Chelsea Chamberlain

Doctoral Candidate, University of Pennsylvania

2018 to 2019
Research Fellow

Diagnostic Clinics and the Problem of Human Defect in Progressive America

In the early twentieth century, psycho-medical experts established a network of diagnostic clinics to sort America’s children into the categories of normal, curably abnormal, and incurably defective. Focusing on the years 1890-1925, my dissertation examines how these clinics created contested categories of diagnosis that institutionalized thousands of Americans. The question of which human characteristics were mutable—and which were not—lay at the heart of this process. Experts, patients, and parents’ notions of curability varied widely and changed over time alongside eugenic ideas. Progressive optimism relied upon excluding unruly bodies, minds, and behaviors that might stand in the way of reform’s success, yet popular and personal understandings of physical, mental, and moral defects rendered this exclusionary vision unstable and incomplete. My dissertation explores how families both resisted and participated in diagnostic processes, demonstrating the tension between progressivism’s vision for society and laypeople’s hopes for themselves and their families.