Mental Retardation in America: A Historical Reader

By Olson, Tom | Nursing History Review, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Mental Retardation in America: A Historical Reader


Olson, Tom, Nursing History Review


Mental Retardation in America: A Historical Reader Edited by Steven Noll and James W. Trent, Jr. (New York: New York University Press, 2004) (513 pages; $24.00 paper)

Mental Retardation in America: A Historical Reader is a diverse collection of essays that explores the history of mental retardation in the United States over two centuries. The focus is on examining the historical twists and turns in sociocultural meanings of mental retardation, including differing conceptions of treatment and care. As such, this volume adds to the more critical literature on this topic that began with the 1984 publication of Peter Tyor and Leland Bell's Caring for the Retarded in America, and has continued to the present.1 An initial, minor correction then to the editors' contention that their book represents "an attempt to develop a history of retardation in America" (p. 7), is that it actually represents the further development of an already growing area of study.

The essays in this volume excel in connecting the history of mental retardation to larger themes in family history, women's history, legal history, labor history, and even military history. For instance, Steven Gelb explores how World War II provided the impetus for social change for persons considered mildly retarded by demonstrating how they could assist with the war effort. Still, some readers may be disappointed that only two essays analyze the medical intricacies of retardation. The first is William Fish's 1879 treatise on the pathology of mental retardation, and the second is a chapter on the rejection of the racebased understanding of Down's syndrome that followed the delineation of trisomy-21. Nursing is even less represented, however, as none of the essays focus on the involvement of nurses in the care of individuals with mental retardation.

The book is well organized, including five sections that chronologically follow major changes in the treatment and care of persons with mental retardation in the United States. Each section is introduced by at least one primary-source document that reflects a major issue for the period. For instance, the first section is introduced by an 1848 report to the Massachusetts legislature that urges members to rescue human beings in their midst "who are condemned to hopeless idiocy" (p. 23). Subsequent essays in this section examine the relationship between community care, the almshouse, and the beginnings of the asylum. section Two explores the development of the category of mental retardation from an historical perspective, culminating with the classification by 1900 of "the feebleminded" as a discrete group of persons. J. A. Brockley provides a particularly thought-provoking discussion of how the idea of retardation and the "other" helped to shape thinking about the ideal American family.

The third section analyzes what is arguably the lowest point in the United States experience with mental retardation. This was exemplified by the 1927 Supreme Court decision in which the majority agreed that the principle that supported compulsory vaccination was broad enough to cover cutting the fallopian tubes of a woman with mental retardation. Of special note, Molly Ladd-Taylor's look at eugenic sterilization in Minnesota during the 1920s and 1930s is very effective in situating sterilizations within the cultural context of the time. …

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