Middlebury College will remove the name of former Gov. John Mead from its iconic chapel, due to his leadership role in Vermont’s early 20th century eugenics and sterilization movement, according to a Sept. 27 statement by Chair of the Board of Trustees George Lee and President Laurie Patton.
This past spring, the Vermont Legislature made a public apology for its former legislation authorizing the forced sterilization of at least 250 Vermonters as part of the implementation of a eugenics policy in the first decades of the 20th century. The move had bipartisan support from legislators.
College officials say that statement by the state legislature raised a question for them about the role played by Governor John A. Mead, Class of 1864, whose gift established Mead Memorial Chapel, in advocating and promoting eugenics policies in Vermont in the early 1900s. Middlebury’s Board of Trustees has made the decision to remove the Mead name from the chapel.
Based in early 20th-century notions of racial purity and “human betterment,” eugenics policies sought to isolate and prevent the procreation of so-called “delinquents, dependents, and defectives” to bring about a more “desirable” society. Such policies were enacted through the involuntary confinement of community members in state schools, hospitals, and other facilities—and the unconscionable practice of forced sterilization, college officials said Sept 27.
According to ample scholarly research in this area, victims of Vermont eugenics included people who were poor; who suffered from mental illness, incurable diseases, and physical disabilities; so-called “illegitimate children,” French Canadians, Abenakis, women more than men, those who were illiterate, and people of mixed racial ancestry. All were targets. Eugenics policies separated families, caused untold individual suffering, and left lasting physical and emotional scars.
The group advised that “the President recommend to the Board of Trustees to remove ‘Mead’ as part of the building’s name.”
History and Timeline: The Gift and Eugenics Policies
John Mead graduated from Middlebury in 1864. He became a physician, industrialist, Vermont governor, and a College trustee. The building’s name honored him and his wife, Mary Madelia Sherman, when they gave $74,000 in 1914 to create a new, prominent chapel (of marble and wood, with bell tower and spire) on the highest point on campus. The effort was a key piece of President John Martin Thomas’s vision for a grander Middlebury. Thomas wanted a structure that would express “the simplicity and strength of character for which the inhabitants of this valley and the state of Vermont have always been distinguished.”
In 1912, two years before the chapel gift was made, in his outgoing speech as governor, John Mead strongly urged the legislature to adopt policies and create legislation premised on eugenics theory. His call to action resulted in a movement, legislation, public policy, and the founding of a Vermont state institution that sterilized people—based on their race, sex, ethnicity, economic status, and their perceived physical conditions and cognitive disabilities.
“John Mead’s documented actions in this regard are counter in every way to our values as an institution, and counter to the spiritual purpose of a chapel, a place to nurture human dignity and possibility, and to inspire, embrace, and comfort all people,” a statement by college president said.
Until the school name-change task force proposes a new name, the former Mead Chapel will be referred to as “Middlebury Chapel” or “the chapel.”