In the 1930s, in a dark chapter of U.S. history, hundreds of the “feeble-minded” people committed to the now-abandoned DeJarnette Sanitarium were sterilized against their will, due to the efforts of the hospital’s eugenicist namesake.
Dr. Joseph DeJarnette was a major proponent of eugenics, particularly the forced sterilization of “defectives.” Watching his wards grow overfull and his patients relapse after treatment, he felt sterilization was the only way to preserve the integrity of society. In fact, and somewhat ironically, DeJarnette 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, praised the Nazi party’s sterilization efforts, and came to be known amongst his colleagues as “Sterilization DeJarnette.”
DeJarnette lobbied passionately for the compulsory sterilization of the “mentally unfit.” In 1924, the practice was set law in the “Racial Integrity Act,” a measure praised by the Nazi state across the Atlantic. Virginia’s legislature served as the model for forced sterilization laws in at least 12 other states. In 1932, the DeJarnette Sanitarium opened, named after the man who many Virginians saw as a future-thinking champion of the people. It was a private ward of Western State Hospital. DeJarnette acted as its superintendent and had considerable control over the treatment in the facility.
People with mental disabilities lived in the sanitarium, but in these early days of modern psychological treatment, it was also home to poor people whose families could not afford to care for them. Many of these patients were sterilized, though not at the sanitarium itself. They were sent to Western State Hospital for the procedures. Out of the 8,000 people sterilized in Virginia, some 1,200 of them were operated on at Western State. Most of them were black or Native American.
Though Dr. DeJarnette’s sterilization practices were heinous, they weren’t the worst of his work. He used the inmates in his asylum as guinea pigs in various experiments. These included blood transfusions between patients on opposite ends of the psychiatric spectrum, such as taking blood from a hyperactive patient and injecting it into a depressed one. He also used extreme x-ray exposure as a method of sterilization, which almost certainly would have left its patients with adverse side effects.
Following the atrocities of the Holocaust, the trend of eugenics in the United States went quickly downhill. DeJarnette continued to support sterilization, leaving his reputation irreparably tarnished. His quote that Nazi Germany was “beating us at our own game” certainly didn’t help his case. He resigned from the hospital in 1947, after which it was renamed the DeJarnette Center for Human Development in the mid ’60s, then transformed into a children’s hospital in 1975. When Western State Hospital built a new children’s ward on a new campus, the old sanitarium was shuttered for good.
The state of Virginia has publicly apologized for the sterilization program, and eventually even offered a reparations settlement to its victims. The DeJarnette Hospital still stands empty and rotting. Though its land has been purchased by a local museum, no plans for redevelopment have come to fruition. For now, the general structure of the hospital remains intact, with all the dark memories inside it.