Canadian Eugenicists

The eugenicists included people in the medical profession, psychiatry, politicians, such as the Lieutenant-Governor Dr Herbert Bruce, university professors, and the clergy of all denominations – Anglican, Methodist, and Presbyterian – except Roman Catholic.


On this page:
Dr Charles Clarke
Dr Helen MacMurchy, Inspector of the Feeble-Minded for Ontario, 1906-1919.
Dr Clarence Hincks
Alfred Binet: The Simon-Binet Scales of Intelligence 1908
The Role of the Children’s Aid Societies:


Dr Charles K. Clarke, Psychiatrist.  Photo courtesy of CAMH Archives.

Dr Charles K. Clarke, Psychiatrist. 
Photo courtesy of CAMH Archives.

Dr Charles K. Clarke

“The feeble-minded of our land are supplying sixty per cent of the illegitimate children”.

Clarke was the first professor of psychiatry at University of Toronto and Dean of the Faculty of Medicine in 1908. He was former Superintendent of the Toronto Hospital for the Insane, 1905-1911, and Superintendent of the Toronto General Hospital, 1917-18.

Clarke founded the first psychiatric clinic in Canada, known as the “feeble-minded clinic”, in a dilapidated house on the corner of Chestnut Street, Toronto, in the  infamous “Ward” slum. Later, in 1914, it moved to the basement of the Toronto General Hospital.

In the first 5 years of running the clinic, Clarke examined and diagnosed over 5,000 “feeble-minded”, many of them girls, and committed many of them to the institution in Orillia.

In particular, Clarke blamed the increase in insanity and feeble-mindedness in Canada on the quality of immigrants being allowed in, and urged the government to curtail immigration. Clarke wanted so-called “feeble-minded” girls, those with a “borderline” IQ of 70, with a mental age of twelve, to be put away in the Orillia institution and prevented from having offspring. Those who had illegitimate children were automatically deemed feeble-minded or “moral imbeciles”, a useful vague term that justified institutionalizing them.

Dr Clarke also called his clinic after Ernest Jones, the first director.

Photo courtesy of CAMH archives.

Dr Helen MacMurchy
Inspector of the Feeble-Minded for Ontario, 1906-1919.

“Abnormal children should be separated from the normal at any early age, and what better place to send them than the Orillia asylum?”

Dr MacMurchy and the Auxiliary Classes:

Dr MacMurchy was appointed Inspector of the Feeble-Minded in 1906 and Inspector of Auxiliary Classes in 1914. She initiated the Auxiliary Classes Act of 1914 whereby mental defective children were segregated from normal children in school. In 1915 she published the Organization and Management of Auxiliary Classes.

There were two types of classes recognized by the Act: Training Classes for mental defectives and Promotion Classes for backward children.

Dr Helen MacMurchy.  Photo courtesy of University of Toronto Archives.

Dr Helen MacMurchy.  Photo courtesy of University of Toronto Archives.

“Below 50 I.Q.”

The intent of the Act and the auxiliary classes was to test and separate mentally defective children from backward ones, and eventually commit them to the Orillia institution.

Those ‘backward’ pupils with over 50 I.Q., with proper teaching in separate classes,  could be improved and even integrated into a regular classroom or given vocational training. She regarded education for the feeble-minded or idiot class with 50 and below I.Q., as a waste of tax payers’ money, since they belonged in the Orillia asylum. 

Boy sitting “IQ Test, 1930.  Photo courtesy of CAMH Archives.

Propaganda poster about the feeble-minded put out by the CNCMH, 1920s.  Photo courtesy of CAMH Archives.

MacMurchy’s View of Parents

“We must not permit the feeble-minded to be mother of the next generation.”

MacMurchy was both sympathetic and objective towards  normal parents of feeble-minded children. She noted that “only by good care and management and self-sacrifice” were parents able to even look after their normal offspring.

She urged parents to put their mentally defective children into government care in the Orillia asylum which was superior to anything a parent could provide. She believed and told parents that they were not trained or capable of properly raising subnormal children which she saw as a drain on the family resources.

This attitude towards parents and professionals (doctors, superintendents, and trained staff at institutions) was to remain influential into the end of the twentieth century.

MacMurchy and Sterilization/Birth Control

‘It is unnatural, it is repugnant” - MacMurchy on birth control.

Dr Helen MacMurchy wrote a book about sterilization of the feeble-minded and birth control: Sterilization? Birth Control? A Book for Family Welfare and Safety (Toronto: Macmillan, 1934),

While MacMurchy and most physicians of the time were firmly against the working classes having access to birth control, they supported the sterilization of the “feeble-minded”.

Dr Clarence Hincks

Dr Hincks was a close colleague of Dr Charles Clarke, and was Medical Director of the influential Canadian National Committee on Mental Hygiene (CNCMH). He was a eugenicists and a firm believer in the sterilization of the feeble-minded and mentally ill where needed.

Dr Clarence Hincks and Sterilization of the Unfit

Dr Hincks, along with Dr C. Farrar, and Dr Paul Popenoe of the Human Betterment Foundation of Pasadena, California, and leader of the California eugenics movement, were influential witnesses at the Royal Commission in B.C. prior to the Sterilization Act in 1933, presenting a submission to the B.C. Final Report of the Royal Commission on Mental Hygiene in 1928.  

Eugenic sterilization was an issue that was inter-continental, with information shared between eugenicists in California, United States, Canada, Britain and Germany. California was well-known for its propagation of eugenic sterilization, and Canadian eugenicists were aware of Dr Popenoe’s views.

In 1944 Hincks published an article in McLean’s Magazine: “Sterilize the Unfit”.


Sterilization in the Province of Alberta

In the Province of Alberta, 2,822 persons were sterilized under the order of the Alberta Eugenic Board. In 1972 the Lougheed conservative government repealed the Sexual Sterilization Act and abolished the province’s Eugenics Board.

Leilani Muir

In January, 1996, Leilani Muir, wrongfully sterilized at age fourteen by order of the Alberta Eugenics Board, was awarded $740,000 plus $230,000 in legal costs for her wrongful incarceration at the Red Deer Training School for Mental Defectives, Alberta.  Muir had scored 64 on her intelligence test as a patient at the School, and 101 at the educational psychology clinic at the University of Alberta in 1989.
 In 1999, a final settlement was made to all victims of sterilization in Alberta. The government made a formal apology and in November 1999, a $48 million settlement for 500 plaintiffs was agreed upon.

Toronto Children’s Aid Society

Executives of both the Infants Home (CAS) and the West End Creche supported eugenic sterilization of the unfit. The Neighbourhood Workers Association called for sterilization of “low grade families.”  

Pope Pius X1 and the Papal Bull of 1930

Pope Pius X1 condemned sterilization of the mentally retarded, in his encyclical on marriage, ‘Casti Connubi’, December 31, 1930, which was read aloud and distributed throughout Catholic churches.

He condemned those who were “over-solicitous for the cause of eugenics” who wished to “deprive these of that natural faculty by medical action despite their unwillingness” and pointed out that the mentally defective had committed no crime. He interpreted sterilization as a “grave punishment” by the state, which had no “direct power” or legitimate authority “over the bodies of their subjects.” The state had no right to “tamper with the integrity of the body, either for reasons of eugenics or for any other reason.”

Dr Clarence Hincks.    Photo courtesy of CAMH Archives.

Dr Clarence Hincks.    Photo courtesy of CAMH Archives.

Hincks' 1944 article, “Sterilize the Unfit”, published an article in McLean’s Magazine.

Alfred Binet:
The Simon-Binet Scales of Intelligence 1908

Alfred Binet was a French psychologist working in Paris. He and colleague Theodore Simon devised the first practical intelligence scales in order to identify mentally defective Paris students and provide help to improve their performance. He believed that “intelligence” could improve with good special teaching.

The eugenicists believed that one’s level of intelligence was genetic and biological, inherited from one’s parents and could never change. They saw the Binet Test as a useful tool in identifying and then placing children in the Orillia asylum.


Classification of Children by Intelligence:

Alfred Binet. Photo from Wikipedia.

Alfred Binet. Photo from Wikipedia.

Note: The terms “feeble-minded” and “mentally defective” were general terms that had different meanings in various countries in the early twentieth century.

Canadians and British tended to use it to denote those with a higher level of intelligence, IQ in the 70 range on the Binet Scales of Intelligence or a mental age of twelve years.

Americans used the word “feeble-minded” to denote all mental defectives generally.

“Retarded” was another general term in use.

Eventually an American version was developed by Lewis Terman of Stanford and the test became known as the Stanford-Binet Intelligence or IQ Test still in use today.    

As early as 1911, Dr Helen MacMurchy, Inspector for the Feeble-Minded in Ontario, had had qualms about the legal justification of the term “moral imbecile”  (“moron”) since it was not strictly a medical condition.

Classification of Children by Intelligence. Image courtesy of Archives of Ontario.

The Role of the Children’s Aid Societies

Children of Normal Intelligence

A certain percentage of young people put in Orillia were not even mentally challenged, but of normal intelligence. They had been labelled “feeble-minded” and “moral imbeciles”, vague useful terms invented by doctors and psychiatrists in the early 1900s that was used to justify putting them away in institutions. They were from the poor working classes, often with destitute or unsuitable parents whom the CAS found hard to place.

Children of Normal Intelligence at Orillia and CAS

Dr John Fotheringham, head of the Mental Retardation Clinic which opened in Toronto in 1952 and was associated with the Toronto Psychiatric Hospital at Surrey Place, noted that institutionalization of children with a developmental disability was often for life.  Fotheringham recalled that admissions to Orillia came heavily from Metro Toronto. About one third of all admissions from Toronto were Children’s Aid Society wards, admitted before they turned sixteen, when CAS wardship ended.

“Many were mildly retarded young women, and the major concern was that they were “interested in boys” and might become pregnant. Residents in Orillia were rigidly segregated by gender to prevent any sexual activity with the opposite sex.  All residents were certified as incompetent (whether they were or not – author’s comment) and if they escaped they were brought back.  Once, when I was in the Orillia Hospital, they brought back a woman who had escaped three years previously.  She was discovered working in a restaurant as a waitress and supporting herself.” 

- (Interview with Dr John Fotheringham, summer, 1992, by Mora Skelton, social worker at the Mental Retardation Clinic. (TPH, History and Memories of Toronto Psychiatric Hospital, edited by Edward Shorter, page 300-301.)