Walter E Fernald State School – An Abandoned School in Massachusetts

Fernald School

The Walter E Fernald State School has gone by a number of names over the years. It was originally called the Experimental School for Teaching and Training Idiotic Children, then Massachusetts School for Idiotic Children and most recently the Walter E Fernald Developmental Center. It was located in Waltham, Massachusetts, USA and close to the Metropolitan State Hospital.

The Walter E Fernald State School

The main entrance to the Walter E Fernald State School.

The school was originally founded by Samuel Gridley Howe in 1848 and located in Boston. It moved to Waltham in 1888 and eventually consisted of 72 buildings on 196 acres. At its peak, it housed 2,500 young people. Originally a school for boys with low intelligence, later reports suggested that more than half of students tested had an IQ deemed to be normal. The school was renamed in honour of its third superintendent, Walter E Fernald, in 1925. The name remained until its closure.

A building at the Walter E Fernald State School

Vines and creepers have begun to takeover this building.

It was regarded by many as the finest educational facility in the field of mental health during the period in which Walter E Fernald was superintendent at the school. He was a firm believer in eugenics, the practice of selective breeding within the human population to improve the genetic quality of the human population.

Overgrown foliage on an abandoned building

The foliage has become overgrown in many parts of the site.

The school has been the subject of allegations of sexual and physical abuse of the students, accounts of which have been reported in the media. The standard of education was said to be extremely low and the boys were housed in large crowded dorms. The students were even the subject of medical experiments in the 1950s when the Quaker Oats company along with Harvard and MIT researchers fed boys cereal laced with radiation tracers. The Quaker Oats company eventually paid out over $1.85 million in damages to the victims. The Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments had this to say about the case in a 1994 report –

In 1946, one study exposed seventeen subjects to radioactive iron. The second study, which involved a series of seventeen related sub-experiments, exposed fifty-seven subjects to radioactive calcium between 1950 and 1953. It is clear that the doses involved were low and that it is extremely unlikely that any of the children who were used as subjects were harmed as a consequence. These studies remain morally troubling, however, for several reasons. First, although parents or guardians were asked for their permission to have their children involved in the research, the available evidence suggests that the information provided was, at best, incomplete. Second, there is the question of the fairness of selecting institutionalized children at all, children whose life circumstances were by any standard already heavily burdened.

A class action suit was filed in the 1970s in relation to the conditions at the Walter E Fernald State School and in 1993, a judge ruled that those who were treated there were entitled to a guaranteed level of care, regardless of cost, to compensate for decades of neglect and abuse.

An abandoned school building in Waltham, Massachusetts

Unlike many abandoned buildings, vandalism hasn’t affected much of the Walter E Fernald State School.

By 2001, 320 adult patients were living in Fernald and in December 2004, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney announced the facility would be closed. The families of the remaining patients and employees unions brought a lawsuit to save the school. The lawsuit was still ongoing when the last resident was discharged in 2014. The Walter E Fernald State School was closed and abandoned. The city of Waltham now owns the site.

Location: Waltham, Massachusetts, USA 🇺🇸
Abandoned: 2014


36 thoughts on “Walter E Fernald State School – An Abandoned School in Massachusetts”

  1. Went in the afternoon today and encountered a police drone. Absolutely recommend respirators as some buildings are significantly damaged.

  2. Went here tonight, no trouble getting in or out. Did run into another group of people but we each said hello and went on our way. Went in 1 building, it is in quite a decrepit state. Wore respirators; I do not recommend you enter buildings without one! Risk of asbestos and mold exposure.

    1. my homies pops is a cop in Waltham and he said the unerground tunnels have poison gas. He also said they check the school occasionally but dont want to catch trespassers because how big it is.

  3. Working at Fernald was potentially dangerous on so many levels. I worked there as a therapist right out of college. I was molested by the doctor who had to check all the new employees. I was constantly approached by the inmates from Concord prison who worked there who were looking for young girls. I had to also see clients at the Met State Campus, where patients of Met State were walking around outside, and would follow me from my car as I attempted to get into the units. I can’t even put in writing the behavior of the attendants to the client population as it was too sickening. I took my job very seriously, but felt dirty all the time working at Fernald.

      1. I went to Fernald the other day and there are papers everywhere with patients information and the “reason” they were there.

      2. I also discovered my grandfather was listed as an “inmate” there (via ancestry census in 1930) at 18 years old but no other info. I was saddened as I have very little info on who my grandfather was and he never shared with my mother anything other than he was an “orphan.” Trying to find out when he would have been placed there, why and how long.

    1. I worked at Fernald in 1975, it was my first job out of high school in waltham, spent next 30 years plus working in the field eventually running a group home in my house in nh. The stories I have locked in my brain from Fernald as well as working at Met State and macleans, stories so horrendous it haunts me to this day, am thankful many survived the horrors and moved in to homes treated well and given a chance at feeling cared for. Staff i worked with cared, deeply, but our state, allowed feces to back up, dukais stopping funding for soap diapers shampoo , on and on, patients teeth removed, women sterilized , amputations due to restraints being left to tight etc

      1. Hello Cindy I was wondering if you could tell me a couple story’s of working at fernald and answer some questions I’m an amateur ghost hunter/historian

    2. I drove around and took pictures recently (October 2021) and barely scratched the surface of exploration on that site. Security just drove right by me. I waved he waved back and off we went. The key is to pretend that you belong there. There are also a couple of abandoned houses on Trapelo Rd that I’ve yet to go inside.

    3. Is there any sort of list of “residents” (inmates)? In doing family research, I found one female relative who was there for the 1930 and 1940 census. I’d like to know more.

      1. I also just discovered my grandfather was listed as an “inmate” via the 1930 census. Would love to know more as well as we know nothing about this.

    4. to the guy talking about “as of april 2020”, from someone who doesn’t really care, how fast is police response time? how many cameras? when is the best time? thanks!

      1. If you go on google earth and explore the different roads on the campus you will notice a streak of blue light in spots where the sun is shining.I believe these are some sort of infrared lights or cameras that alert police.One of them is past the power plant on your right as the road bends in the tree line.I noticed this image several times exploring the grounds on google earth

        1. I think you might be seeing the power lines that go through the property. Only surveillance I am aware of are cameras at the entrances, the occasional police cruiser, and the drones,

      2. Hi, I’m doing family research and discovered that my Uncle was at this school during the period where MIT/Quaker was doing tests with radiation. I’m so shocked to learn that 3 of my Uncle and Aunts were placed in this school. I was told that the family was split up and relinquished as wards of the state. But, when I researched, I found 3 of the children were placed in the Walter E Fernald school. Unforturnately, I believe they were put here until death. 1 Uncle it appears, he was possibly placed from child until 60 and then 2 aunts stayed over 20 years. First as “inpatient’ and then listed as ‘Inmate” via the Federal Census. If anyone has any additional details on this school, please contact me.

        1. my uncle was there in 1944-1961 he was in the scince BS club and was fed the Quaker oats. He is fine now and in his 70’s. If your relative was there and part of that group you can get copies of his file. i have my Uncles file and he was in the book Boys state school rebelion by D’antonio. the inof is out there you just have to dig. Best of luck to you and I am so sorry your family like mine was suffered to that hell


      3. Does anyone know if you can get a visitors pass for this place from the state. Can we get permission from the state to enter?

      4. For all those asking, this location is closed to the public (as of April 2020) and monitored by State Police security cameras. If you go and walk around (which I have totally done at night) it is trespassing, so don’t plan on staying long. Cops have to put up with teens hanging out here all the time and they’re tired of telling people to leave.

      5. I was at the Walter Fernald school back in feb.of 2013 and was there for 3hrs taking pictures. I arrived early in the morning and was amazed to find that these buildings were still open! I opened the door to take some inside shots and found the buildings were still being heated. Then after about a few hours I had to push my luck. I had one of the building doors open with my foot as I was photographing the stairwell when I heard a man yelling at me, The police. He wasn't nice and didn't want to hear the fact that I was only taking pictures. He carded me, made me wait he ran my license and plates then asked, well, Told me to delete my pictures while he stood there to watch. Luckily I had an extra memory card that quickly got used up that he didn't know. It was a bad experience with the officer and as much as I would like to return, I haven't. If the grounds were open to the public that would be wonderful!!

      6. I was there on Feb.2013 and was approached by a not so nice officer who asked me not to take photographs, then asked me to delete what photos I did have on my camera. Which I did not, but he didn't know. I won't return back as much as id like. So, if I were you I wouldn't risk it for a few photos.

      7. is there anyone who knows if the grounds to the walter fernald are open to the public? I was there 3 years ago to take pictures, I was there for an hour when a police officer asked me nicely not to walk around that I was trespassing. Id like to return, but not to trespass. Any info will help. Thank you!

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