Letters from Prospective Adopters to Arnold Gesell, 1939-1950

Letters written by would-be adopters to Arnold Gesell illustrate that the claims of scientific adoption—to decrease uncertainty and increase predictability—were welcomed by well-educated Americans interested in identifying children of normal or superior intelligence. Was is possible to determine, in advance, if any given child would turn out to be college material? This question appeared frequently in Gesell’s files and was especially telling before World War II, when higher education was available to only a small minority of the population. While Gesell and other professionals clearly believed that developmental research could (and should) make adoption safer, these letters suggest that some adopters wanted children to live up to exacting specifications and hoped science might deliver on that promise.

March 29, 1939


. . . .We wish to start inquiries with you about adopting a child. We have a daughter who will be five years old this summer; and we have lost two children at birth, one two years ago and one this month.

We are desirous of securing a boy between eighteen months and two years of age with six months leeway either way on this limit. To make a satisfactory little brother for our daughter ___, and to compete with her successfully, the boy should be quite alert mentally and vigorous physically. Since we plan and probably will be able to provide a higher education for our children we should like to have the boy show evidence of a mental capacity which will warrent [sic] such an education. We have understood from our reading on the subject that you are able to judge mental capacity of a child with fair accuracy even at such an early age. We feel that adopting a baby is less hazardous if this is true. . . .

We shall welcome an investigation of our home and circumstances. . . .

Yours, very truly, . . .

* * *

July 11, 1940


I have just had the pleasure of reading Dr. Arnold Gesell’s book entitled “The Guidance of Mental Growth in Infant and Child.”

This book was of particular interest to me, especially the chapter entitled “Clinical Guidance in Infant Adoption,” as my wife and I are interested in adopting a baby girl. . . .

My wife and I have been married for twelve years and we have a fine, bright little daughter who is now seven years old. We have wanted her to have a brother or sister for some time; but due to two unfortunate operations which my wife had to undergo, we will be unable to have any more children of our own. We can give a child a great many advantages, and she would no doubt have the opportunity of a college education.

Out of fairness to ourselves as well as the child, we desire to avail ourselves of the latest scientific achievements, to insure a happy outcome to the venture and with this in mind, my purpose is to inquire how the Psycho-Clinic can help us. If we obtained a baby, I presume we could bring her to your clinic as soon as possible to permit you to make your first observations, and return at intervals of about 3 months for the remainder of the one year trial period. How long would your studies require each time? Can they be made of a Saturday, permitting the trip to be made over a week end? What is your fee for this service?. . . .

Looking forward to your reply with considerable interest, I remain,

Yours very truly,. . .

p.s. It has just occurred to me to add to my letter, that my wife would like to get a baby as young as possible; but I feel after reading Dr. Gesell’s book, that we should try to get a baby not younger than three months in order to better judge it’s [sic] mentality. I would appreciate your advice on that point.

* * *

June 29, 1950

Dear Professor Gesell:

My husband and I, being childless, have applied to adopt a boy. Being middle-aged, the agencies have advised us that only older children would be available to us. To this we agreed.

We have been offered for consideration a boy, aged 9, in good physical health. Mother unknown, probably of Polish extraction, her pregnancy having occurred in her third year in high school. Father completely unknown. Child placed in boarding home for which mother paid for a short time. He has spent most of his life with a German-Catholic family as a boarding child. . . . This family being disrupted, the child was returned to an orphanage run by nuns in the New York area. The social worker mentioned that the boy was doing averagely well in school, was likeable, and had good manners which he used “because he knew he got things he wanted that way”, was liked by other children, but that he would not talk about himself with the social worker, and at the discussion of his problems he would deliberately change the subject. . . .

I have waited many years for the fulfillment of my desire to have a child to care for, and have persisted against the advice of friends who tell me adoption will not be a satisfactory substitute for my own children; that I will find the adjustments too difficult for my admittedly “unsaintly” self; that I am too old and settled, etc., etc. However, when faced with this case history which seemed to me to be so meager, and being asked bluntly, “Are you interested in considering this child for adoption?” I became mentally panicky. Up until now I have had complete confidence in the wisdom of my plans, even though I have worried at times as to my fitness to handle all the problems which might arise. At this point, I feel that I need impersonal advice from a properly trained person who knows what may and may not be expected of children. Will you try to help me?

Have you any suggestions as to how we can fairly judge a child? What traits to look for in his favor, or against him as a subject for adoption? How much weight should be given to first impressions and feelings of liking, disliking, or pity?. . .

I am most anxious that this shall be a happy placement and shall avoid any elements of “martyrdom”. I want very much to be unselfish and charitable in planning for the welfare of a child who needs help. Yet, at the same time, I feel it is only wise to try to be sure that I am not being led by sympathy and sentimentality into a situation which is essentially unworkable. . . .

Very sincerely yours. . . .


Sources: letter to Arnold Gesell, March 29, 1939, Box 45, Folder: “Adoption, 1923-43 [cases, with individuals concerning]”; letter to Arnold Gesell, July 11, 1940, Box 45, Folder: “Adoption, 1923-43 [cases, with individuals concerning]”; letter to Arnold Gesell, June 29, 1950, Box 45, Folder: “Adoption”; Arnold Gesell Papers, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, used by permission of Mrs. Joseph W. Walden.

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To learn more about The Adoption History Project, please contact Ellen Herman
Department of History, University of Oregon
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