UVA and the History of Race: Eugenics, the Racial Integrity Act, Health Disparities

January 9, 2020 By P. Preston Reynolds, ppr8q@virginia.edu P. Preston Reynolds, ppr8q@virginia.edu

Editor’s note: Even an institution as historic as the University of Virginia – now entering its third century – has stories yet to be told. Some are inspiring, while the truths of others are painful, but necessary for a fuller accounting of the past. The President’s Commissions on Slavery and on the University in the Age of Segregation were established to find and tell those stories. Here are some of them, written by those who did the research. One in an occasional series:


By the start of the 20th century, the University of Virginia had become a center of an emerging new strain of racism – eugenics – that would create and perpetuate myths created under the guise of scientific research, but ultimately was intended to demonstrate white racial superiority.

The goal of eugenic science was knowledge of how various traits – emotional, physical, intellectual – were inherited, so that such information could be applied in order to advance the human race and preserve imagined racial superiority. Eugenic scientists used the census, genealogy, measurement of physiological functions and human anatomy, as well as intelligence testing, as methods of investigation.

They believed application of eugenic knowledge, through legislation and community practices, would eliminate mental illness, physical disabilities, moral delinquency, crime and even physical illnesses. They assumed the benefit to society would be a dramatic reduction in the cost of caring for the sick, poor, mentally ill and incarcerated. 

These philosophies flourished during the first decades of the 1900s, as researchers and administrators at UVA focused on the study of improving humanity through controlled reproduction, all with an eye toward promoting “desirable” heritable characteristics and suppressing supposedly undesirable ones. 

But the foundation for eugenics, and the history of hereditarianism and scientific racism at the University began much earlier with its founder, Thomas Jefferson. For Jefferson, racial distinction was an observable, scientific fact. In “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Jefferson described his slaves at Monticello as “lacking beauty; emitting a very strong and disagreeable odor; were in reason, inferior; in imagination were dull, tasteless, and anomalous; participated more in sensual activity than reflection; never conversed in thought above the level of plain narrative; and were never seen producing even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture.”1

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Title page of 'Notes on the State of Virginia' by Thomas Jefferson
Jefferson is credited with the language, “all men are created equal,” but also argued “any attempt to assimilate [blacks] with the American polity is a greater threat to the integrity of the republic than naturalizing immigrants.” (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

Deeply grounded in the methods of Enlightenment science, Jefferson’s observations were regarded as concrete phenomena, in part, because in this tradition observation was the tool of natural science. While Jefferson is credited with the language, “all men are created equal,” he also argued “any attempt to assimilate [blacks] with the American polity is a greater threat to the integrity of the republic than naturalizing immigrants.”2

Jefferson paved the way for eugenicists by providing a rationale that harmonized their theories of democratic political ideology. Just as Jefferson argued that “self preservation” was the nation’s highest moral imperative, and its “first law of nature,” later Virginia eugenicists sought to deprive the procreative liberties of blacks, poor whites and the mentally defective to prevent them from destroying the lives of other Virginians (particularly, affluent whites) through genetic pollution.3

James Lawrence Cabell received UVA’s highest degree, a master’s, in 1833. After finishing medical school at the University of Maryland and medical training in Europe, he returned to UVA as its third professor of medicine. During his 52-year tenure at UVA, Cabell rose to serve as chair of the faculty. With publication of “The Testimony of Modern Science in the Unity of Mankind,” Cabell advanced ideas proposed by Jefferson using his credibility as a physician and leader in public health, arguing that blacks were genetically and biologically inferior to whites, thus providing justification for slavery. 

Jefferson’s and Cabell’s race science transitioned into a full commitment to the science and policies of eugenics with the passing of power from Cabell to Paul Brandon Barringer in 1888. Like his mentor, Barringer cast a long shadow on UVA, first as a faculty member, then as dean of the medical school, where he would build UVA’s first hospital in 1901, and lay the foundation for eugenic science among its faculty. While chair of the faculty, Barringer published three treatises that secured his pre-eminence as a spokesperson on the inferiority of blacks when compared to whites.

Black and white image of the the first Hospital at UVA
The University’s first hospital, photographed in 1901. (Photo courtesy the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library)

According to Barringer, rigid hereditary determinism predetermined the absolute limit of African Americans’ biological and social advancement. He argued that with emancipation came reversion of African Americans to “savage” status, creating a new, degenerate black generation that could not possibly survive in contact with civilized white society.

Barringer believed that under the conditions of slavery, blacks had advanced beyond their natural selection through selective breeding by slave owners. With emancipation came reversion of African Americans to their original “savage nature,” which put them on a path toward extinction, accelerated by an irrational procreation which further exacerbated their genetic inferiority and susceptibility to disease and criminality.4

The drastically high incidence of tuberculosis, syphilis and typhoid fever among African Americans (locally and in cities around the country) indicated nothing to Barringer about overcrowded housing or lack of clean water, sanitation or safe meats and pasteurized milk. Instead the high morbidity and mortality rates of African Americans proved the genetic unfitness of a “markedly criminal race.” Without white intervention, Barringer condemned blacks to a life of barbarism and death. To Barringer, the “Negro Problem” was more than a political problem; it was a huge public health threat to whites.

Black and white image of Barringer Wing

Barringer’s tripartite solution to the “Negro Problem” was political disfranchisement, transferring responsibility for African American education from black to white teachers, and training blacks to be law-abiding laborers and artisans. As he wrote, “Every Negro doctor, lawyer, teacher or other leader in excess of the immediate needs of his own people is an antisocial produce, a social menace.”5

Eugenics flourished under the leadership of President Edwin Alderman (1903-27) as he set out to build the research base of the University with recruitment of leading men of eugenic science into schools across Grounds: These included Harvey Jordan, Robert Bean and Lawrence Royster in the medical school; George Ferguson in education; Orlando White as director of UVA’s biological station; and Ivey Lewis as chair of biology.

Together these faculty created eugenics research and education programs at UVA and throughout the state, and in doing so, trained UVA students as well as high school and college teachers in eugenic racism. They also collaborated with nationally renowned eugenics investigators, and presented their work at international eugenics meetings.  Fully immersed in race science, these men contributed directly and indirectly to ethically contemptuous laws and policies designed to maintain a culture of white supremacy, and exclusionary white privilege.

Black and white image of the School of Medicine building in 1929

Jordan, a professor of embryology, genetics and histology, was one of Alderman’s early recruits. Joining the faculty in 1907, he served as dean of the medical school from 1939 to 1949. Believing that blacks inherited a susceptibility to contracting diseases such as syphilis and tuberculosis, Jordan called for compulsory registration of all who were ill.  He argued that proposed eugenic marriage, segregation and sterilization laws, were public and racial health measures that “should form part of the health code, to be administered under the State Police powers.”6 The promise of eugenics as a solution to society’s ills, and the power of physicians in solving such problems was best summed up when Jordan declared at the 1st International Congress of Eugenics in 1912 that “the future physician must also take a more active part in helping to shape legislation in the interest of race welfare.”7

Chair of Anatomy Dr. Robert Bean argued that the physical features of African Americans confirmed their inferiority when compared to whites. Furthermore, he advanced “human types that represent different degrees of susceptibility of disease may be segregated and given differential treatment.”8 Through medical school core courses, Jordan and Bean, combined, taught about 20% of the medical school curriculum.

Along similar lines, George Oscar Ferguson, a professor in the education school, in his use of intelligence testing among blacks, mixed-race and white children concluded, “It does not seem possible to raise the scholastic attainment of the Negro to an equality with that of the white. … [N]o expenditure of time or money would accomplish this end, since education cannot create mental power, but can only develop that which is innate.”9

Eugenics began to shape public policy nationally as early as 1907, when Indiana passed a sterilization law. Two Virginia eugenics laws, both passed in 1924, had a profound impact in the commonwealth and throughout the country. The Virginia Sterilization Act and the Racial Integrity Act not only legalized sterilization of the mentally ill and persons of low literacy, but also cemented discrimination against marginalized and vulnerable populations, including African Americans. These laws codified Jim Crow into every aspect of community life, and in doing so, denied African Americans access to medical care, jobs and fair wages, as well as higher education and professional training. Simply put, eugenic laws created the “one drop rule,” where one drop of African American blood restricted a person of color to life behind the veil.10

Image of a Virginia Law.  Text is blurry and hard to read in the image
Virginia laws approved in 1924, known as the Racial Integrity Act, sought to advance white racial purity in part by banning interracial marriage.

A band of eugenics populists, including a UVA alumnus, founded the Anglo-Saxon Clubs and then advocated for passage of the 1924 Racial Integrity Act. Dr. Walter A. Plecker, Earnest Sevier Cox and John Powell (the latter a 1901 UVA alumnus) sought to preserve the racial integrity of the white race by defining whiteness, with its “no trace” definition, and blackness, with its “one drop rule,” and then restricting marriage of a white person to anyone except someone fully identified as pure white. They ultimately succeeded with legislation passed in 1924 and 1927. With autocratic rigidity, Plecker, as director of Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics, used birth certificates to prevent fair-skinned blacks from passing into life in the white community, and marriage certificates to stop miscegenation.11

Eugenic racism in health care led to the segregation of African Americans into basement wards at UVA’s teaching hospital, where black men, women and those with mental illnesses were housed together, complicating the treatment of all who were sick. The accommodations were horrible, at best, and the treatment many received, often disgraceful. Extreme limitation of access to ambulatory and surgical care contributed to much higher rates of morbidity and mortality from contagious and chronic illnesses among African Americans.

Black and White photo of hospital workers and patients in a hallway
Eugenic racism in health care led to the segregation of African Americans into basement wards at UVA’s teaching hospital. (Photo courtesy of the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library)

A comparison study published by James Barksdale in 1949 of health, education and welfare services of whites and blacks in Charlottesville confirmed the impact of eugenics on local policies. The data revealed white leaders’ failure to invest adequate resources in the black community to ensure safe housing, proper sanitation, clean water and essential education for residents of the city’s segregated black neighborhoods.12

UVA alumni, including a surgeon general of the U.S. Public Health Service, Dr. Hugh Smith Cummings, and two assistant surgeon generals, Dr. Taliaferro Clark and Dr. Raymond Vanderlehr, took eugenic racism into the rural tobacco fields of Alabama.  Here they implemented the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study, where nearly 400 black men were followed for 40 years in an effort to document how the disease manifested in black individuals left untreated. The tragedy is that with the discovery of penicillin as a cure for syphilis after World War II, these men were never informed of their disease, nor offered curative therapy.13

Eugenic science, which flourished at UVA, contributed to the design of structural racism in health care, and explicit and implicit racial bias among generations of physicians and other health professionals.14 Eugenic racism reached beyond medicine into friendships and marriage, the composition of classrooms, lives of the mentally ill and educationally handicapped, and provision of essential and mandatory public resources.


P. Preston Reynolds a professor of medicine and nursing at the University of Virginia.

Editor’s Note: In September 2017, the University dedicated the former Jordan Hall in honor of Dr. Vivian Pinn, a 1967 graduate of the School of Medicine, who was the only woman and only African American in her class. The building originally was named for eugenicist Harvey Jordan in 1972. The Pinn Hall dedication was the first of three renamings that have occurred for UVA buildings originally dedicated to proponents of eugenic science. The Board of Visitors also approved the renaming of Lewis Hall – dedicated in 1984 to Ivey Foreman Lewis – in honor of W.W. Yen, the first international student to earn a bachelor of arts degree from UVA. In August 2019, the board voted to rename the Barringer Wing at the UVA Medical Center West Complex as the Collins Wing, in honor of UVA alumnus Dr. Francis S. Collins, one of America’s most eminent scientists. The work of the Commission on the University in the Age of Segregation includes bringing forward research that allows the University and community to better understand the truths about the institution’s complicated history.




1. Gregory M. Dorr.  Segregation’s Science: Eugenics and Society in Virginia (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008), p. 27.

2. Ibid., p. 30.

3. Ibid., p. 27-33.

4. Ibid., p. 44.

5. Ibid., p. 45

6. Ibid., p. 63.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid., p. 81.

9. Ibid., p. 85.

10. Dorr; Paul A. Lombardo. Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, The Supreme Court, and Buck v Bell (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008); Paul A. Lombardo, ed. A Century of Eugenics in America: From the Indiana Experiment to the Human Genome Era (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011).

11. J. Douglas Smith. “The Campaign for Racial Purity and the Erosion of Paternalism in Virginia, 1922 – 1930: ‘Nominally White, Biologically Mixed, and Legally Negro.” Journal of Southern History  2002, 68:65-106.

12. James Worsham Barksdale. A Comparative Study of Contemporary White and Negro Standards in Health, Education and Welfare in Charlottesville, Virginia.  Phelps-Stokes Fellowship Papers. No. 20, 1949.

13. Paul A. Lombardo and Gregory M. Dorr.  “Eugenics, Medical Education, and the Public Health Service: Another Perspective on the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 2006, 80:291-316.

14. P. Preston Reynolds. Eugenics at the University of Virginia and its Impact on Health Disparities. In: Charlottesville 2017. Ed. Louis Nelson and Claudrena N. Harold (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2018), pp. 118-132.


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