregnancy) that lay behind the Bucks' encounter with doctors bent on exploring eugenics. His book is a testament to injustice and to ignorance—not that of the Buck women, but rather of powerful doctors, attorneys and Supreme Court justices. 17 b&w photos. (Oct.)
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From Booklist

A 1927 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Buck v. Bell, approved laws allowing states to sterilize the “feebleminded” to keep them from having children. The case involved Carrie Buck, whose mother and daughter—like Carrie—had been adjudged “feebleminded.” At a time of growing debate about the practice of eugenics, feebleminded was a label freely and frequently given to prostitutes, illegitimate children, and epileptics, as well as the mentally deficient. For a period, Carrie and her mother were both residents of the Colony, a facility that practiced the segregation and sterilization policies prevalent at the time. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., in writing the decision, declared that “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” The decision set in motion more than 60,000 sterilizations. Law professor Lombardo draws on 25 years of research, including interviews with Buck before she died, her medical and school records, correspondence with her attorneys, and other documents to support the claim that the case was a fraud against a poor girl who had been raped. An engrossing look at a shameful case. --Vanessa Bush

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press; 1 edition (October 6, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801890101
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801890109
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #517,887 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful By R. Ladouceur on August 30, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Paul A. Lombardo's history of Buck v. Bell, Three Generations, No Imbeciles, is a terrific telling of case of Carrie Buck, a young woman sterilized by Virginia in 1927 in order to prevent her from having more "socially inadequate" offspring.

In 1924, supporters of a statute known as the Virginia Sterilization Act challenged the very law they helped author in hopes of gaining legal cover for their eugenic efforts. They claimed that reproduction among the "feebleminded" was a proximate threat to the body social. According to the "expert" brought in by counsel to defend the Act, Buck was the daughter of a feebleminded woman, was feebleminded herself, and had demonstrated that she was a danger to the community by bearing an illegitimate feebleminded daughter.

The case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In its 8-1 affirmation, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously opined, "Three generations of imbeciles is enough."

Lombardo presents documentary proof that Carrie Buck and her daughter were perfectly normal, perhaps even a bit above average, and that the 1924 proceedings which led to the Supreme Court's review were a sham, with prosecution and defense attorneys colluding to produce the desired outcome. Adding insult, Buck's daughter, the birth of whom signaled to many that Carrie was genetically predisposed to promiscuity, was the product of an incestuous rape.

But Lombardo's story is about much more than a poor court decision.

Lombardo tells a crackling tale, and tells it so passionately and so well that one barely notices that this is not a popularization or polemic, but a thoroughly documented work of history.
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful By B. Scott on November 6, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Paul A. Lombardo's recently published book, "Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell" is a poignant retelling of the court decisions regarding the forced sterilization of a young woman named Carrie Buck. Although written objectively, Lombardo's heart comes through, making the book readable for even a law novice. The book was easily comprehensible. Credit Lombardo's masterful ability to reiterate facts at just the right moment with keeping the reader on track in understanding the key people, issues, and details.
The subject is heart breaking. Lombardo's persistence in getting this story out with painstaking attention to the groundwork is moving. By the time the first trial occurs in the book, the reader has ample information to know what all principals knew and to see clearly the miscarriage of justice.
No one can ask for more from a serious book than that it enlightens and makes one think. "Three Generations No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell" does both. I hope there will be other books from Paul A. Lombardo that perform the same services.
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Roger P on March 14, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Professor Lombardo has done a great service in exposing one of the vilest decisions the Supreme Court has ever made. His is the third book I have read on Buck v. Bell (as well as many articles)and it is by far the best. He has thoroughly researched all aspects of the case and has provided a well written, easy to read history of the eugenics movement in America. At times the book reads like a novel rather than a historic account. Lomabardo develops personalities like a fiction writer yet maintains scholarly history accuracy. This book should be required reading in every high school in America.

Roger Paull, Glendale, AZ
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By A.E. Samaan on July 30, 2013
Format: Paperback
The full contents of this book should be required reading in every college and university in the United States. However, in my opinion, the most important piece of information in this book does not come until Pg. 239, when Paul Lombardo provides the reader with the revelation that the 1927 Buck v. Bell opinion was entered as evidence in the defense of Hitler's henchmen in order to prove that the U.S. Supreme Court had deemed eugenic sterilization legal. Eugenics was the core concept of Hitler's regime. Eugenic considerations were used to decide even which works of art were to be accepted by the Third Reich, which books, and just about every other aspect of Hitler's domestic policy. Thus, providing proof that eugenics was an accepted science by the U.S. government was a strong defense for the National Socialists on trial at Nuremberg.

In these last pages, Paul Lombardo also explains that one of the top German scientists that was primarily responsible for the Third Reich's various eugenic programs was captured by the U.S. Army and the released when he conveyed extensive knowledge of the eugenics movement inside of the U.S.. Ernst Rudin was that man, and he was no ordinary National Socialist. Rudin was one of the men that Joseph Mengele answered to in the National Socialist hierarchy. Rudin was let go because he would have exposed the large amount of collaboration that America's top scientists and their respective universities and institutions gave German eugenicists.

Clearly my preference is to tell the reader why the book is so critically important at the beginning, in order to set up why the history of this crucial 1927 Supreme Court case is so important.
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