Charlotte resident Frank Hall says he was always curious why his stepfather,
Fred Aslin, couldn’t have children. When his stepfather pressured
the state to release medical records in 1998, the family finally discovered
why: In 1944, at the age of 18, Fred Aslin had been sterilized against
his will, without having the procedure explained to him.
Fred Aslin, a Native American from the Upper Peninsula, was sent
to live in the Lapeer State Home (above) in 1936 after his father
died and his mother was unable to care for all nine of their children.
Aslin was declared a “feeble-minded moron” and, at the
age of 18 in 1944, sterilized as part of the strong eugenics movement
in Michigan. Aslin went on to fight for the United States in Korea,
where he was injured. The home, where most of the state’s
sterilizations occurred, was closed in 1992 and torn down in 1996.
Fred’s father died, his mother was unable to cope with nine children,
and in 1936 Aslin and most of his siblings became wards of the state
at the Lapeer State Home. Although Aslin did well in school and held
jobs outside the institution, the children were all labeled “feeble-minded
morons” in the home’s records. Reports from his teachers
gave the young man the highest grades and indicated that he would be
able to live independently upon reaching adulthood. “Fred is good
in reading and shows splendid judgment,” one teacher wrote. “He
is the best trombone player I have thus far developed at the home,”
But the positive evaluations did not dissuade six Michigan physicians
and two county probate judges from enforcing laws designed to sterilize
the 75,000 Michigan residents—about 5 percent of whom were actually
sterilized— deemed at the time as having “mental deficiencies.”
Under the eugenics laws of the day, people who made a negative impression
upon social welfare and public health authorities could be branded as
“feeble-minded” by court order and forced to undergo sterilization.
the 20th-century “eugenics” movement led to the sterilization
of more than 67,000 Americans, before coming to an end in the 1970s.
The movement led to the victimization of a small, less privileged segment
of society — of people such as the part Native American Fred Aslin,
who is a member of the Ottawa and Chippewa tribes.
In a telephone interview, Edwin Black, author of “The War against
the Weak,” a new history of eugenics, describes how the movement
was made up of animal breeders, agronomists and anthropologists who
were trying to engineer a society according to their own, elitist evolutionary
views. Black, the son of Polish Holocaust survivors, argued that although
influential supporters of the eugenics movement claimed they wanted
to create a “better society,” they really wanted to make
“problem people” disappear.
institutional records, filling more than 100 pages, show that he and
2,336 other people were sterilized at the Lapeer State Home as a result
of this ruthless and discriminating state policy. In the 12 years of
Aspin’s stay at Lapeer, half a dozen medical doctors repeatedly
passed on the diagnosis made by Doctors James F. Darby and William Charlton
Edminson from St. Ignace that classified Aslin as a “feeble-minded
three brothers were also sterilized for having “mental defects”
or being “low-grade morons,” in diagnoses signed by the
institution’s medical superintendent, Dr. R.E. Cooper. The same
fate was shared by one of his sisters.
Aslin’s story made national news when he filed a lawsuit in 2000.
But the case was dismissed because the relevant statute of limitations
had expired. In fact, according to state records, Aslin is still “a
moron” today. Although the state’s Community Health Department
director, James K. Haveman, offered a personal apology, no state order
has ever been entered to reverse the diagnosis.
From the implementation of sterilization laws in 1923 and through the
next four decades, at least 3,786 Michigan residents were sterilized.
Among the 33 states that passed such legislation, Michigan ranked fourth
highest for sterilizations (following California with 20,108 sterilizations,
Virginia with 7,450 and North Carolina with 6,297).
Stern, a University of Michigan history of medicine professor, believes
Gov. Jennifer Granholm should reckon with this ugly chapter of state
history. In editorials written in The Detroit News and The New York
Times, Stern and a number of area historians have begun calling upon
her to issue a formal apology. This needs to happen, they say, before
the stories of Aslin and other sterilized Michigan residents are forgotten.
Since 2002, Virginia, Oregon, North Carolina, South Carolina and California
have all made public apologies.
of the past
In the 1920s, eugenics, also known as “racial hygiene,”
was a commonly accepted science in the United States, and many doctors
accepted the misguided idea that “inferior” genetic traits,
including low intelligence, needed to be controlled by preventing such
people from having children. Michigan was one of the states to apply
eugenic sterilization laws most aggressively.
became popular due to the support of many different public leaders and
interest groups, argues Stern. People like J.H. Kellogg, a thoracic
surgeon and sanitarium owner, and Victor Vaughan, former dean of the
University of Michigan’s Medical School, were driven by the idea
that eugenics would be linked with humanitarianism. They believed they
could help poor people by sterilizing them while simultaneously helping
the human race eliminate “bad genes” from its gene pool.
The eugenics movement was also popular among animal breeders, who believed
that if one could produce a pedigreed pig, one could also produce a
Kellogg, the inventor of the corn flake, is best known for developing
innovative strategies to improve the diets of the poor. Yet he also
supported the sterilization of the “unfit” and in 1911 established
the influential Race Betterment Foundation with money from the Kellogg
In 1914 Kellogg organized the first of three major national conferences
on race betterment in Battle Creek. Amid an atmosphere of lavish banquets,
he called for biological action in scientific research. Addressing the
conference, Kellogg said: “We have wonderful horses, cows and
pigs. Why would we not have a new and improved race of men?” He
wanted the “whiter races of Europe to establish a Race of Human
After a failed bill in 1897, the Michigan Legislature passed a sterilization
law in 1913. With both Kellogg and Vaughan on the state board of health,
Michigan became the seventh state to enact sterilization laws. Only
one operation was performed before the practice was declared unconstitutional
in 1918. After adding legal safeguards, and buoyed by the rising popularity
of eugenics, however, Michigan passed a new and more carefully designed
sterilization law in 1923.
In 1927, the U.S Supreme Court upheld Virginia’s forced sterilization
law. The case in question centered around a 17-year-old girl who’d
been diagnosed “feeble-minded.” Summing up the popularity
the eugenics enjoyed at the time, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote,
“Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
Soon thereafter, hundreds of Michigan residents who had been labeled
“feeble-minded,” “mentally defective” or “sexually
deviant” were sterilized at the Lapeer State Home and Training
School, the Ionia Reformatory, Jackson State Prison, at the University
of Michigan hospital, and at other county and state facilities. The
historical record indicates that sterilizations peaked in Michigan during
the 1930s and 1940s, and diminished steadily during the 1950s and 1960s.
Although a bona fide medical diagnosis in its day, “feeble-mindedness”
had virtually no clinical meaning and is no longer used in medical terminology.
Many people who were classified as “feeble-minded” would
now be seen as having learning disabilities, social or psychological
problems, or as being merely the victims of poverty and racism.
Opposition to eugenics began even as the movement was being organized.
By 1910, the equilibrium model developed by Godfrey N. Hardy and Wilhelm
Weinberg showed that sterilization would never appreciably reduce the
percentage of “mental defectives” in society. George Shull,
at the Carnegie Station for Experimental Evolution, showed that hybrid
corn plants were more vigorous than purebred ones, refuting the notion
that “racial purity” offered any biological advantage, or
that “race mixing” was dangerous.
Regardless of such findings, most geneticists still believed that affected
individuals should not be allowed to reproduce.
Few people know that the United States actually helped to fund Nazi
eugenics. In “The War Against the Weak,” Black documents
the collaboration of American corporate philanthropic organizations
with Nazi Germany researchers in their common pursuit of the creation
of a white, Nordic “master race.”
Courtesy University of Albany
German physicist Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer observing eye color
in 16-year-old female twins. His work was completed by Joseph Mengele.
through 1939, Rockefeller fellowships allowed German genetic researchers
to travel to U.S. medical laboratories for collaboration. The original
funding for the German Nazi scientist Otmar Freiherr von Vershuer’s
research project on twins, which would be completed in Auschwitz by
his assistant, Joseph Mengele, had been provided by the Rockefeller
Rockefeller funding decreased only after 1936. Money continued to flow
into eugenics projects in the United States, however.
In 1940, Lathrup Stoddard, a leader of the American Eugenics Research
Association, celebrated Hitler and Nazi eugenics in his book “Into
the Darkness.” “Nothing is so distinctive in Nazi Germany
as its ideas about race,” wrote Stoddard.
In a chapter entitled, “I see Hitler,” Stoddard described
how Nazi minister Joseph Goebbels escorted him around Berlin and arranged
his meeting with members of the Eugenics Court. Stoddard bemoaned the
race tribunals, in which judges were making racial judgments of Jews
and non-Jews, as being “almost too conservative.” He was
impressed by the velocity with which Nazi Germany had begun to apply
what he saw as American ideals. By 1937, some 200,000 Germans of all
backgrounds had been sterilized.
In a 2001 Michigan State University doctoral dissertation, “Dealing
with Degeneracy: Michigan Eugenics in Context,” historian Jeff
Hodges argues that the Germans were not the originators of this practice.
“They took them to extremes perhaps unimagined in the United States,
but then perhaps they were imagined here, too.” The justifications
that German physicians and eugenics advocates used to rationalize their
programs had already been rationalized in America, writes Hodges. “Even
the most heinous of German eugenic actions had its American counterpart.”
Even the euthanasia of defective newborns was advocated in Michigan,
writes Hodges. Some physicians “set aside” the defective
newborns while attending to the mother. “Though it never became
law, the practice remained one of the dirty little secrets of the medical
profession for decades.”
example is the case of Dr. Udo J. Wile, who chaired the Department of
Dermatology and Syphilology at the University of Michigan until 1947.
In 1913 and 1916, Wile carried out experiments at Pontiac State Hospital
on patients with mental diseases. Utilizing a dental drill, he extracted
brain tissue from living “insane” patients. During his tenure,
Wile trained more than 50 dermatologists, many of whom went on to have
A controversy recently arose when Wile was inducted into the Medical
School’s Hall of Honor during its sesquicentennial celebration
in 2000. Michael J. Franzblau, a medical doctor from San Francisco,
argued that Wile’s experiments placed defenseless patients in
harm’s way, thus violating the code of medical conduct then and
now. “Is it reasonable, in view of this unethical experiment,
even by 1916 standards, to honor Wile with a plaque and picture and
a memorial lectureship in his name?” asked Franzblau in an open
letter to his alma mater.
But the Medical School decided against removing Wile from their Hall
of Honor, because in doing so they would also have to remove the name
of the prominent eugenicist Victor Vaughan, not to mention dealing with
the building that bears his name. In a letter sent to “Medicine
at Michigan,” the journal that published Franzblau’s objections,
U-M Dean Allen S. Lichter commended the alumnus for reminding them of
this chapter of medical history but argued that safeguards on human
subject research are quite different today than they were in the past.
To judge earlier medical doctors by today’s ethical standards
would lead them to rename many of their buildings.
How murky the waters still were in the late 1950s, remembers Ron DeGraw.
The 70-year-old attorney, who is a senior partner at a Marshall law
firm, recalls one sterilization case at the beginning of his career.
On short notice, DeGraw was called to a Calhoun County Probate Court
hearing in Marshall to investigate the case of two “feeble-minded”
women who were supposed to be sterilized to prevent them from having
“imbecile” children. Through cross-examination, DeGraw learned
that both women had recently given birth. “Neither of the doctors
[diagnosing their mental health] had ever seen the children, and so
I asked how they could confer that the children would be imbeciles,”
The judge adjourned the case until more evidence was gathered. One month
later, the doctors stated they had examined the 2-month old children
and concluded that they were imbeciles. DeGraw questioned the validity
of these tests and moved to dismiss the case. Unfortunately, the judge
ruled to sterilize the women.
The young lawyer was so upset that he called Probate Judge Mary Coleman,
who later was to become Michigan’s first female chief justice,
telling her he did not wish to ever again serve on a sterilization case.
He recalls her saying, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
Reflecting on the incident, DeGraw says there had been no awareness
among judges and physicians that they were doing something wrong. “The
doctors had no qualms whatsoever about it. In fact, they were willing
to testify that the children were idiots without even examining them.
They were probably primarily interested in keeping the state budget
balanced.” He also believes that a lack of independent oversight
exacerbated the problem. The doctors who testified against “feeble-minded”
residents worked in institutions. “They worked for the system.
In retrospect, what I should have done was to insist that they let me
hire experts and come in and challenge [their evaluation].”
DeGraw doesn’t believe the state of Michigan should apologize
to the victims of sterilization policies. In this respect, he disagrees
with his junior partner, Lisa McNiff, who represented Fred Aslin in
his lawsuit against Michigan. “We all have closets we don’t
want to enter,” DeGraw said. “I don’t think an apology
does anyone any good: They’ve changed the system. Isn’t
that apology enough?”
Robert A. Sedler, a distinguished professor at Detroit’s Wayne
State University Law School, doesn’t believe this is enough. Michigan
should acknowledge the wrong that was done by the state while the victims
are still alive, and should make reparations, he believes.
professor who advised his former student McNiff in her work on the Aslin
lawsuit, argues that legislation should be enacted in line with Congress’s
1988 decision to admit guilt for the forced relocation of Japanese-Americans
during World War II was wrong, and to pay modest reparations. “You
get some of the same issues with claims for reparations for slavery,
with the only difference being that there are no slaves alive,”
Alexandra Minna Stern, an associate director at the U-M Center for the
History of Medicine, believes the time is ripe for Michigan to issue
an apology. Michigan is the only state with a high number of forced
sterilizations that has not yet acknowledged wrongdoing.
Stern, who is completing a book on eugenic sterilization programs in
the American West based on her dissertation research, thinks that an
apology would have many advantages if thoughtfully applied. As a symbolic
gesture it could provide emotional reconciliation for the victims. In
2002, after apologizing for the state’s sterilization program,
Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner helped establish a roadside marker. The
same year, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber apologized in person to some of
the 2,600 people sterilized in his state and created an annual Human
Rights Day to commemorate the mistake. And North Carolina’s governor
created a panel to probe into the history of the program that sterilized
7,600 people in his state, interview survivors and consider the possibility
Stern argues that an apology would force state agencies to look at their
past, critically reflect on today’s ethical standards and prevent
such mistakes from being repeated.
The assistant professor of history testified before California’s
Senate Select Committee on Genetics, Genetic Technology and Public Policy
in 2003, following the most recent apology of Gov. Gray Davis. Unlike
Virginia and Oregon, where many survivors had been present, the California
apology was issued from the halls of the state legislature, with no
one to receive it, criticized Stern. “Hence, one of the things
that became important for the select committee was to try to find some
of the survivors to put a human face on the story.”
The committee put out an all-points bulletin, to identify and contact
survivors. As a result of increased media coverage, 10 victims of eugenic
sterilization have recently come forward. The California committee has
made Stern, who is originally from San Francisco, its official contact
person. This summer, the U-M scholar will begin collaborating with the
University of California’s Regional Oral History Archive at Berkeley,
interviewing the sterilization victims to make their oral histories
part of the permanent record.
S. Pernick, another U-M historian studying the U.S. eugenics movement,
also supports the call for an apology. Pernick said that the apology
would need to include a clear statement about who did what and what
was wrong with these actions, and should incorporate a plan to prevent
future wrongdoings. “A secondary function is memorializing the
individual victims, as a form of psychological compensation.”
When asked about reparations, Pernick said it would be hard to imagine
what one could offer someone “for a lost lifetime.”
Pernick’s 1996 book, “The Black Stork,” focuses on
a Chicago surgeon, Dr. Harry J. Haiselden, who in the late 1910s drew
national attention for allowing the deaths of at least six infants diagnosed
as “defectives.” Following the controversy surrounding his
practice, Haiselden went on to write and star in a film, “The
Black Stork,” promoting the eugenic desirability of withholding
treatment from “defective” newborns.
Pernick, Stern and other historians warn that a simple written apology,
without additional symbolic gestures, educational programs or financial
compensation would be insufficient.
In a Dec. 23 essay in The New York Times, Howard Markel, a professor
at the Center for the History of Medicine in Ann Arbor, warned. “Increasingly,
public apologies have been made to smooth over these clinical transgressions.
Yet the doctor in me wonders whether these gestures will cure what ails
Dreger, an associate professor of science and technology studies at
Michigan State University, has similar doubts. “Often when these
apologies happen people do it with the assumption that nothing like
it happens now, and nothing like it will happen in the future.”
But Dreger believes that there is actually “a lot of eugenics-like
stuff” going on now, such as pre-natal screening and genetic counseling.
Michigan health care providers are required to offer pregnant women
the so-called triple test, which is a simple blood test to examine whether
there might be something genetically anomalous with their child, including
When Dreger was pregnant herself, she turned down the triple test because
she didn’t believe that aborting a child with a disability was
a good idea. “When an abortion happens, it needs to happen because
the woman is not ready to have a child at all. The way to deal with
disability is to provide social support for those who’re coping
with it,” said Dreger. In her view an abortion as a result of
pre-natal screening constitutes eugenics.
The use of sonograms is another good example of ambiguous technology,
the MSU professor said. In some instances sonograms can be used to help
prevent disability in a fetus, allowing physicians to strategize on
how the pregnant mother should be treated and give birth, and enabling
them to better prepare for treatment after birth. But often sonograms
are also used to decide whether a child with a disability will be aborted.
“So the idea that eugenics happened way back, and nothing like
that is happening now, so we can afford to apologize, bothers me,”
When I called Fred Aslin at his home in Newberry and heard the intelligent
and friendly voice of a now 77-year old man, I thought about the great
injustice suffered by this man an his family. Aslin’s father died
of pneumonia during the Great Depression, after a fishing accident.
The boys were caught trampling flower gardens, and the state stepped
in to remove them from the home of an overwhelmed, young, widowed mother.
Foster care homes didn’t exist then, and poor children were frequently
placed in orphanages or mental institutions.
They were diagnosed as having abnormal behavior, very low IQs, and as
being “feeble-minded,” all conditions linked to promiscuity,
criminality and social dependency. In the case of the Aslin siblings,
doctors at Lapeer apparently saw a threat in the children’s potential
to “pass for normal” and to reproduce with “normal”
people. One of Aslin’s sisters escaped. She is the only one who
managed to have children.
Aslin told me about his paternal grandmother, a full-blooded Ottawa,
who came to the Upper Peninsula from Canada. From this, our conversation
evolved into a discussion about North Carolina’s plan to investigate
and compensate the remaining survivors of forced sterilization. Learning
that I am originally from Germany, Aslin also spoke with me about the
eugenics movement during National Socialism and seemed particularly
interested in what went wrong between 1933 and 1945.
It had taken Aslin some 50 years to fully understand what went wrong
in his own case. After being discharged from the Lapeer State Home,
he was drafted and sent to Korea, where he was wounded outside Seoul.
He lost one lung for a country that had labeled him “feeble-minded.”
When he recovered, he married a widow with two sons and raised them
as his own. He worked as a machinist and lived with his family on a
125-acre farm in Homer, Mich..
Asked about his feeling towards the physicians, teachers and lawyers
at the Lapeer State Home, Aslin said he had no personal feelings, one
way or the other. He explained, simply: “We were poor. We were
Indians. I’m sure that had quite a lot to do with that.”
Aslin says he is still angry that Mackinac County Probate Judge David
Murray, after splittingthe family up and sending the children to Lapeer
in 1936, ordered the sterilization of his mother, Frances. He says that
when he learned about this after researching his record in the 1990s,
“that just about floored” him.
The Lapeer State Home — with 1,060 employees once Lapeer’s
largest employer — was closed in October 1992 and demolished in
1996. Thirteen cupolas, which once rested atop two brick dormitory buildings,
were salvaged from the demolition and are today part of the city’s
new logo, and the centerpiece of the new gateways, leading to downtown.
Aslin’s memory of the state home is much less nostalgic. He knows
the home for what it really was, the place where children and adults
labeled as “epileptic,” “moronic,” “mentally
defective,” and “feeble-minded” were housed. When
asked why it took him 50 years to speak publicly about the injustice
done to him and his family, Aslin said, “We were so ashamed of
being in that mental institution, that we didn’t want anybody
to know about it. And we never talked about it. Not even amongst ourselves.
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