The Atlantic

A Long-Lost Data Trove Uncovers California’s Sterilization Program

Some of the 20,000 victims are still alive today.
Source: From the collection of Alex Wellerstein

In 2007, only after historian Alexandra Minna Stern had spent years researching eugenics in the American west, culminating in a published book, did she find the motherlode.

During the height of the eugenics movement, California sterilized 20,000 patients deemed feeble-minded or insane. Stern, who is a professor at the University of Michigan, wrote about the sterilization program in her book, but she had only a patchwork of records to work with.

One day in 2007, a secretary pointed her toward a neglected filing cabinet at the state department of mental health’s office in Sacramento. Inside were 19 reels of coiled microfilm, containing sterilization recommendation forms with the names, ages, family histories, and diagnoses of nearly 20,000 patients. These forgotten records covered patients recommended for sterilization at California state hospitals from 1919 to 1952. “The microfilm was in very good shape,” says Stern. “I don’t think anyone had looked at

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