Abandoned DeJarnette Sanitarium – Staunton, Virginia - Atlas Obscura
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Staunton, Virginia

Abandoned DeJarnette Sanitarium

A former mental hospital founded in the 1930s by a eugenicist who advocated for the forced sterilization of patients. 

This abandoned mental hospital formerly known as the DeJarnette Sanitarium languishes empty and deteriorating on a hill in Staunton, Virginia. The eerie ruin stands out among the modern buildings surrounding it, and is made all the more chilling by the hospital’s link to one of the leading advocates for eugenics in Virginia. 

The DeJarnette Sanitarium was founded in 1932 by Dr. Joseph DeJarnette, who was also the director of the nearby Western State Hospital (the sanitarium was a private unit for middle-income patients that operated separately from the government-supported state hospital). DeJarnette was a respected doctor among the white Virginia elite at the time, but his career would ultimately be defined by his strong support for eugenics, specifically the forced sterilization of the mentally ill and others he deemed “defective.”

DeJarnette felt sterilization was the only way to preserve the integrity of society. In fact, and somewhat ironically, he was part of a larger movement toward more humane mental health treatment. But he was bullish on this point; he even wrote a poem extolling the virtues of proper human breeding and came to be known among his colleagues as “Sterilization DeJarnette.” DeJarnette lobbied passionately for the compulsory sterilization of members of society considered “unfit” to breed, and Virginia’s legislature served as the model for forced sterilization laws in at least 12 other states.

Though he was far from the only advocate of eugenics at the time, DeJarnette was one of the most passionate, and infamously commented that Nazi Germany was “beating us at our own game.” While it was legal under Virginia law, DeJarnette performed hundreds of forced sterilizations at the Western State Hospital. The so-called “unfit” included people with mental disabilities and epileptics, as well as those considered to be alcoholics or even promiscuous. A large percentage of victims were poor and African American or Native American. Following the atrocities of the Holocaust, the attitude toward eugenics in the United States went quickly downhill. Eventually, it was denounced as an inhumane pseudoscience, leaving DeJarnette’s reputation irreparably tarnished—although the practice of forced sterilization would continue in Virginia well into the 1970s. 

The DeJarnette Sanitarium came under the control of the state in 1975 and was transformed into a children’s hospital, renamed the DeJarnette Center for Human Development. In 1996, the center was relocated to a new facility near the Western State Hospital and the original DeJarnette Sanitarium was shuttered for good. The building still stands empty on the hill; though there have been various plans for its demolition and redevelopment, none have yet come to fruition.

In 2001, the relocated DeJarnette Center was renamed the Commonwealth Center for Children and Adolescents due to the DeJarnette name’s association with eugenics. The state of Virginia has publicly apologized for the sterilization program, and offered a reparations settlement to its victims.

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