Kathryn Irving

Ph.D. Candidate
Department of History
Yale University

2013 to 2014
Research Fellow

The American Idiot Schools: Disability and Segregation in the Nineteenth Century

Abstract: In 1848, the first American schools dedicated to children with mental disability opened in Massachusetts, inspired by innovative European treatments for “idiocy.” This medical-educational method soon spread to other states, including Pennsylvania. By the end of the century, however, superintendents lost confidence in “improving” idiots, and embraced eugenic segregation and sterilization. The nineteenth-century American “idiot schools” are the focus of my dissertation, which engages disability theory to reimagine the history of medicine. I use the school records to construct composite definitions of idiocy and disability; these categories also shed light on the class, racial, and gender aspects of “normal” childhood. I situate the origins of special education in the antebellum reform movements and unregulated medical marketplace. I emphasize how children and their families interacted with physicians and legislators to shape institutional, medical, and cultural approaches to disability in nineteenth-century America. Read Kathryn's report on her PACHS-sponsored research here.