Two Faces: The Personal Files of Dr. Joseph S. DeJarnette

Photo of Dr. Joseph S. DeJarnette, undated, Records of Western State Hosptial, 1825-2000, Box 114, Folder 7, State Government Records Collection, Library of Virginia. Processing the records of a state agency director can often be unsatisfying.  While the folders of historically important correspondence, reports, and meeting minutes describe the inner workings of an agency, they usually reveal very little about the individuals running it.  However, that is not always the case.  While processing what initially appeared to be unremarkable 20th century Western State Hospital (WSH) superintendent’s records, I discovered a treasure trove of personal material related to one of Virginia’s most (in)famous physicians, Dr. Joseph S. DeJarnette.

A celebrated physician and psychiatrist during the early decades of the 20th century, Dr. DeJarnette is most famous for his support and involvement in the eugenics movement, which included support for sterilization of the “feeble minded,” alcoholics, drug addicts, and those suffering from other mental illnesses.  He penned the pro-eugenics poem “Mendel’s Law” and lobbied prominently in favor of Virginia’s 1924 compulsory sterilization law.  Dr. DeJarnette also served as an expert witness in the Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell (1927), which upheld the constitutionality of Virginia’s sterilization legislation.  Though his deeds were revered during his lifetime, Dr. DeJarnette’s legacy is something most find rather repugnant today.  Due to DeJarnette’s eugenics advocacy, the Virginia Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services in 2001 changed the name of the DeJarnette Center for Human Development (formerly DeJarnette State Sanatorium) to the Commonwealth Center for Children and Adolescents.  In 2002 Governor Mark Warner issued a formal apology for the commonwealth’s involuntary sterilization program.

Dr. DeJarnette began his nearly 60-year career as an assistant physician at what was then known as Western Lunatic Asylum in 1889.  He went on to serve as superintendent of the institution from 1906 to 1943.  He founded DeJarnette State Sanatorium in 1932 and served jointly as its superintendent until 1947.  For an unknown reason, these personal records were stored at WSH long after Dr. DeJarnette’s resignation (some of the material is even dated after he left his position).  Since Dr. DeJarnette’s professional and personal lives were so intertwined during his tenure at the hospital, I decided that the personal records would remain as part of the larger Western State Hospital collection.

The DeJarnette Personal Files include many files of correspondence from friends, family and former patients, scrapbooks, birthday and holiday cards, newspaper clippings, journal articles, financial records, and poetry written by Dr. DeJarnette himself.  Also included are several folders of correspondence belonging to his wife, Dr. Chertsey Hopkins DeJarnette, and records related to her sisters Nannette Hopkins, dean at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, and Orra Hopkins, who lived with the DeJarnettes in Staunton.  Other files of note document Dr. DeJarnette’s service as a local Food Administrator in Augusta County during World War I, his involvement with the temperance movement in Virginia, and newspaper clippings about a DeJarnette family reunion.  Also included are three scrapbooks, one of poetry, one of miscellaneous cards and other items, and one devoted entirely to Dr. DeJarnette’s 50th anniversary celebration at Western State Hospital in 1939.

The records also shed some light on the life of Dr. Chertsey Hopkins DeJarnette, who is said to have been one of the first licensed female psychiatrists in Virginia.  She served as a physician at Western State Hospital from 1894 to 1906 when she married Dr. DeJarnette.  It is believed that Dr. DeJarnette was told that in order to attain the position of superintendent he needed to be a stable, married man.  Upon hearing this, he immediately proposed to fellow assistant physician, Chertsey Hopkins.  However, their marriage meant that the new Mrs. DeJarnette would no longer practice medicine.  She resigned her position on 1 February 1906, two weeks before their 14 February wedding.

Nothing can undo the damage caused by Dr. Joseph DeJarnette and Virginia’s compulsory sterilization law.  However, as part of the larger Western State Hospital collection, the DeJarnette Personal Files provide a private lens through which to view a man whose deeds have become so publicly reviled.

The vast majority of the Western State Hospital records is open for research, though privacy restrictions in accordance with the Virginia Public Records Act do apply to some.  Please refer questions about restricted records to the Library of Virginia’s Archives Reference staff at (804) 692-3888.

-Jessie Graham, Senior State Records Archivist

*Update – 15 October 2012*

Our friends from the Dictionary of Virginia Biography/Encyclopedia Virginia have provided Out of the Box with an unpublished biographical sketch of Dr. Joseph Spencer DeJarnette, 1866-1957 written by Gregory Michael Dorr.

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