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America's Deep, Dark Secret
February 21, 2012 10:57 AM   Subscribe

"One of the deep, dark secrets of America's past has finally come to light. Starting in the early 1900s, hundreds of thousands of American children were warehoused in institutions by state governments." An early part of the American experiment with Eugenics, the Walter E. Fernald State School inspired scores of similar institutions across the country, and more recently, one of the definitive histories of the era.

"We thought for a long time that we belonged there, that we were not part of the species. We thought we were some kind of, you know, people that wasn't supposed to be born," says Boyce.

And that was precisely the idea.

The Fernald School, and others like it, was part of a popular American movement in the early 20th century called the Eugenics movement. The idea was to separate people considered to be genetically inferior from the rest of society, to prevent them from reproducing.

Eugenics is usually associated with Nazi Germany, but in fact, it started in America. Not only that, it continued here long after Hitler's Germany was in ruins.

At the height of the movement - in the '20s and '30s - exhibits were set up at fairs to teach people about eugenics. It was good for America, and good for the human race. That was the message."


Fernald was also the site of human research involving exposure to radioisotopes performed by researchers from Harvard and MIT, and sponsored by the Quaker Oats company, between 1946 and 1953 for which informed consent was never provided. From the linked report,
    "In 1946, one study exposed seventeen subjects to radioactive iron. The second study, which involved a series of seventeen related subexperiments, exposed fifty-seven subjects to radioactive calcium between 1950 and 1953. It is clear that the doses involved were low and that it is extremely unlikely that any of the children who were used as subjects were harmed as a consequence. These studies remain morally troubling, however, for several reasons. First, although parents or guardians were asked for their permission to have their children involved in the research, the available evidence suggests that the information provided was, at best, incomplete. Second, there is the question of the fairness of selecting institutionalized children at all, children whose life circumstances were by any standard already heavily burdened."
The work produced the following studies,
STUDIES IN CALCIUM METABOLISM. THE FATE OF INTRAVENOUSLY INJECTED RADIOCALCIUM IN HUMAN BEINGS

"The effect of phytate and other food factors on iron absorption" (PDF)

THE DETERMINATION OF PLASMA VOLUME IN MAN WITH RADIOACTIVE CHROMIC CHLORIDE

STUDIES OF PLASMA VOLUME USING HUMAN SERUM ALBUMIN TAGGED WITH RADIOACTIVE IODINE131
posted by Blasdelb (37 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
Rage.
posted by xarnop at 11:05 AM on February 21, 2012 [5 favorites]


That's very sad. I'd like to tie this together with this thread. What kind of jokes would you make if somebody told you the government locked them up and fed them radioactive oatmeal as part of a conspiracy between Quaker Oats and MIT?
posted by michaelh at 11:08 AM on February 21, 2012


Somewhere, Newt Gingrich cackles with glee.
posted by briank at 11:08 AM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


On preview, thought this post was about Native American boarding schools.

"Feeble-minded", "uncivilized;" all good rationalization fodder for the ego riddled colonial supremicist. I work with Canadian Indian Residential School survivors, and am descended from one. Rage is a good start.
posted by salishsea at 11:16 AM on February 21, 2012 [6 favorites]


Having composed myself and regained the capacity for making... sentences-- the eugenics movement is based in bad science to begin with.

Many of the "genes" for mental illness do not exist because they are in fact epigenetic in orgin and are responseive to positive and negative environmental conditions.

Meaning that to improve "fitness", creating stability and resources for struggling families will give the "epigenome" the stability to improve phenotypes that are condsidered more healthy.

Darwin actually believed in pangenis, something akin to Lamarks theory that the environment sent signals to the germline through cellular communication and this influenced the types of mutations and phenotypes that would result in offspring. In truth, this theory has never been disproven and at present it's looking like something of this nature is in fact involved in the traits, behaviors, and genetic function of offspring (that there is influence of the ancestral environment on the instinctual traits and behaviors and biological function of new offspring)

Meaning that in truth, refusing to allow certain sets of the population who have experienced the effects of adversity to reproduce might in fact REDUCE fitness of a population because experiencing and responding to and healing adversity may in fact be beneficial to future generations.
posted by xarnop at 11:24 AM on February 21, 2012 [11 favorites]


Impossible. Everyone knows those were the good old days.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 11:31 AM on February 21, 2012


"One of the deep, dark secrets of America's past has finally come to light. Starting in the early 1900s, hundreds of thousands of American children were warehoused in institutions by state governments."

See, this is one of the things that always gets me about the modern obsession with the evils of "big government." It takes the focus away from the many root sources for these kinds of evil. State governments, under Federalism, are supposed to provide a check on the power of Big Government (States Rights! States Rights! Ra-ra-ra!). But too often, it's the states that really need their power checked the most (from the Jim Crow era South to this Eugenics madness, to all the privatization scams going on at the state-level these days).

Small government, in collusion with corporate interests like the Quaker Oats Company, is just as capable of doing awful, awful things. It doesn't take big bad Uncle Sam to carry out evil on a massive scale; private interests and corrupt authorities at the local levels are always perfectly willing to oblige, given the right combination of degraded social values and perverse economic incentives.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:36 AM on February 21, 2012 [28 favorites]


The dark era of institutionalization ended in the '70s at Fernald.
The 1970s? Holy crap. I mean. Holy crap. And why exactly hasn't Massachusetts apologized to the surviving victims? Just hoping they would die quietly, I suppose. Goddamn.
posted by Glinn at 11:45 AM on February 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


That said, this is a whole new level of awful, and it is shocking there was never any Federal intervention. (Of course, states rights, states rights!) My grandmother was left infertile after giving birth to my biological dad when she was around 13--14. She came from a desperately poor family, and I've heard it was common in those days for doctors to perform involuntary tubal ligation on poor women who got pregnant at a young age to make sure more of their promiscuous, baby-having poor-people genes didn't accidentally enter into the gene pool. She had a c-section. I've always wondered if her having been left infertile in the process was really an accident.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:48 AM on February 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


This was a horrible crime and I've worked directly with many of it's victims, but it is hardly a secret that has been covered up. This was not news when they moved to deinstitutionalize the mentally retarded in the 70's.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 11:49 AM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is hardly a deep dark secret to those who read a lot, but the4 important part, often ignored,d is that we had the same "blood" notions as the Nazis, who instituted a euthanasia program for their feeble minded.
posted by Postroad at 11:57 AM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I just want to add to my last post that, not to discredit the claims against the State or to downplay the horrors of this crime, it simply makes me wonder why this issue is suddenly being thrust back into the limelight as if it was a new revelation. I find it particularly curious in light of the recent right wing attacks against Planned Parenthood, and I wonder how long until these "new" claims are added to the poo being slung at them as has been done so many times before.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 11:57 AM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Related: Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race (US Holocaust Memorial Museum exhibit). Mostly about Germany, but includes a discussion of similar U.S. policies. See also Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927).
posted by orrnyereg at 11:59 AM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


See also Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927)

I was just about to say:

it is shocking there was never any Federal intervention

Intervention, they damn well supported it!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:01 PM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I just want to add to my last post that, not to discredit the claims against the State or to downplay the horrors of this crime, it simply makes me wonder why this issue is suddenly being thrust back into the limelight as if it was a new revelation. I find it particularly curious in light of the recent right wing attacks against Planned Parenthood, and I wonder how long until these "new" claims are added to the poo being slung at them as has been done so many times before.

My thoughts exactly--particularly, how the lead paragraph in the main story ends with the pointedly dramatic: "And the federal government did nothing to stop it." If they were being self-consistent, the right wing libertarian set would have to admit, under their vision for the world order, this is exactly how it should have been. The logical implication here is that the Federal government's role wasn't big enough in preventing these practices, and that the Federal government should have had and exercised more power to prevent these practices.

Indeed, this is actually a perfect example of the kinds of private sector/small government partnerships libertarians on the right like to champion in action.

But the rhetorical implication of the article instead seems to be "See? This is why we can't trust Big Government!"
posted by saulgoodman at 12:08 PM on February 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


    "The 1970s? Holy crap. I mean. Holy crap. And why exactly hasn't Massachusetts apologized to the surviving victims? Just hoping they would die quietly, I suppose. Goddamn."
Ignorantly misguided fears about further liability
    "I just want to add to my last post that, not to discredit the claims against the State or to downplay the horrors of this crime, it simply makes me wonder why this issue is suddenly being thrust back into the limelight as if it was a new revelation. I find it particularly curious in light of the recent right wing attacks against Planned Parenthood, and I wonder how long until these "new" claims are added to the poo being slung at them as has been done so many times before."
You might be over-thinking this, I found this from 10 years ago while I was building this post about the horrific shit one of the major opponents of the Eugenics movement was doing.
posted by Blasdelb at 12:11 PM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I find it particularly curious in light of the recent right wing attacks against Planned Parenthood, and I wonder how long until these "new" claims are added to the poo being slung at them as has been done so many times before.

That attack is already being made (see the little turd republican just dropped into the thread above). There is, unfortunately, more than a grain of truth in it. In the early C20th there was both a left and a right Eugenicism. Sanger was not a deeply committed eugenicist, but she certainly had eugenicist leanings and connections, and the eugenicists were certainly supportive of Planned Parenthood. It's interesting that after Sanger was squeezed out of the Birth Control League, it became very much a Republican-controlled and identified organization. It wasn't until Nixon (who, initially, was a big supporter of PP) launched the Culture Wars that Republicans decided to identify contraception with loose sexual morality (bad) rather than with limiting "unfit" babies (good!).

See Lepore's excellent piece in the New Yorker for more of that fascinating history.
posted by yoink at 12:14 PM on February 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


Is it big government that does these things, or mean people?

Because in my experience there are mean people everywhere, even in teeny tiny little governments.
posted by salishsea at 12:20 PM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


[A few comments removed, let's maybe not fuck this thread right out of the gate. republican, please make some minimum effort not to look like you're intentionally fucking around if you do not want to be treated as such.]
posted by cortex at 12:37 PM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


The man who is sort of my great granfather rescued my grandmother and my three aunts from a 'boarding school' for Native Americans. They were half Native. Anyway it was terrible. A lot of people got sterilized without consent. Including many of my Native American relatives.
The awful Fernald school experiments weren't quite news to
me.
Granted there IS such a thing as hereditary disease and disability, but the truth is that a disease, disability or birth defect can just show up out of the blue, because really people are pretty closely related when all is said and done.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 12:39 PM on February 21, 2012


An altogether phenomenal resource for American Eugenics is the Eugenics Archive from Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory (I suggest using the HTML for easier browsing). It's mainly, as the title notes, an image archive of the American Eugenics Movement and the images are truly astounding. The archive digitized very early on and they've done a pretty decent job of providing educational information on what's ultimately a very black mark for America.
posted by librarylis at 12:47 PM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Impossible. Everyone knows those were the good old days.

That's what made them the Good Old Days.

And when employers have the right to deny contraception (like the churches who NEED a large new generation of members), other corporations can make it mandatory! Genius!
posted by evilmidnightbomberwhatbombsatmidnight at 12:50 PM on February 21, 2012


I really did not have Margaret Sanger in mind at all when I made this post, but cortex, it is not a derail. Sanger was, specifically, an early and enthusiastic supporter of programs exactly like this school.
    “In passing, we should here recognize the difficulties presented by the idea of 'fit' and 'unfit.' Who is to decide this question? The grosser, the more obvious, the undeniably feeble-minded should, indeed, not only be discouraged but prevented from propagating their kind. But among the writings of the representative Eugenists one cannot ignore the distinct middle-class bias that prevails.”
I hope we are not currently editing for political content.
posted by Blasdelb at 12:57 PM on February 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


[If you need to have a conversation about moderation, take it to Metatalk where it belongs.]
posted by cortex at 12:57 PM on February 21, 2012


Dissent welcome! Actual dissent would be great! I would love to hear a cogent and rational argument as opposed to a one line zinger in order to troll for liberal ire. Look, yoink has even given you an article as a jumping off point!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 1:02 PM on February 21, 2012


I only speak in one line zingers.
posted by republican at 1:09 PM on February 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's definitely true about Sanger--in the same way that it was true of everyone to the right of her in those days, too. Don't know how/why "dissent" factors into it.

Eugenics was not a uniquely left or right wing shame in American history. It was a shame that found a home across the political spectrum. There's not much value in tarring Planned Parenthood with the eugenics label by association with Sanger, though, because that program in particular was never conceived and never functioned as an involuntary eugenics program--quite the opposite. It's purpose was expressly to achieve similar ends--helping minimize the social costs of unwanted children born into poverty--by alternative means. And whatever its origins, Planned Parenthood is definitely not aimed at any goals that are or should be controversial now.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:16 PM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I only speak in one line zingers.

Needs more zing.
posted by yoink at 1:30 PM on February 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


I just want to add to my last post that, not to discredit the claims against the State or to downplay the horrors of this crime, it simply makes me wonder why this issue is suddenly being thrust back into the limelight as if it was a new revelation. I find it particularly curious in light of the recent right wing attacks against Planned Parenthood, and I wonder how long until these "new" claims are added to the poo being slung at them as has been done so many times before.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 11:57 AM on February 21 [1 favorite +] [!]


I think this issue has been brought up for poo slinging because it doesn’t seem to have gone away. The right might have a difficult time arguing that Planned Parenthood is still in the eugenics business, however, the issue of family planning outside the US, and how it is funded, is still relevant. To the extent US funds are used for family planning programs in countries that practice forced sterilization or other population control measures, referencing our own experiments with eugenics, and how that played out, is a worthwhile example why funds should be denied.

Even if there is no direct US funding of family planning policies in countries practicing or encouraging population control, pointing out the mistakes the US made in the 1920’s seems like an effective way to dissuade other governments from committing the same mistakes.
posted by otto42 at 1:31 PM on February 21, 2012


Almeida, an abused child, was only 8 when his father took him for a drive to the Fernald School, and told him to wait in the hallway.

"I said, 'Wait a minute, dad. Where are you going,'" recalls Almeida. "He goes, 'Oh, you wait right there. I gotta go get the car." And he went. And that was the last I seen of him."


Fuck. People suck so bad sometimes.
posted by LarryC at 1:48 PM on February 21, 2012 [5 favorites]


What strikes me the most about this is wondering how much damage and dysfunction was seeded into society as a result of this attempt to "clean up" society? I feel for the direct victims of this, but it frightens me to think that we may never know how many people's lives have been damaged by being caught up in cycles of abuse originating at these places. Truly horrifying.

In my mind one of the most damning indictments of society as a whole is the relationship between how vulnerable and powerless a child is and the likelihood that they'll be put in the direct care of someone who wishes to abuse them in some way.
posted by billyfleetwood at 2:19 PM on February 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


A large proportion of the kids who were locked up were not retarded at all.

Sorry did anyone else have a hard time getting past this? I was under the impression this was not cool.
posted by timmm at 7:20 PM on February 21, 2012


Wasn't just happening in the US of course. Among the big names openly supporting eugenics were Julian Huxley and Nobel prizewinners Alexis Carrel and William Shockley. There were three International Eugenics Conferences between 1912-1932.

The climate of acceptance convinced many medical doctors (don't have a link handy) to voluntarily take it upon themselves to sterilize 'unfortunates' without their knowledge. That's a much bigger 'dark secret' involving tens of thousands. (Sterilization on the blue)
posted by Twang at 8:40 PM on February 21, 2012


"A large proportion of the kids who were locked up were not retarded at all.

Sorry did anyone else have a hard time getting past this? I was under the impression this was not cool.
"

I noticed that too, but the article is from a while ago and there arnt that any more recent sources.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:37 PM on February 21, 2012


This is a subject that infuriates me. The Eugenics movement, thanks in no small part to Alexander Graham Bell (who was more interesting in breeding out deafness, but still dumped a ton of money into it), set back the state of the art care for people with Down syndrome nearly a century.

To give you an idea, John Langdon Down found that if you went to the trouble of actually taking care of people with Down syndrome, they lived long, happy, productive lives. When you seal them up in an institution, they live short, lonely, unproductive lives. The average lifespan of someone with Down syndrome in the 1920's was 9. Today it is in the 60's.

The effects of the damage of institutionalization are still causing issues. Seriously. I attended a talk from Brian Skotko (Children's Hospital Boston and previously) on new standards for pediatric care for people with Down syndrome in late 2011. They are finally disposing of the old growth/weight chart, as it was built from institutional data, were kids were not getting exercise and became obese.

I met a Dr. Diane DeBenedetto about 10 years ago. She was active in my church and the local community band. Early in her career, she worked at the Belchertown State School (photo essay here), which was considered a model for state institutional care, at least until it was discovered how badly its residents were treated. Diane was instrumental in closing the institution. I was honored to have been asked to play at Diane's funeral in 2010.
posted by plinth at 6:56 AM on February 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


I think a LOT of people who can not make it through college and have a hard time managing their lives have undiagnosed cognitive impairments and problems with functioning that could have been addressed much differently in the school/social system. Instead we just filter em through and send em out to flounder. They often get the idea and ditch the school system before the highschool degree.

I have been volunteering in an occupational therapy clinic and many of the kids are intelligent and you wouldn't guess they have legitimate impairments with various measures of functioning. We should be measuring children's ability to accomplish a wide varitey of tasks, not just grades on paper. How capable is a child or remembering what their assignments are? Of keeping track of dates and times? Of managing a schedule? Of hearing instructions for a task and being able to carry out the instructions? Of being able to identify what tasks need to be done, create an idea in the mind of a plan of action, and be able to carry out the steps to accomplish the task?

We sort of frequently cluster all impairments in these areas into either attention deficit or mood disorder affecting functioning, but many of these are actually impairments with the brains ability to do these tasks. And like gaining physical abilities--- some amount of improvement can be gained by... practice, in a low pressure skill building environment. I don't mean practice as in, telling a kid to keep trying harder at these things to do better at school.

That's not practice, that's like sending a kid who'se not good at football into a footbal game and telling them to just try harder at mastering skills. You take away the pressure of the game and you do practice in an environment where the skill gaining is the goal, not actually accomplishing the task. Take away all the parents being angry and the school system writing F everywhere. And create a safe space to practice cultivating skills.

With down syndrome and severe impairments we tend to assume the state will care for people with these conditions, or that family will. However with other kinds of impairments that impede capacity to work it's not assumed that help should be provided. We plan to throw meds at people whether the meds help or not, and if the meds don't help we say they are failures.

We are failing human beings. Is what I see happening. "Releasing" the mentally ill was a good thing. But it also reduced our willingness to acknowledge that some people might benefit from voluntarily recieving care with daily functioning and life management in an environment that is controlled as much as possible for quality of care and abuse prevention. Also I don't think that measuring variation in human performance should be defined as "ill" vs "not ill". Humans have varying areas of strength and struggles and acknowledging that should not mean that anyone with low areas of functioning in specific areas needs to be cut off the population and labelled ad defective.

And considering that any sorts of damage to phenotype that is the result of heritable epigenetic alterations--- providing this kind of secure environment would improve over all health in the next generations of offspring. (Of course it would not improve hard DNA alterations like down syndrome, at least, there is not currently evidence that is possible....)
posted by xarnop at 8:00 AM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


A large proportion of the kids who were locked up were not retarded at all.

Sorry did anyone else have a hard time getting past this? I was under the impression this was not cool.


The specific intellectual and developmental disability is called Mental Retardation. A person diagnossed with Mental Retardation is referred to as "retarded," as formerly in the National Association for Retarded Citizens, nowthe ARC. It wasn't removed because it wasn't PC, it was removed because the ARC serves people with many different intellectual and developmental disabilities, including, but not limited to Mental Retardation.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 8:00 AM on February 23, 2012


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