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 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.
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.
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.
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.