State School for the Feeble-Minded

The Fernald Center, originally called the Experimental School for Teaching and Training Idiotic Children, was founded in 1848. Under its third superintendent, Walter E. Fernald (1859–1924), an advocate of eugenics, the school was viewed as a model educational facility in the field of mental retardation. It was renamed in his honor in 1925, following his death the previous year. The institution was involved in several different procedures that used the residents as test subjects some of which include sterilization and radiation experimentation. The institution did serve a large population of mentally disabled children, but The Boston Globe estimates that approximately of half the inmates tested with IQs in the normal range. In the 20th century living conditions were bad, and approximately 36 children slept in each dormitory room. There were also reports of physical and sexual abuse. The Fernald School was the site of the 1946–1953 joint experiments by Harvard University and MIT that exposed young male children to small doses of radioactive isotopes. The experiment was conducted in part by a research fellow sponsored by the Quaker Oats Company. The boys were encouraged to join a “Science Club”, which offered larger portions of food, parties, and trips to baseball games. There were 57 club members that were given radioactive calcium orally or intravenously. Neither the children or their parents gave legal consent to this testing. In 1994, a significant portion of the campus was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The buildings and grounds survived into the 2000s as a center for mentally disabled adults, operated by the Massachusetts Department of Mental Retardation. In 2007, Fernald, was the subject of documentary film “Front Wards, Back Wards” directed by W.C. Rogers. Fernald was also the subject of a book “The State Boys Rebellion,” written by Michael D’Antonio, a former inmate of the school. As of June 2013, Fernald remained open with 13 residents living on grounds, the oldest of whom was 84 years old and a resident since the age of 19. The Fernald Center’s last resident was discharged on November 13, 2014. The state sold the property to the city in 2014 for $3.7 million, with plans to demolish the remaining buildings to make way for a new high school or police station.

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