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

4.7 out of 5 stars 15 customer reviews

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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: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,230,738 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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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This is tightly written, well-documented book that lays out the personal and social background behind, and the aftermath following, the Supreme Court decision in Buck v. Bell.

In the early 20th Century, eugenics was a hot social issue. Institutes and organizations were being established to promote the notion that progress in national health lay in purifying the human gene pool of traits such as epilepsy, imbecility and moral vices. Social studies research at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Centuries had focused on dysfunctional families like the Jukes and Kallikaks, whose pedigrees were traced and documented to show that laziness and criminality was an inherited trait.

The author of this book makes the interesting point that an impetus for the eugenics movement was the rediscovery of Mendel's genetics research in 1900, after it had been forgotten since 1865. Between the publication of Darwin's Origin of the Species in 1859 and 1900 (and for some time thereafter as the implications of genetics was incorporated into the scientific worldview) the means by which characteristics were developed such that they could be inherited had been uncertain. Darwin was not adverse to some combination of inheritance and a Lamarkianism, which posited that environment could shape individuals, who would then pass their developed characteristics on to their descendants. This same uncertainty beset proponents of eugenics, who often believed that immoral behavior could be passed on genetically to subsequent generations, but that education was not as likely to lead to genetic improvement.

Along with an uncertain idea of inheritance - amounting to a folk wisdom - the period had a definite but uncertain view about what constituted "imbecility.
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