Dr. DeJarnette: A medical pioneer, a moral problem

dejarnetteDr. Joseph DeJarnette, head of Staunton’s Western State Hospital for almost 40 years, has emerged as one of the more controversial and pilloried figures in recent Virginia history.  Noted for his pioneering medical work and administrative leadership, he is remembered largely for his advocacy of forced sterilization of the “unfit” – people such as epileptics, the “feeble-minded,” and the mentally ill.  On December 3, the Augusta Historical Society will present an in-depth look into the life and work of this controversial man, his approach, his beliefs and his impact on mental health and the state.

Speakers for the hour program will be George Norris, Staunton teacher and historian who has researched DeJarnette extensively, and Suzanne Fisher and Jim Hobin, ACHS volunteers who have reviewed and organized a collection of DeJarnette’s personal papers now held by the society.

The 7 p.m. program is part of the ACHS Stuart Talk series and will be held in the second floor lecture room in the R. R. Smith Center for History and Art on New Street in Staunton.  The program is free for ACHS members.  Admission is $5 for non-member adults and $1 for students.

Norris, a teacher is Staunton Public Schools, is about to publish a book, The Old Dominion and its Shared Dark Secrets, that includes much of the DeJarnette story.  At the December 3 event, he will describe DeJarnette’s early life, his training and work, and his use of eugenics in Virginia in the early 20th Century.  Norris will also speak on the controversial doctor’s thoughts on eugenics, the Virginia Sterilization Act of 1924, and his thoughts on the tragic eugenics practiced by Nazi Germany.

DeJarnette’s family left a trunk full of his personal papers in his last Staunton residence, and those papers were later donated to ACHS.  Fisher and Hobin have spent several years reviewing and organizing those documents and will speak on some of the things they have learned about this fascinating historical figure.

In the 1930s, DeJarnette established the DeJarnette Sanitorium in a striking brick structure off Richmond Road and what is today Frontier Drive.  The property has been abandoned for about 20 years and may be demolished in the near future.

The property, like DeJarnette’s legacy, entangles his accomplishments in improving care for the mentally ill and other related areas with his outspoken advocacy of eugenics.  In the Western State annual report in 1920-21, he argued,  “In my opinion, the most humane and practical method of handling the unfit is sterilization. . . . Sterilization, unlike segregation, would not interfere with the individual’s liberty and pursuit of happiness.”

The ACHS was founded in 1964 to study, collect, preserve, publish, educate about, and promote the history of Augusta County and its communities.

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