Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Diagnosing defectives: Disability, gender and eugenics in the United States, 1910–1924

Sara Vogt
Chicago, Illinois, United States



The science of eugenics developed in countries around the world such as Great Britain, the United States, and Germany during the second half of the nineteenth century as a means of fighting emergent public health and social problems like tuberculosis, prostitution, and the so-called degeneration of the race. The word “eugenic” springs from the Greek words “eu” meaning good and “gen” meaning born—together denoting “well-born.” The aim of eugenics was to change the behavior of the general public through voluntary or coercive means in order to increase the number of “well-born” individuals, thereby improving the health and ultimate strength of the nation. To do this, eugenicists focused on population genetics and the prevention of so-called hereditary illnesses, most of which would be considered disabilities in contemporary Western culture. Eugenics concerned itself with “feeblemindedness,” a category which served as a catchall classification for anyone found to display an unacceptable degree of deviancy. Eugenicists considered feebleminded individuals a burden on and a threat to the health of the nation, and, as a result, they employed various strategies aimed at the prevention—or destruction—of future generations of sick, disabled, criminal and other individuals deemed inferior—categories which were often conflated.

The feebleminded/normal binary, therefore, became an either/or coding system for all human beings under eugenic investigation in the United States. U.S. eugenicists concerned themselves primarily with those individuals on the borderline of feeblemindedness and normal, because of the fear that they could pass as normal and transmit their defective germ plasm to future generations. Identifying feebleminded individuals and their families, therefore, became a main goal of eugenicists at the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) in Cold Spring Harbor, New York; the Training School for Feeble-Minded Girls and Boys in Vineland, New Jersey; and other research and custodial institutions.

In 1910, Henry H. Goddard—the director of research at the Training School in Vineland—translated the French Binet-Simon intelligence scales and used it as a means for diagnosing over 400 children housed in his institution (Goddard 1910). This test was the most successful means of distinguishing feebleminded individuals, according to Goddard, and yet it was not the one most often employed outside institutional walls. Instead, Goddard and his colleagues at the Training School and ERO hired eugenic field workers to visit the families and hometowns of institutionalized children and adults. These field workers had neither the time nor the resources to administer standardized tests to every person they visited. They, therefore, learned how to diagnose individuals as feebleminded or normal through brief interviews and observation in the home.

In this paper, I ask the following questions: how did eugenic field workers diagnose their subjects as feebleminded or normal, and what factors played a role in this diagnosis? What marked an individual as feebleminded in the cursory examination of a eugenic field worker? I argue that a main factor in diagnosing borderline feeblemindedness was the subject’s perceived (in)ability to adhere to the gendered labors of the household, whereby the mother cared for the children and kept the house tidy and the father supported the family through his labors outside the home.

Eugenic field workers’ descriptions of feebleminded individuals and their families, therefore, centered on one’s proximity to early twentieth century white, middle-class, gender and sexual norms. The gender norms of this period defined femininity as encompassing the following traits: intuition; empathy; warmth and emotion; the ability to rear and educate as well as nurture and care for others; altruism and self-sacrifice; and high morals and ethics (Koven and Michel 1993). These “feminine” qualities were meant to contrast those traits associated with masculinity, such as competitiveness, individualism, honor, virility, strength and courage (Mosse 1996).

As an umbrella category for deviance during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, “feeblemindedness” included people with cognitive, physical, sensory, and psychiatric disabilities as we define them in contemporary culture, but the category was also inflected with racial, sexual, class and gender biases. This essay contributes to a growing body of scholarship that teases out the diagnostic process from a critical disability studies perspective: insisting that disability cannot be defined as individual pathology, but is another example of human variability and is grounded in the social, economic, medical, and political experiences of people with various impairments.


Charting the feeble-mind: Eugenic family studies and the pedigree method

In 1869, British scientist and statistician, Francis Galton, published the first eugenic pedigree study, entitled Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into Its Laws and Consequences. In this study, Galton charted the accomplishments of hundreds of British men of elite status as a means of demonstrating that one’s natural abilities, such as intellect and talent, were inherited like physical characteristics. In doing so, Galton hoped to encourage individuals to pay greater attention when choosing their mates, as, he argued, “it would be quite practicable to produce a highly-gifted race of men by judicious marriages during several consecutive generations” (45). While Galton paved the way for future eugenic pedigree studies, he was limited by a lack of knowledge regarding genetic inheritance, specifically Gregor Mendel’s Theory of Inheritance.

Mendel’s Theory of Inheritance proved influential to eugenicists in the United States, especially biologist Charles B. Davenport, who had created the ERO in 1910 to research human heredity and its relation to social problems. Research at the ERO followed the trend of Galton’s earlier research and consisted primarily of the collection of detailed family pedigrees. The pedigrees consisted of the in-depth study of feeblemindedness so that an adequate analysis could be made regarding its genetic inheritance. In doing so, Davenport stated, one would be able to infer the genetic makeup of each person charted as well as that of entire family lines. In addition, one would be better able to predict the “characteristics of the generations yet unborn, and would, indeed, aid in bringing about better matings” (Davenport 1972: 240-241). Davenport encouraged all families of “good stock” to submit their own pedigrees to the ERO, which served as a clearinghouse for data on heredity. The eugenic field workers compiled pedigrees on families of “bad stock,” as a means of examining the inheritance of characteristics such as criminality, insanity, and feeblemindedness.

Eugenic field workers observed the transmission of feeblemindedness with the goal of proving that such behavior was in fact hereditary and not due to environmental or other social factors. When charting a pedigree, the field worker assigned an “N” or an “F” to each individual he or she observed, which designated a diagnosis of normal or feebleminded. In addition, if other conditions were present, the field worker placed a letter inside or around the individual’s symbol designating that condition (e.g. A: alcoholic; B: blind; C: criminalistic; D: deaf; E: epileptic; I: insane; S or Sy: syphilitic; Sx: sexually immoral).

Pedigree Chart Kallikak Family
Pedigree Chart from Henry H. Goddard, The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeblemindedness (New York: Macmillan, 1912)

In his 1911 book, Heredity in Relation to Eugenics, Davenport addressed the state of eugenic diagnosis and the difficulties inherent in classifying individuals as feebleminded or normal. He called attention to the “vague and even false” nature of then current classificatory systems as evidenced by the lack of a standardized definition of feeblemindedness or method of diagnosis (Davenport 1972: 8). He provided the following example to prove his case:

“Thus one expert will define a feeble-minded person as one incapable of protecting his life against the ordinary hazard of civilization, but this is very vague and the test is constantly changing. For a person may be quick-witted enough to avoid being run over by a horse and carriage but not quick enough to escape an automobile. A second expert will define a feeble-minded person as one who cannot meet all (save two) of the Binet test for three years below his own; if he fail in only one he is no longer feeble-minded. But this definition seems to me socially insufficient just because there are moral imbeciles who can answer all but the moral question for their proper age. Every attempt to classify persons into a limited number of mental categories ends unsatisfactorily.” (Davenport 1972: 8-9)

Despite this assertion, Davenport asserted that at least one thing is clear: namely, “two mentally defective persons will produce only defective offspring” (Davenport 1972: 66-67; emphasis in original). In Mendelian terms, feeblemindedness was a recessive trait. Therefore, to be feebleminded, one had to have received this trait from both the mother and father to make it homozygous recessive. If one was feebleminded, it could be expressed in any number of ways. During the early twentieth century, scientific explanations of heredity maintained that “defective” traits such as feeblemindedness could be passed on to offspring not only in a direct manner (for example, a feebleminded father whose feeblemindedness was expressed through blindness might have a blind child), but also in an indirect way (a feebleminded father who was blind might have a deaf, imbecilic, or insane child). Therefore, each “condition” was representative of a broader hereditary “germ,” symbolized by the “F” in the pedigree. What was most important for eugenicists in the United States was the notion that a “normal” person could still be a carrier of the feebleminded trait. The pedigree method became necessary, therefore, to determine the likelihood that individuals carried the feebleminded “trait.”


Disability, gender, and the keepers of the gene pool

A typical picture of a eugenically deviant family appears in field worker Elizabeth S. Kite’s 1913 study on “The Pineys.” In this piece, Kite described one family as such:

“They lived in a shack in the woods on the edge of a cranberry bog and there were five feeble-minded children whose parental parentage was very uncertain. ‘Sammy boy’ like ‘Joe boy’ was too lazy to work and what his wife did not earn she begged. There were rumors that his shack was a rendezvous for men and that Sammy drew quite an income from their visits. Suse, his wife, was an energetic, sharp-tongued, shrill-voiced woman…she was a wild…creature that seemed the genius of the place.” (In Rafter 1988: 175).

Eugenic field workers’ descriptions of feebleminded individuals and their families center on one’s adherence to white, middle-class gender and sexual norms. The family studies’ focus on “deviant” families marked gender as primary to the diagnosis of feeblemindedness.

Kite questioned the gendered behaviors and sexual practices of the family, especially that of the mother, Suse. In the above passage, Kite referenced “five feeble-minded children of uncertain paternal parentage.” She did not elaborate on how she came to the conclusion that the children were feeble-minded, but did mention rumors that Sammy Dink opened up his home to strange men and prostituted his wife, which for eugenicists was proof positive of Suse’s and Sammy’s feeblemindedness. In March of 1912, Walter E. Fernald – eugenicist and superintendent of the Massachusetts School for the Feebleminded – wrote the following on the relationship of idleness, prostitution, and feeblemindedness:

“The feeble-minded are a parasitic, predatory class, never capable of self-support or of managing their own affairs. The great majority ultimately become public charges in some form. They cause unutterable sorrow at home and are a menace and danger to the community. Feeble-minded women are almost invariably immoral, and if at large usually become carriers of venereal disease or give birth to children who are as defective as themselves. The feeble-minded woman…is twice as prolific as the normal woman” (90-91).

The expression of the feebleminded trait, therefore, became gendered in a way that associated male feeblemindedness with laziness and pauperism and female feeblemindedness with sexual “immorality” (i.e., sex outside of marriage, prostitution). Because of the eugenic goal of strengthening the national gene pool, U.S. eugenicists disproportionately targeted women, whose apparent sole contribution was bearing and nurturing children who would “contribute to the progress of humanity” (Stubblefield 2007: 176).

By mentioning Sammy’s role in the possible prostitution, Kite shifted the blame for the children’s unknown parentage from Suse Dink alone to include her husband, because neither of them adhered to the appropriate gender roles of husband/father and wife/mother. According to Kite, it was Sammy’s refusal to work and provide for his family that led to Suse’s begging and prostitution. Sammy’s idleness and Suse’s prostitution, then, became a symptom of feeblemindedness in the family, which caused their impoverishment.

An examination of other family studies reveals similar trends with respect to eugenic diagnosis. For example, in 1913 field worker V.P. Robinson submitted a description of “Elizabeth C.” for a family pedigree. It read:

“Elizabeth C. b. 1888 – Committed to Bedford from town of Saugerties on charge of impairing the morals of her children, Sept. 1912. She is a tall big-boned girl with an abundance of dark brown hair, prominent masculine features, and large conspicuous teeth…” (Robinson 1913)

This brief description alerted readers to Elizabeth’s institutional commitment for failing to fulfill her motherly duty of morally educating her children. Robinson did not specify exactly what Elizabeth did to impair her children’s morals, but considering the social mores of the time and the concerns of eugenicists, it is likely that she and/or her children were involved in prostitution or another inappropriate sexual act.

In addition, Robinson stated that Elizabeth was “tall” and “big boned” and had “prominent masculine features,” which further situated her outside the boundary of “normal” women. In 1912, Goddard published a study that examined height and weight differentials of feeble-minded children. In this study, he found that individuals of the lower feebleminded grades were “consistently shorter than” and “inferior physically” to normal children (225-226). However, this discrepancy almost disappeared in the higher grades, and further, some “morons” (the term for those in the highest grade of feeblemindedness, achieving a mental plateau of 8-12 years) were – according to Goddard’s research – taller and larger in size than their normal counterparts (224-229). In Elizabeth’s case, then, her abnormal height and weight seem to be indicative of her aberrant femaleness, which also marked her as feebleminded.

In conclusion, eugenic field workers focused their gaze on the gendered labors of family members under eugenic surveillance. Whether a father could provide for his family through wage labor and whether a mother could care for her family and home were signs of normality or deviance. Further, the examination of eugenic diagnostic patterns on the part of eugenic field workers reveals the inextricable link between gender and disability in the eugenic project. It follows, then, that greater insight into the various roles gender played in the eugenic family studies assists us in refining our understanding of historical notions of disability.



  1. Davenport, Charles B. 1972. Heredity in Relation to Eugenics Reprint Ed. [original copyright, 1911], (New York: Arno Press).
  2. Fernald, Walter E. 1912. “The Burden of Feeble-Mindedness” Journal of Psycho-Asthenics 17, no. 3 (March 1912): 87-111.
  3. Galton, Francis. 1869. Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into Its Laws and Consequences (Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific).
  4. Goddard, Henry H. 1912. “The Height and Weight of Feeble-Minded Children in American Institutions.” The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 39, no. 4 (April 1912): 217-235.
    —-. 1910. “Four Hundred Feeble-Minded Children Classified by the Binet Method,” Journal of Psycho-Asthenics 15, no. 1-2: 17-30.
  5. Koven, Seth and Sonya Michel (Eds.) 1993. Mothers of a New World. Maternalist Politics and the Origins of Welfare States. (New York, Routledge).
  6. Mosse, George. 1996. The Image of Man: The Creation of Modern Masculinity (New York: Oxford University Press).
  7. Rafter, Nicole Hahn (Ed.). 1988. White Trash: The Eugenic Family Studies, 1877-1919 (Boston: Northeastern University Press).
  8. Robinson, V.P. 1913. “The Curtiss Fuller Pedigree” In Eugenics Record Office Papers, Series VII: Field Worker files, “Robinson, V.P.” American Philosophical Society Archives, Philadelphia, PA.
  9. Stubblefield, Anna. 2007. “‘Beyond the Pale’: Tainted Whiteness, Cognitive Disability, and Eugenic Sterilization” Hypatia 22, no. 2 (Spring 2007): 162-181.



SARA VOGT, MS, is a Ph.D. candidate in the Interdisciplinary Program in Disability Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Sara is currently writing her dissertation, entitled “Bodies of Surveillance: Disability, Gender and the Keepers of the Gene Pool,” which examines the interactions of disability and gender in eugenic fieldwork in the United States between 1910 and 1924.


Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 1, Issue 3  – Spring 2009
Spring 2009  |  Sections  |  Ethics

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