“Feeblemindedness” was a term that first emerged in the mid-nineteenth century in the United States to describe individuals exhibiting a lack of productivity or other behaviours viewed as “backward.” The term was also utilized in the immigration and aboriginal discourses in Canada and the United States (see Richardson 2011 in relation to intelligence testing of potential immigrants). “Feeblemindedness” fell under the general designation of “mental deficiency,” denoting the highest level of functioning under that label, with “imbecility” and “idiocy” denoting the median and most severe deficiencies respectively. In the 1850s, state governments invested in building asylums, sometimes called “idiot schools,” to house those deemed unfit or unable to care for themselves. By the end of the century, this term became enormously important to the eugenics movement as a catch-all diagnostic label for those considered less socially productive. Eugenicists argued that feeblemindedness was an inherited condition that could be eliminated by preventing this group from reproducing.
One American eugenicist in particular played a powerful role in popularizing the term “feeblemindedness” as a hereditary disorder. Henry Goddard (1866-1957), a prominent American psychologist, studied hundreds of cases of “feeblemindedness” at the New Jersey Training School in Vineland beginning in the 1900s. He was troubled by the lack of consensus over diagnosis and treatment of the feebleminded. Lacking a common criteria, most medical superintendents at institutions for the feebleminded drew upon a wide range of approaches to understanding mental deficiency, ranging from physiological to sociological tests. Goddard’s interest in locating a standard system for diagnosing and classifying the wide range of mental deficiency he witnessed at the school led him to the psychological studies of French psychologist Alfred Binet. Binet (1857-1911), along with his collaborator Théodore Simon (1872-1961) invented the Binet-Simon scale, which was the first practical intelligence test. Goddard found Binet’s “Measuring Scale for Intelligence” effective in analyzing his own patients at Vineland and thus proposed that Binet’s procedure be used to diagnose the feebleminded at all state institutions. His audience could not have been more receptive: the American Association for the Study of the Feeble Minded, comprised of institutional physicians and non-medical personnel, recognized the need for a standard diagnostic procedure and was quick to sponsor Goddard’s proposal in 1910.
What Goddard found so effective and original in Binet’s method was that it introduced the concept of mental normality. Psychologists and physicians had difficulty constructing a coherent cluster of categories to distinguish between the wide range in pathological appearance and behaviour, Binet argued, because they had nothing standard to measure them against. Without a language or a framework to understand what normal development was, there could be no hope of understanding the abnormal. So in 1908, the psychologist incorporated such a framework into his testing procedure by “establishing numerical norms for every level of a child’s mental growth, based on samples of children’s responses. By comparing an individual child’s test results established for children of his age, one could determine the child’s relative ‘mental level.’” It was thus in opposition to normality that mental deficiency came to be understood among physicians and psychologists. In the quest for categorizing and diagnosing the feebleminded, a new language and a framework for “normal” intellectual development emerged as a focal point.
This redefinition of feeblemindedness, as an outward sign of a fundamental genetic flaw rather than of a slight mental impairment, had enormous implications both for those already housed in institutions for the feebleminded and for those whose attitude, behaviour, or appearance would target them for incarceration and sterilization in the future (this included immigrants). The person labeled mentally deficient was no longer deemed an object of curiosity or sympathy, but a threat to the genetic health and stability of the race. According to this new definition, nothing in the environment -- no amount of education, training, or nurturing -- could alter the destructive potential stored within a feeble mind. And because “feeblemindedness” had never been a precise diagnostic term to begin with, it was easily manipulated into a catch-all term for any type of behaviour considered inappropriate or threatening. By redefining the boundaries of mental disability to correlate with standards of social and sexual behaviour, rather than with standardized levels of mental capability, the newly defined term of “feebleminded” also served to define what constituted normal behaviour.
“Feeblemindedness” as a diagnostic category began to fade from public view beginning in the 1930s. The U.S. Census Bureau, for example, replaced feeblemindedness with “mental defective” in its 1932 report on institutional populations. In addition, the American Association for the Study of Feeble-Mindedness changed its name to the American Association on Mental Deficiency in 1934, a name that remained in place until 1985.
Fernald, Walter E., M.D. (1918). The burden of feeble-mindedness. Massachusetts Society for Mental Hygiene. Boston.
Goddard, Henry H. (1910). Four hundred feeble-minded children classified by the Binet method,” Journal of Genetic Psychology, 17(3), 387-397.
Kline, Wendy. (2001). Building a better race: Gender, sexuality, and eugenics from the turn of the century to the baby boom. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Noll, Steven. (1994). Feeble-minded in our midst: Institutions for the mentally retarded in the South, 1900-1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Trent, James W. (1995). Inventing the feeble mind: A history of mental retardation in the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Zenderland, Leila. (1987). The debate over diagnosis: Henry Herbert Goddard and the medical acceptance of intelligence testing. In Michael M. Sokal (Ed.), Psychological Testing and American Society, 1880-1930. Rutgers: Rutgers University Press.
Richardson, John T. E. (2011). Howard Andrew Knox: Pioneer of intelligence testing at Ellis Island. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.