Sterilizing The Heiress

From the day she was born, Ann Cooper Hewitt's life consisted of one legal battle after another.  Born in 1914 from an extramarital affair between millionaire inventor Peter Cooper Hewitt and Maryon Bruguiere (later Maryon Bruguiere Hewitt D'Erlanger McCarter), it took a divorce from Peter's first wife and a belated marriage to Ann's mother to legitimize her.   Even then, Peter had to formally adopt his natural daughter given the laws against illegitimacy that were in force at the time.   This would lead to a long and vicious inheritance battle after Peter's death in 1921 as his siblings disputed Ann's right to her father's money.  Still, after years of legal wrangling, Ann's legitimacy was upheld and her father's estate would remain under the control of her much-married mother.   By the time she turned twenty-one, Ann seemed assured of receiving her inheritance and taking full control of her life.

And then her mother had her sterilized...

In an incredible lawsuit filed in a San Francisco court in January, 1935, Ann Cooper Hewitt, sued her mother. two San Francisco doctors, and a State Health Department psychiatrist of being part of a scheme to seize control of her estate by having her declared mentally incompetent.   The suit, which called for $500,000 in damages, accused Maryon (then known as Mrs. McCarter) of years of riotous living, all funded by money embezzled from Ann's estate.   Along with gambling trips and numerous affairs, Maryon had been notorious for years with her frequent trips flitting between Europe, New York, and San Francisco.

Since the rise of the eugenics movement at the dawn of the 20th century, sterilization of people  deemed to prove "genetically unfit" had been perfectly legal across numerous countries in North America and most European countries.  For anyone suffering from mental illness, criminal behaviour, low intelligence, or virtually any other quality that might be deemed inferior, compulsory sterilization remained a popular option supported by numerous lawmakers and social reformers.  In the United States, the legality of compulsory sterilization had been upheld by the landmark Buck vs Bell Supreme Court decision of 1924 as well as numerous laws such as the 1924 Sterilization Act passed in Virginia.  Though countless patients would be sterilized, often without their knowledge, critics charging that people could be sterilized for even trivial reasons tended to be dismissed.

For Ann Cooper Hewitt, however, things were very different.   In the lawsuit filed by her attorneys, she maintained that her sterilization had taken place at a San Francisco hospital on August 18, 1934.   The surgeons who had carried out the operation, Tilton E. Tilman and Samuel G. Boyd, were two of San Francisco's most prominent doctors and had apparently received permission to carry out Ann's sterilization following an assessment by social worker Mary S. Scally.   According to Ann, she had no idea that she was being sterilized and that it had taken place while she was undergoing an emergency appendectomy.  As the lawsuit pointed out, the terms of Ann's trust fund were quite clear that Maryon would only inherit her late husband's estate if Ann died childless.  And so, the sterilization took place just months before her daughter turned twenty-one.

In responding to the allegations raised by the lawsuit,  both of the surgeons named admitted to the sterilization but insisted that they had examined Ann first and found her to be "feebleminded with the mental age of a child of 11 years."    This finding was apparently based on a battery of intelligence tests that Ann had undergone in 1934, apparently at her mother's urging, though Ann  had no idea of why she was being tested.   As for Ann's mother, her lawyer insisted that the operation had been carried out "for society's sake" and further hinted that Ann had been sterilized due to her "erotic tendencies," evidence of which would be brought out in the courtroom if the case came to trial.  Almost immediately, Ann's lawyers responded with an affidavit from a New Jersey psychiatrist who had been close to Ann her entire life and who verified that she was "correctly oriented in all spheres."    Not only was Ann fluent in three languages, but she was well-read and articulate.    

In what was gearing up to be the trial of the decade, San Francisco's district attorney announced that Ann's mother and the two doctors would be charged with "mayhem", a crime that would legal to lengthy legal sentences for all three.    Though Ann was reluctant to press charges, both doctors were ordered held for trial.   As for Maryon McMaster, she apparently panicked due to her new notoriety.   Fleeing to New York, she registered at the Plaza Hotel under an assumed name and, after a week in hiding, was found in a New Jersey hospital following an apparent suicide attempt. 

When questioned about her reasons for Ann's sterilization, Maryon defended her decision by saying that Ann had already been expelled from numerous schools for "scandalous behavior" due to her "erotic tendencies."   She also insisted that Ann was "easily infatuated by men in uniform, regardless of their station."   Two years earlier, Ann had become intimately involved with a chauffeur and Maryon had been forced to step in to break up the relationship.  She also had to buy back letters reportedly written by her daughter which contained "references to things that should not be written about."   This, along with the intelligence test results, was enough for Maryon to agree with the doctors that Ann was "feeble-minded."

As for the doctors, their defense focused on California legislation authorizing sterilization for anyone committed to a home for the feeble-minded.   While this didn't apply to Ann, Tilton E. Tilman maintained that this didn't apply in her case.  Speaking as a member of the San Francisco Lunacy Commission, he stated that "where the family has sufficient means, the feeble-minded person is taken care of at home, but the situation is the same."   He also insisted that there was nothing unusual about being paid $8000 by Maryon to form his diagnosis, something he justified by the need to hire special nurses and the many hours he spent assessing her.  As for Samuel Boyd, who actually performed the surgery, he justified not telling anyone about the real nature of the operation, including Ann, because "it might cause harm to the girl's future."    How Ann was able to learn the truth about what was done to her is still a mystery.

After long legal haggling and behind-the-scenes negotiating, the case was settled out of court.  The two doctors were found not guilty due to lack of evidence and all charges were dropped against Ann's mother.  It's hard to say what kind of relationship Ann had with her mother afterwards but Maryon died just a few years later at the age of 55.    As for Ann herself, she married a garage foreman just a year after the case was dropped (her mother may have had a point about Ann's fondness for men in uniform).  This marriage ended quickly on the grounds of "mental cruelty" and Ann, who would be known as the "sterilized heiress" for the rest of her life, would go on to marry five more times.  She died in 1956 at the age of 42 and left her entire estate to her sixth husband.   They had no children.

Despite the brief flurry of publicity over Ann's case, compulsory sterilization would continue to be practiced for decades after her case was settled.  While the eugenics arguments that were originally used to justify sterilization were discredited due to the gruesome revelations of Nazi war crimes, thousands of people would continue to be sterilized well into the 1960s and beyond, many of them with no idea of what had been done to them.  Few of them ever received the kind of publicity that followed Ann Cooper Hewitt, but their stories were likely just as important.  

Even if they have never been told.

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