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Fernald State School

1848- 2014

Waltham, Massachusetts


   The Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded was the first publicly supported institution in the Western Hemisphere. It was first opened in 1848 in South Boston, Massachusetts, and was founded to help people with intellectual disabilities. The first schools of its kind quickly took off under the strong leadership of Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe and Dr. Edward Jarvis. As the school became more successful, its numbers started to increase over the years, and a new permanent location was needed.


   The town chosen for the new school was Waltham, Massachusetts, 11 miles outside of Boston. The school’s design was a cottage-style system, like the Lyman School for Boys. The buildings were individual, instead of connected, to give an open campus feel. Some had tunnels to connect certain buildings to others that needed access in the winter months.


   In 1884, the new school opened under the supervision of the third superintendent, Walter E. Fernald. With his ideas on how to cure feeble-minded children, the public was on board. The school’s education was later viewed as a model for the eugenics movement in America in the 1920s. The study believed that it was possible to improve the qualities of the human species, especially by discouraging the reproduction of persons having genetic defeats and encouraging the reproduction of persons with inheritable desirable traits. The movement was so influential that Hitler took this idea and brought it to Germany.


   The school would test children all over the state using an “IQ” test. Most of the children that were targeted were from broken homes, the poor, minorities, foster kids, and families who couldn’t take care of their children. It was believed that more than half of the children, mostly boys at the school, were fully capable of living a normal life without the assistance of the state's help. However, the school needed able-fit boys and girls to help run the institution with daily tasks for it to succeed. A year after the death of Superintendent Walter E. Fernald, the school would be renamed in his honor in 1925.


   The institution grew to have over 72 buildings on 196 acres of land. Fernald was getting more and more popular by the 1940s and was viewed as a model for education in the field of mental retardation. Around that time, an experiment was being done by MIT and sponsored by the Quaker Oats company. This experiment was called the “Science Club”. The institution would put small amounts of radiation in the patients' oatmeal and record the amount of toxic poison that would be absorbed into their bodies over a while. It was easy to find kids that would cooperate. Most of the children at Fernald hated the stigma of being in a state school, so anything that could make them feel smart and normal was their top priority. Being part of the “Science Club” made them feel special. The kids were rewarded with extra food portions, parties, and even baseball games to see the Red Sox. The “Science Club” lasted for 7 years (1946-1953).


   At the peak of the institution, the population reached 2,500 patients. Like most institutions at the time, the lack of staff, overcrowding, defunding, and maintenance repairs to the buildings caused the facility to fall into horrific conditions. A news reporter snuck into the Siquen Building that stored the most disabled of the kids to report how unimaginable the conditions were. Publicizing the findings at Fernald and how much improvement, funding, and specialized care was needed, in 1986, the Department of Mental Retardation was created. By the 2000s, about 300 patients were living on the property. Most of these people needed assistance with everyday life.


   In 2003, Governor Mitt Romney announced that by the year 2007, Fernald would be closed, and the land sold to investors. Local unions and families fought to keep the Fernald School from closing and got an appeal from Judge Tauro to postpone the closing. Fernald remained open until 2007 when the new Governor, Deval Patrick, overturned the appeal and continued the closure. He stated that Fernald would be too expensive to operate, and equal or better care for the remaining patients would be given at another facility. They started to decommission most of the buildings and downsize the campus to what was needed. Six years later, in 2013, only 13 residents resided at the Fernald School, most of whom had been there their whole life. One of the 13 is a woman who was sent to Fernald at the age of 19 and was now the oldest resident at 84. The last resident was moved to a new state-operated system on November 13, 2014. The Fernald school closed after 166 years of service.


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