“Feeble-Minded” Children

Source: Henry Herbert Goddard, The Kallikak Family (New York: MacMillan, 1912), frontispiece.

Deborah Kallikak in 1912 at age twenty-two. An eight-year-old girl when she came to the Vineland Training School, Deborah became perhaps the most famous feeble-minded person, or “moron,” in the United States after Henry Herbert Goddard published The Kallikak Family (1912). Once considered scientific proof that mentality, morality, and criminality were all hereditary, the Kallikak story was thoroughly discredited by 1940.

Source: Henry Herbert Goddard, Psychology of the Normal and Subnormal (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1921).

A picture of a “high grade moron” in front of a wagon he painted at Vineland Training School. The hyphen separating parts of the word “school” suggested his mental deficiency, but his work also illustrated that feeble-minded people could be trained to do productive work, much like normal individuals.

Source: Permission to use from American Philosophical Society, available through eugenicsarchive.org

A flash card used by eugenicists to illustrate that “feeble-mindedness” was a genetic defect.

Americans have always worried that children available for adoption are defective. Before World War II, the eugenics movement openly promoted the view that children whose birth parents could not or would not care for them were likely to be genetic lemons, destined to reproduce a host of menacing social problems, from criminality and poverty to alcoholism and sexual immorality. According to the vocabulary of the day, many were “feeble-minded,” meaning mentally retarded or mentally deficient, a state that illegitimate children were especially prone to inheriting from their “feeble-minded” mothers. Early adoption field studies, like Ida Parker’s, Fit and Proper?, confirmed that significant numbers of adoptions involved children whose hereditary unfitness was never discovered because minimum standards did not exist in law or were not enforced in practice.

Henry Herbert Goddard, Director of the Training School for Backward and Feeble-Minded Children in Vineland, New Jersey, was the single most prominent authority on “feeble-mindedness” during the early part of the century. Best known for introducing the term “moron” into the English language, he was outspoken about his opposition to adoption and his preference for institutionalization. “Normal” children were qualified for family life, according to his view. “Feeble-minded” children were not.

Many adults, however, were more than willing to discount heredity (or overlook it entirely) in their quest for children, especially infants. Even the era’s social workers, who believed that natal families should be preserved and adoptions should be rare, were relatively more optimistic than Goddard about the credentials of available children.

Concern about mental retardation and deficiency was widespread and long-lasting. They were visible in the mental tests that soon entered the adoption process. Goddard imported the French Binet Scale into the United States in 1908 and administered it first to the “feeble-minded” children in his own institution. The 1916 revision of this test, which popularized the Intelligence Quotient (or “I.Q.”), gave adoption professionals a new and powerful technology. Mental and developmental tests should be used, they argued, for two important reasons. They could accurately distinguish adoptable from unadoptable children by detecting feeble-mindedness. And they could refine matching by pairing children and adults whose intellectual qualifications were similar. Mental resemblance was just as important in family-making as religious and racial resemblance.

Child welfare organizations like the New England Home for Little Wanderers and the New York State Charities Aid Association were in the vanguard on this issue. Their staff psychologists mounted testing programs, beginning in the 1910s and 1920s, to help determine which children were qualified for which family placements. Elaborate classification schemes for mental deviation were created—separating idiots from imbeciles and morons from dullards—in hopes that they would improve selection and placement techniques. Mental evaluation was considered so important to making adoption work that W.H. Slingerland, author of one of the first professional texts on family placement, issued the following warning in 1919. “To put a low grade mental defective in a family home where a normal child was expected is a social crime, once to be condoned because of ignorance, but now inexcusable in a well-ordered and progressive child-placing agency.”

By the 1930s, new and improved methods were available for uncovering “feeble-mindedness.” Arnold Gesell devised developmental scales that went beyond mentality to measure a number of other, related developmental norms. An assistant who worked Gesell’s Yale clinic, Margaret Cobb, was one of the first researchers to explore the relationship between nature, nurture, and intelligence by studying children in need of family placement.

Efforts to expose “feeble-mindedness” assumed that potential parents did not want children who deviated from the mental average by falling below it. Was this true? In many cases, it probably was. But evidence also suggests that some adopters were willing and able to consider special needs adoptions long before professionals agreed that they might be flexible enough to love children who were something other than “normal.”


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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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