In 1905 the mayor of the small town of Ballard just outside of Seattle ended his engagement with Rosena Grover. What began as a simple break-up turned into a tabloid frenzy as Grover sued Mayor James Zook for breaking the engagement seeking $25,000 in damages. Zook shocked high society by countering that he broke the engagement when he learned that Grover had tuberculosis, the dreaded “white plague.”
Zook argued that to marry the tubercular Grover “would be a sin against society.” The Seattle Times noted that the mayor felt that rather than be admonished for breaking his promise to marry “he should receive the praise of the community.” The story tantalized readers and demonstrated the intersection between public health, the state, and the burgeoning field of eugenics.
In a scandalous invasion of a society woman’s privacy Zook demanded that Grover answer questions under oath regarding her personal hygiene and her eugenic fitness. Plastered over all the papers the questions included, “Did you desire that this defendant should run the risk of his life and endanger his life by marrying you and associating with you?” and “Is there a hereditary taint of tuberculosis in your family?”
Grover’s attorney argued that such questions were irrelevant to a simple case of a broken contract, but Judge Albertson disagreed. The Times summed up his opinion,
The court declared that in the marriage contract three parties were concerned—the man, the woman and the state. The state had a right to prevent any marriage which would be dangerous to it. If it could be shown that the marriage of the plaintiff and Mayor Zook would result in the production of progeny which would be affected with a disease transmitted directly from either or both of the parents, then in the opinion of the court the state, on the ground of public policy, had a right to prevent the performance of the marriage contract.
Those in the eugenics movement watched the case closely hoping for a precedent that deemed marriages between the racially “unfit” to be a violation of the state’s duty to maintain the public health. Ultimately they would be disappointed as Grover proved that Zook knew of her illness well before they got engaged. The jury awarded her $10,000 in damages and Judge Albertson, sympathetic to Zook’s plight, lowered it to $6,000.
The Zook story emphasizes the fear of tuberculosis at the time, but also a continued ambiguous understanding of the etiology of the disease. Germ theory of disease was supposed to explain that disease was transmitted through exchange of bacteria, most often through coughing. But the ideology of eugenics clouded this with theories about inherited, individual inferiority. And while the state showed itself unwilling to comment further in this case on the issue of their role in utilizing eugenic methods to “protect the public,” that would not be the case for long.
In 1909 Washington became the second state behind Indiana (1907) to allow for the sterilization of “mental defectives” and “habitual criminals.” Connecticut, California, Nevada, Iowa, New Jersey, and New York soon followed. Between 1907 and 1948 at least 70,000 people were sterilized in the US under these eugenics laws, 14,568 were sterilized in California alone. In almost every case the victim was poor.
The merger of eugenics and public health represents a dark chapter in US history that should not be forgotten particularly in the age of modern genetics. Famed geneticist and co-discoverer of the double helix James Watson has made many comments supportive of eugenics. The lessons of the past remain vital today.