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Located in Waltham, MA, the Walter E. Fernald Developmental Center is the oldest institution dedicated to the care and education of individuals with developmental disabilities in the western hemisphere. During its peak in the 1960s, the center housed and educated over 2600 students. In the early twentieth century, several students were abused while living in the institution under faculty supervision, which coincided with the rise of the American eugenics movement. However, conditions at the Fernald slowly improved through advocacy and court action in the 1970s. In 2014, the Walter E. Fernald Developmental Center closed after its last resident moved out, but the center still carries historical significance in educational rights for students with disabilities.


The Walter E. Fernald Developmental Center was originally founded by Samuel Gridley as the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded in 1848 in Boston, MA. When initially opened, the center served as a progressive and humanitarian educational institution for children with disabilities. Over time, the school broadened to accommodate orphans, unmarried pregnant women, as well as children and adults with chronic and physical disabilities. As a result of the significant increase in residents, the school relocated to Waltham, MA in 1888 and was renamed “The Walter E. Fernald Developmental Center.”

At this time, Walter E. Fernald became the third superintendent of the center, and several aspects of the school changed. Fernald was considered an authority on the subject of mental disabilities, and he directed the school towards more scientific methods. Yet, Fernald was also was a supporter of the American Eugenics Movement and a board member of the Eugenics Society. The Eugenics Movement discouraged reproduction and promoted sterilization among any group with “undesirable” genetic traits, i.e. people with disabilities, and during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, while Fernald was superintendent, he integrated this school of thought into his administration. Specifically, Fernald operated the institution in a way as to segregate people with disabilities.

Abuse became prominent within the Fernald center in the 1940s and 1950s, and even extended beyond only those with disabilities, to groups such as orphans, poor children, or those who tested below average on IQ tests. The institution relied on and exploited these populations for free manual labor. Additionally, the Fernald center became overpopulated, and residents faced poor education and even malnourishment. In one famous incident, several students ingested radioactive isotopes in milk given to them by M.I.T. and Harvard scientists. The students were unaware that they were participants in an experiment and instead thought they joined a science club. This instance sparked controversy because the doses of radioactive isotopes were deemed permissible even by today’s federal regulations, but even still, the children did not explicitly consent to participation. All of the abuse at the Fernald Developmental Center was conducted under the guise of bettering the “genetic quality” of the population.

In the 1970s, conditions slowly improved thanks to family advocacy and court action. In 1972, the Commonwealth was sued in federal court, and the Fernald center received increased federal funding. Many residents were relocated to other community facilities, and the number of residents at the center only continued to decrease from there. As a result, the care of the residents that remained improved drastically. A slow societal shift in the view of individuals with disabilities also contributed somewhat to the bettering of conditions at the institution. In the 2000s, many lawsuits attempted to keep Fernald Developmental Center open. However, in 2014, the final resident of the institution moved, marking the close of the Walter E. Fernald Developmental Center.

Today, the building still stands in its Waltham location despite the permanent closure. The Walter E. Fernald Developmental Center serves as an important aspect of civil rights and educational history considering its longstanding dedication to the education and care of students with disabilities. Yet, it also exists as a reflection and dark reminder of the popular American mindset towards individuals with disabilities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

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