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Tuesday, May 21, 2024
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Plaque on UW-Madison’s history of eugenics to go up in Van Hise Hall

The Committee on Disability, Access and Inclusion hopes to educate students on the university’s former president, Charles Van Hise


The University of Wisconsin-Madison plans to add a bronze plaque to the Van Hise Hall lobby explaining the university’s history of eugenics. 

According to the Committee on Disability, Access and Inclusion (CDAI), the plaque will describe the complicated legacy left behind by the school’s longest serving president, Charles Van Hise.

“My hope is that it is an educational opportunity for the campus community,” said Kacie Lucchini Butcher, director of the Center of Campus History. Lucchini Butcher said she is aiding the project by researching Van Hise, though the project is being led by the CDAI.

Van Hise was a key figure in the expansion of the school, establishing features like the graduate division and the medical school during his time as president, according to the chancellor’s office.

Additionally, Van Hise introduced the department of experimental breeding and hired eugenicist Leon Cole as its head. Both Van Hise and Cole lectured and gave public speeches opposing reproduction rights for so-called “defectives” — anyone they abstractly determined genetically lesser, which was usually people of color and people with disabilities.

Van Hise was a prominent supporter of the 1913 Wisconsin sterilization law

Lucchini Butcher said Van Hise’s advocacy for eugenics was one of three factors that propelled the eugenics movement in Wisconsin. The two other factors were medical professionals who characterized people as “defective” and lawmakers who wrote and enforced sterilization laws. 

“He was not just any academic, right? He was president of UW-Madison,” Lucchini Butcher said. “When he lent his voice to the eugenics movement, that was a very powerful voice.”

Wisconsin carried out nearly 2,000 forced sterilizations under the 1913 sterilization law. Without Van Hise and other academics, the state would have lacked credibility in enforcing the law, and medical professionals would have lacked basis for carrying out the procedure, Lucchini Bucher said.

According to a 2022 presentation from Lucchini Butcher and the CDAI, one primary reason why there will be a plaque was to educate the public on the history of eugenics in the state.

Although the 1913 sterilization law was repealed in the 1970s, eugenics and forced sterilization still exist in our world today, according to the National Women’s Law Center.

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The plaque is not meant to be a bandage for a complicated and ongoing issue but rather a starting point for conversation, Lucchini Butcher and representations from CDAI added during the presentation. 

CDAI plans to engrave a scannable QR code on the plaque that will lead to a website with further information.  

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