This Eugenics Movement for Epileptics and the “Feebleminded” Started a Dangerous Trend

This Eugenics Movement for Epileptics and the “Feebleminded” Started a Dangerous Trend

Trista - September 26, 2018

In 1909, Bessie Williams and a few other people purchased a property called “Morissana” which would become home to one of Virginia’s most popular facilities for mental illness. Located near Lynchburg in Amherst County, Virginia, the Virginia State Epileptic Colony was established in 1910. The facility officially opened its doors to patients with epilepsy on May 16, 1911, with the limit of 100 patients. One of the first buildings on the Morissana site was known as the Drewry-Gilliam building. It was named after two men, Dr. William F. Drewry, and Mr. Robert Gilliam, who worked hard to secure the funds for the construction.

With a total cost of $24,420, the building held a dining room, kitchen, pantry, service room, laundry room, coal storage room, cold storage room, and a toilet room. The second floor of the Drewry-Gilliam building, which was also known as the “cottage” held a living room, attendant’s rooms, and two 40-bed wards. A second, three-story building, was built and became known as the Administrative building. The third building constructed became known as the Employee’s Cottage. It was a two-story brick colonial-type cottage. An addition would quickly be added to the Employee’s Cottage to accommodate the growing number of patients.

This Eugenics Movement for Epileptics and the “Feebleminded” Started a Dangerous Trend
Virginia State Epileptic Colony, Mastin-Minor Building. Wikimedia.

A Growing State Colony

Right before the start of World War I, construction began for a new building on the Morissana property. This building, which would become known as the Mastin-Minor Building, would house 60 beds for “feebleminded” women. Feebleminded was a popular term in the early 1900s to explain people with mental illnesses. Because of this change in mission, the name of the institution was changed from Virginia State Epileptic Colony to Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded.

During World War I, the institution received its own post office. While this addition helped the mail system at the facility, it did not improve transportation to and from the property nor did it help with lodging for its visitors. Until automobiles, bus systems, and other methods of moving would become more available to the public transportation would continue to be an issue for visitors. The facility was never able to accommodate lodging for visitors of the patients.

This Eugenics Movement for Epileptics and the “Feebleminded” Started a Dangerous Trend
Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded Drewry-Gilliam Building.

While the facility was only meant to accommodate 100 patients at its opening, by 1919, there were a little over 500 residents; 351 were deemed epileptics, and 157 were classified as feebleminded. However, this number did not stop there. Seven years later, the facility had approximately 845 residents with 347 males labeled as people with epilepsy, 164 females were considered people with epilepsy, and another 334 women classified as feebleminded. By 1940, the facility was housing over 2,000 patients, with many of them sleeping on mattresses on the floor. The facility did not reach its height for admissions until 1972 with a total number of 3,686. It was then that the facility decided to discontinue admissions.

This Eugenics Movement for Epileptics and the “Feebleminded” Started a Dangerous Trend
Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded Employees Cottage.

The Case of Bell vs. Buck

In 1913, the Superintendent of the facility, Albert Priddy, stated that the facility would never use sterilization as a general procedure, even though many other institutions like the Virginia State Colony were sterilizing patients. Priddy felt the process was not practical. However, a little over a decade later, the institution would become one of the leading facilities of the “Eugenics” movement. By 1927, the facility was taking part in a program which promoted involuntary sterilization, appendectomies, and other procedures. It was also the year that the facility, which was then known as The Lynchburg State Colony, decided to test Virginia’s 1924 sterilization act.

The 1924 sterilization act stated that people could only be sterilized for two reasons. The first reason was to protect the welfare of society and the second reason was to promote the person’s health. When the Virginia State Colony decided to test how constitutional this act was, they selected a patient named Carrie Buck, who had been brought to the facility in her teens. Throughout the beginning of 1927, the courts debated on whether Carrie should be sterilized or not. The case, which became called Bell vs. Buck, was sent to the United States Supreme Court for a decision. In a vote of 8:1, the United States Supreme Court decided to uphold Carrie’s pending sterilization.

This Eugenics Movement for Epileptics and the “Feebleminded” Started a Dangerous Trend
Carrie Buck and her mother, Emma at the Lynchburg State Colony, November 1924. Encyclopedia Virginia.

The Truth of Involuntary Sterilization

Once the facility realized that the United States Supreme Court would uphold involuntary sterilization, the doctors took it upon themselves to sterilize thousands of patients. One of the biggest reasons they used to defend the involuntary sterilization was because doing so would keep the feebleminded from reproducing. As Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, during the Bell vs. Buck case wrote that mental illness is transferred from mother to child. During the Bell vs. Buck case, many believed this was proven when a social worker examined Carrie’s young child, Vivian, and stated that Vivian did not look quite healthy.

The ruling of Virginia’s sterilization procedures was not repealed until 1974. However, this time, more than 7,000 people had been sterilized because of the legitimacy of the Bell vs. Buck hearing. While Carrie was sterilized, she was later released from the facility and became a domestic worker for a family in Virginia. In 1980, Carrie was interviewed by reporters. Through the interview, the reporters found out that Carrie had average intelligence and was sent to the facility as a teenager because she had become pregnant by her foster parents’ nephew who had raped her.

Not only was Carrie interviewed in 1980, but this was also the year that people found out how many patients Virginia’s Lynchburg State Colony involuntarily sterilized. This discovery occurred when the Executive Director of the hospital found old records dating back to the 1920s. The Executive Director noted in the documents that close to 4,000 patients had been sterilized between the early 1920s and 1972.

This Eugenics Movement for Epileptics and the “Feebleminded” Started a Dangerous Trend
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Scotusblog.

A State Hospital of Changes

In 1940, Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded changed its name to the Lynchburg State Colony. Beginning in the early to mid-1950s, the United States began to focus on development and training programs for mental hospitals, such as the Lynchburg State Colony. Because of the mandatory training for the Lynchburg State Colony, the facility decided to change its name once again to match its mission and the type of hospital it was. Therefore, in 1954, the Lynchburg State Colony became known as the Lynchburg Training School and Hospital.

Over the course of the 1950s, the Lynchburg Training School and Hospital decided to go above and beyond the mandatory state laws on training and started to increase staffing and staff skills. Therefore, by 1955, about two-thirds of the residents of the hospital were being cared for by about 55 staff members who had adequate training and skills. On top of that, all of the 55 staff members had received a certificate of proficiency for their training in patient care.

Along with the changes inside the hospital, changes were also happening outside of the hospital. Since the beginning, the facility had operated a farm for some income to help sustain themselves. Before and during the 1950s, this farm continued to grow. The facility grew soybeans and vegetables. Furthermore, they had dairy cows and pigs. However, near the end of the 1950s, the farm was not making a profit as it had in the past. Therefore, the cow barn was torn down, and the dairy barn was changed into temporary housing. A decade later, the only remains of the farm was a greenhouse.

This Eugenics Movement for Epileptics and the “Feebleminded” Started a Dangerous Trend
Central Virginia Training Center historical marker. findagrave.

Seven Divisions

The 1970s brought further changes to the facility when they decided to organize the training center and hospital into seven different areas. The first area became known as pediatrics. Independent living was a second area added to the hospital for the patients who did not need as much care as others. The third area became known as the severely retarded and infirm. Intensive social rehabilitation became known as the fourth area. The fifth area added was known as psychiatry with the sixth area called ambulatory. The final area of the hospital became the medical and surgical area and just called the hospital.

Even with some bed additions, adequate training, and other changes, the facility continued to face overcrowding problems well into the 1970s. In fact, they did not see a drastic change with overcrowding until Virginia added three new hospitals in the late 1970s. In 1983, the Lynchburg Training School and Hospital decided to make one final name change when the facility became known as Central Virginia Training Center. A year later, the resident population was down to 1,724, which is the lowest population the facility had seen in decades. Today, the Central Virginia Training Center is home to around 300 patients and still considered one of Virginia’s most extensive facilities.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“High School Bioethics Curriculum Project: Chapter 2 Carrie Buck & The Lynchburg State Colony.” Kennedy Institute of Ethics.

“Over 7,500 Sterilized by Virginia.” S ra G. Boodman, Glenn Frankel, and Robert Meyers, Washington Post. February 1980.