The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit today to force the state of Virginia to locate, notify and offer treatment to the estimated 8,300 persons involuntarily sterilized in state mental institutions over a 50-year period.

ACLU officials said they believed it was the first time a class-action suit has been filed on behalf of persons subjected to the operations, which were part of a nationwide movement from the 1920s to about 1970 designed to rid society of social and mental misfits. More than 70,000 persons were sterilized across the country, authorities estimate.

"We are talking for the most part about boys and girls ages 12 to 17, who were taken from their homes by the state . . . sterilized and then released," said Virginia ACLU spokesman Judy Goldberg, who drew parallels between the sterilization movement in this country and in Nazi Germany.

The lawsuit, which lists four sterilization victims and two doctors as plaintiffs, contends many of the persons involved may not be aware they surgery to reverse the operation's effects where possible for the estimated 30 percent still of child-bearing age. It also asks treatment for medical and psychological side-effects for the others.

The suit seeks no monetary damages. ACLU attorney Patrick Raher of Alexandria said that while individual victims may file their own suits for damages, the ACLU's prime concern was to alert all sterilization subjects as quickly as possible.

"Every day that passes means that any one of the estimated 30 percent . . . gets further and further away from their optimum child-bearing years," said Goldberg. "They have suffered and continue to suffer severe harm."

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Lynchburg, 100 miles southwest of Richmond and home of the state-run Lynchburg Training School, where about 4,000 of the operations reportedly were performed.

One former patient, identified in the suit only as "Judith Doe," appeared at an ACLU press conference here today. "Doe," now 45, said she was sterilized in 1949 at age 14 after being raped by stepfather and bearing a child. She said her inability to have children was the major reason for the break-up of her subsequent marriage.

"I feel like I'm half a woman," she said. "I was angry to hear that all these other people went through the same punishment I went through."

Virginia officials refused to comment on the lawsuit, which named as defendants Gov. John N. Dalton, Secretary of Human Resources Jean L. Harris, mental health officials and six state mental institutions.

In previous statements, officials have called the sterilizations "a tragic chapter" in history, but have contended the operations were conducted legally under then-existing laws, most of which have since been repealed. Dalton has contended the program was permanently halted in 1973.

The ACLU said its own investigation indicated, however, that many of the operations violated state laws. It said in many instances there were no records that either the subjects or, in the case of minors, their parents or guardians had been informed of or approved the operation. It said others who did consent often did so after being told they would not be allowed to leave the institution until they submitted.

"Doe" said officials informed her only that she needed to have her appendix removed. She said she was later told by her guardians -- her uncle and aunt -- that she had been sterilized although they had not signed a consent form for the operation.Another plaintiff, identified as "James Poe," allegedly was told he was to be circumcised when, in fact, he received a vasectomy in 1952 at age 17.

"What the state did in these cases was tragedy and the justification that it was all legal . . . cannot possibly obscure what really happened," said Goldberg.

Virginia ranked second only to California in the number of sterilizations performed during the operations' heyday beginning in the '20s. The surgery was rationalized under the now-discredited banner of eugenics, which held that mental retardation and criminal behavior were inherited defects that could be eliminated by proper "breeding techniques."

State reports contended that the operations -- vasectomies for males and tubal ligations, the tying of the fallopian tubes, for females -- were limited to the "feeble-minded, morons and criminals." But the ACLU alleges that subjects included hundreds of epileptics, orphans, unwed mothers and poor people who were placed in state mental institutions for lack of other alternatives.

"Now is the time to apply the pruning knife with vigor and without fear or favor," wrote director John Bell in the Lynchburg Training School's 1933 annual report Bell also praised Nazi Germany's "elimination of the unfit."

Bell's predecessor, A.S. Priddy, considered the father of Virginia sterilization program, helped push a law through the state legislature in 1924 legalizing widespread institutional use of the surgery on involuntary subjects. lThat law was upheld in a landmark 1927 Supreme Court decision in which Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, citing a Virginia woman whose mother was considered a prostitute and whose daughter was judged "slow" declared "three generations of imbeciles are enough."

State officials said the program was terminated in 1973 and the sterilization law repealed in 1974. ACLU officials contend the present law is still inadequate to protect patients' rights.

Last April, after the extent of sterilization in Vriginia was exposed in newspaper accounts, the state set up a toll-free telephone number for sterilization victims to call. So far, only one has, state officials say. The state has refused to search for and notify victims, saying such contacts could violate their privacy and cause family problems.

ACLU attorney Raher derided that claim.

"For the state to profess to be so concerned about the right of privacy after having so grossly violated that right when it sterilized these people is to me absolutely ludicrous," said Raher, arguing there were a number of ways the state could discreetly contact victims without alerting other relatives.