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Posted January 16, 2006 in Eugenics
Scott Allen, "New Book Delves into Fernand's Cruel Past," The Boston Globe (May 1, 2004)

By Scott Allen

The Boston Globe, May 1, 2004

WALTHAM -- His foster mother died suddenly in March 1949, leaving 8-year-old Fred Boyce heartbroken and homeless. Needing a new home for him, state social workers said the shy boy should be institutionalized, based on an IQ test showing he was "feebleminded." Without a word from the child, a judge in Boston committed him to a home for people with mental retardation, dooming Boyce to a childhood of taunts, loneliness, and anger.

Boyce, now 63, is one of hundreds of people of normal intelligence who were locked away as children for years at the Fernald State School because they did poorly on an intelligence test once widely used as a measure of ability to live independently, according to a book due out next week. "The State Boys Rebellion" for the first time tells the story of this invisible class of victims who, to this day, struggle with lingering effects of a limited education and the shame of being branded a "moron."

The book uses patient files and other documents to argue that the state-run Fernald School was a stronghold of the eugenics movement and an ideology that focused on preventing so-called inferior people from having children. Though eugenics had fallen out of favor after the Nazi persecution of Jews, author Michael D'Antonio argues that Massachusetts followed its principles into the 1960s by relying on IQ tests to institutionalize "the feeble minded," who very often turned out to be the children of the poor.

"It's hard for me to comprehend that I was there," said Boyce, a man comfortable discussing theoretical physics even though his childhood IQ score of 73 suggested that he had mild mental retardation. "I'm not feebleminded. . . . I'm not the Rain Man, and I'm not Forrest Gump. . . . I'm just Freddie; that's all."

Fernald's isolation made the children an easy mark for abuse, including nutrition experiments in which children were fed bowls of slightly radioactive oatmeal to make their digestion easier to track. After the research became public a decade ago, Boyce and other members of the so-called Fernald Science Club won a settlement of $3 million from MIT and Quaker Oats, which carried out and funded the experiments, as well as from the state and federal governments.

But now, as the decaying Victorian campus in Waltham prepares to close permanently, it's clear that the radiation experiments were part of a lifetime of hardships that cannot be compensated by settlement shares of $50,000 to $65,000 per person. For instance, Boyce, who was "paroled" from Fernald in 1961, can't afford to leave his job running a carnival concession booth, even though he is suffering from advanced colon cancer.

"They are the last victims of eugenics," said D'Antonio, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former reporter for Newsday in New York who gained access to case files of science club members showing that teachers and other staff members came to doubt that many of them were mentally disabled. Massachusetts officials acknowledged that in 1949, the year Boyce was admitted, about 8 percent of children in state schools were not mentally retarded or were normal. In fact, D'Antonio found an account of a 1940 meeting in which the superintendent said the school needed high-functioning residents for cheap labor.

Today, researchers understand that any test contains biases and that an imposing test-giver can cause a child to perform more poorly. IQ tests were widely used as diagnostic tools by social workers and psychiatrists in the 1940s and 1950s for children with behavior problems or who were not performing as well in school as they should. Anyone who scored below 80 could abruptly be sent to a state institution. Even in the 1950s, however, research was beginning to emerge showing that the IQ tests used at the time did not measure innate intelligence and that children could improve their scores with intensive training.

By 1949, 150,000 children nation wide were institutionalized, even though it is likely that thousands of them were of normal intelligence, D'Antonio found.

Massachusetts officials do not defend the mental retardation policies of the past, agreeing that the state abused people's rights until a federal lawsuit in 1972 began the movement to get people with mental retardation out of isolated institutions and into community homes. The state stopped accepting children at institutions such as Fernald by the mid-1970s.

"In the past, families had to hand their family members over to the state because there were no options," explained Gerald J. Morrissey Jr., commissioner of the Department of Mental Retardation. He stressed that families have many care choices today and said that less than 4 percent of his agency's clients are institutionalized.

In fact, the lingering debate at Fernald, where 248 mentally disabled adults still live, centers on whether deinstitutionalization has gone too far, with some advocates arguing that Fernald should remain open for people who have called it home for decades and don't want to leave. As a result, Morrissey hasn't set a deadline for closing the school, though a panel will soon begin looking at development options for the pastoral 96-acre property just off Route 128.

The Fernald School, America's first home for the "feebleminded," was rooted in compassion when it was founded in Boston in 1849. Forty years later, the school moved to its current site, providing a country home and job training for people of limited mental capacity.

But, by the turn of the 20th century, superintendent Walter E. Fernald was a leading advocate of eugenics, a once-popular movement that sponsored "fitter families" contests in hopes of identifying genetically superior parents to produce the next generation.

The Nazi extermination of 6 million Jews in the name of a "master race" destroyed eugenics as a respectable science, and the term disappeared from scholarly journals. But the machinery of eugenics - the rigid IQ tests and the state schools - was still in place, D'Antonio writes, and researchers at the time noted that it was used mostly on children from "dis organized" families where parents were neglectful, alcoholic or just plain poor.

By 1957, the population of the Fernald School had swelled to a high of 2,600, but it seemed a school in name only. Residents were given few services and little education, were forced to do menial labor, and normally were allowed to see family members only once a month on "company Sundays." Just as bad, smaller children were preyed upon both by bullies and sadistic attendants, who could make them sit silently for hours or demand sexual favors, according to the book.

For hundreds of children like Boyce who had no mental retardation, life there was surreal. He said it was like "living in the ether."

Boyce seemed to end up at Fernald almost as a convenience for the state. Given up for adoption by his mother as an infant, Boyce had been to seven foster homes by the time his foster mother, Marion Bond, died. Social workers, who suspected that the boy's speech impediment and shy nature were signs of mental retardation, promptly took him before a judge at the Boston Division of Child Guardianship, arguing that his low IQ test proved he should be institutionalized. The judge agreed.

Staff members who got to know Boyce discovered he was perfectly bright. A psychologist found his intellect to be nearly normal and warned in 1954 that "a prolonged stay here would be detrimental to him." Despite such warnings in the files of Boyce and others, few children were released, in part because state officials feared that they could be blamed if former residents turned to crime.

Compared with the tedium and cruelty of everyday life, the radiation experiments for which Fernald became infamous a decade ago were a bright spot, according to Boyce. The children got adult attention and approval, along with perks such as a Christmas party and a trip to see the Red Sox. All they had to do in return was follow a special diet and submit to minor inconveniences, such as blood tests and stool samples.

Although there is no evidence that the children were harmed, MIT, the state, and President Clinton issued apologies for the unethical research at Fernald. Perhaps equally important, revelations of the experiments brought members of the science club together after decades of isolation, with some not even telling their wives where they had grown up.

Boyce visited as many of the 35 named science club members as he could find, but what he found often saddened him. Some refused to join Boyce's lawsuit for fear of the stigma or some retribution from the state, and most of them had struggled economically and socially. Still, about half were married with children.

For his part, Boyce is not bitter, though he has struggled through a divorce and can't afford to stop working, despite his cancer. "I live day by day," said Boyce, who spends nights on the road in his camper-trailer at the nearest Wal-Mart store parking lot. "Everybody's terminal. It's just a matter of when."

Category: Eugenics