The state of Virginia sterilized more than 7,500 people confined in six mental institutions in a 48-year-long program designed to eliminate social misfits and to promote genetic purity, according to official estimates and records discovered yesterday.

Although the mass sterilization program began in 1924 and ended in 1972, officials said yesterday they could not be certain how many people were sterilized under the program. One top official put the total at more than 4,400 but said the figure was incomplete.

State medical records examined by a Washington Post reporter last night, however, showed that 6,080 persons in the state mental institutions had been sterilized by mid-1952 -- 20 years before the program ended. State officials said at least 1,500 other operations were performed at one facility, apparently after the 1952 report.

Most of the documented cases occurred at the Lynchburg Training School and Hospital, one of the largest mental health facilities in the nation, where officials said about 4,000 people were sterilized, sometimes without their knowledge or consent.

Virtually all of the people were white, and both men and women were included in the program, state officials said.

Among those treated were people then considered "feeble-minded" and "antisocial," state officials said.

Unwed mothers, prostitutes, petty criminals and children with disciplinary problems were among those sterilized, state officials said.

Virginia officials yesterday expressed dismay about the extent of the program, disclosed last week in articles in the Winchester Evening Star. "I find the situation shocking," said Virginia Senate Majority Leader Hunter B. Andrews yesterday.

Officials of the American Civil Liberties Union's Virginia chapter called the sterilizations "morally reprehensible" and offered to assist victims in recovering damages from the state. The state's program "brings to memory the theories and experiments of scientists in Nazi Germany," said Chan Kendrick, director of the Virginia ACLU chapter.

"I don't think any of us are happy that this happened," said Jean L. Harris, state secretary for Human Resources and overseer of Virginia's mental health system. "I cannot reverse history but can only try to understand it in the context of the time . . . there is very little opportunity for it to happen again."

Harris said a cursory state examination yesterday turned up 4,000 sterilizations in Lynchburg, 343 at Eastern State Hospital in Williamsburg, 45 at Southwestern State Hospital in Marion, 39 at Central State Hospital in Petersburg and a small but unknown number at Southside Virginia Training Center in Petersburg.

Most of those sterilized were believed by state officials to be white because few of the operations were performed at Central State Hospital and Southside Virginia Training Center. Until Virginia desegregated its mental institutions in the mid-1960s, both were all-black facilities.

Officials cautioned the numbers covered only part of the period the program was in effect. "We just don't have the information," said Leo Kirven, director of the Department of Mental Health and Retardation.

While Harris and other state officials said the records were incomplete, the 1952 annual report of the State Hospital Board for the Department of Mental Hygiene and Hospitals reveals the total number of sexual sterilizations from 1924 until June 30, 1952.

The document shows Lynchburg Training Center reported 2,480 sterilizations: Central State Hospital, 1,343; Western State Hospital, 1,433; Eastern State Hospital, 340; Southwestern State Hospital, 284, and Petersburg State Colony, not known as Southside Virginia Training Center, 200.

Of the 6,080 operations, the records showed that 3,660 were performed on females and 2,420 on males.

In the year ending June 30, 1952, there were 163 patients sterilized, of whom 101 were described as "mentally deficient," 36 as "mentally ill" and 16 as "epileptic," according to the report.

The state officials were defensive about the procedures and insisted that most of the people were aware they were being sterilized. Assistant State Attorney General Mary Yancey Spencer cited a 1927 Supreme Court ruling upholding involuntary sterilizations of people held in Virginia's mental institutions and said Virginia had from the beginning allowed the patients the right to appeal any sterilization decision.

"It was a remarkably enlightened version of due process for 1924," she said.

Doris Buck Figgins, 69, who recently discovered she was sterilized in 1928 at the age of 16 said in an interview with the Winchester newespaper that she saw the issue differently. Figgins had been committed to the Lynchburg facility, then called the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded, when she was taken to an operating room.

"They told me the operation was for an appendix and rupture," said Figgins who was released from the facility several years after the operation and later married. It was only last summer that she discovered the scar on her stomach was not from an appendectomy, but an operation which severed her Fallopian tubes.

Figgins said she and her husband, Matthew, spent her child-bearing years anxiously consulting physicians at Georgetown University in Washington and in Arlington and Front Royal.

"They all told her she could have kids, but we couldn't," said Matthew Figgins, a retired plumber. "We just sort of gave up trying," he said.

In July, Dr. Ray Nelson, director of the Lynchburg facility, told the couple that Doris and her older sister, Carrie Buck, were among the more than 4,000 men and women who had been sterilized.

"I broke down and cried," said Doris Figgins, who lives with her husband of 37 years in a converted motel with no telephone. "My husband and me wanted children desparately. We were crazy about them. I never knew what they'd done to me."

For Nelson, finding Doris Figgins ended a six-year search. Since he became superintendent Nelson had combed through old hospital records and contacted mental health officials in seven nearby states in an attempt to discover what had happened to the sisters.

Nelson said his interest in Carrie Buck, now 73 and living in a ramshackle shed near Charlottesville, stemmed from her participation in the landmark 1927 Supreme Court case which approved Virginia's sterilization program.

Justice oliver Wendell Holmes then upheld a Virginia law permitting involuntary sterilization of immates at state institutions. "Heredity plays an important part in the transmission of insanity, imbecility, etc., "Holmes said in an 8-to-1 court decision in which Justice Louis D. Brandeis concurred.

"It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crimes, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind," Holmes wrote.

By today's standards, Nelson said, neither Doris Buck Figgins nor her sister Carrie Buck would be considered retarded.

Carrie Buck was sterilized, Nelson said, because she was the 19-year-old "feeble-minded" unwed mother whose daughter was judged to be "slow." Carrie Buck was also the daughter of an "antisocial" woman considered to be a prostitute, Nelson said.

"Three generations of imbeciles are enough," declared Justice Holmes in his opinion.

Officials said the sterilizations apparently stopped in 1972 after the state Board of Mental Health and Retardation banned the practice. Two years later, the Virginia code was amended to forbid state hospitals from involuntarily sterilizing patients without first securing permission from a circuit court.

Lawmakers meeting in Richmond said yesterday they had been unaware that the operations were standard procedure until 1972. Many said the current law, which allows a judge to order a mentally ill or retarded person to be sterilized if it is determined the operation is 'in the best interest" of the patient, is unconstitutionally vague.

"I think it's vague, I think it's unconscionable," said Del. Robert C. Scott (D-Newport News), who said he would offer legislation next year to establish a set of well-defined legal guidelines for involuntary sterilization. The deadline for introduction of new bills this year has passed.

The American Civil Liberties Union challenged the present law in 1977, after Prince William County Circuit Court Judge Arthur Sinclair ordered a 20-year-old woman sterilized after her mother petitioned the court for the operation. But the woman's parents dropped their petition when the ACLU appealed the case to the Virginia Supreme Court.

Harris conceded it was possible that other involuntary operations, including lobotomies, may have been performed at Virginia mental institutions. She said the state would attempt to compile statistics on such surgical procedures.

Under the old system, according to Harris, the director of a state institution would make the determination that a patient should be sterilized. The board of the institution then held a hearing at which the patient and his or her legal guardian were present. If it agreed with the director its decision could be appealed by patient or guardian to a state court judge.

At the time the Virginia operations began, many state officials and Justice Holmes were believers in eugenics, a discredited 19th century theory which stated that the human race could be improved by the breeding of genetically acceptable people.

Eugenic advocates believed that mental retardation, criminal behavior and actions then considered deviant such as sex outside marriage, could be eliminated by preventing the "feeble-minded" from reproducing and passing on these traits.

Many other states performed sterilizations, operations that became so frequent they later were called "Mississippi appendectomies" by researchers because the operations were performed most often on poor Southerners.