Fernald State School

Fernald State School is an abandoned mental institution in central Massachusetts. It was the first publicly supported institution for people with intellectual disabilities in the Western Hemisphere.


Samuel Gridley Howe, a well-regarded social reformer in Boston, had been instrumental in developing educational programs for the blind and the founding of the Perkins Institute of the Blind. 2 Howe was one of three commissioners appointed by the governor to study the developmentally disabled in 1846. 11 12 Two years later, Howe established the Massachusetts School for the Idiotic & Feeble-Minded after the Commonwealth appropriated $2,500 annually for three years to teach ten infirm children at an existing charitable institution as part of an experiment. Students could receive traditional classroom education and vocational training in broom repair, dancing, housekeeping, knitting, rug weaving, sewing, and shoemaking. 2 By 1850, the experiment had proven so successful that the School was formally established and the state agreed to provide an annual appropriation of $5,000 annually. 11 12

In 1852, the School moved to its own rented building in South Boston. 11 12 Dr. Edouard Seguin, who had gained recognition through his 1846 publication “Treatise of Idiots,” was recruited to develop programs and training materials for the teachers. Howe described the school’s goals as:

“It is proposed to show our reverence for God’s plain will and to acknowledge the common brotherhood of man by taking these, the most unfortunate of His children, and attempting to lift them to a place upon the common platform of humanity. It is hoped to train them to cleanliness and decency, to prevent or root out debasing habits, moderate gluttonous appetites, and lessen the strength of the animal desires by substituting constant occupation for idleness. To train all the senses, to strengthen the power of attention, develop the muscular system, and some degree of dexterity in simple handicraft. To call out their social affections, to inculcate feelings of regard for others in return for love and kindness shown to them; to appeal to the moral sense and to develop religious sentiment. It is to be hoped that part of them will gain useful knowledge, most of them become cleanly, decent, and industrious, and that all of them be better and happier for the efforts in their behalf.”

A 1½-acre site at L & M Streets was purchased in 1856, and a wood-frame school was erected. 11 12 But under pressure from the state, the School began to accommodate adults with more chronic disabilities, 2 and by 1874, it was overburdened. 11 12

Larger Campus

After Howe died in January 1876, Dr. Edward Jarvis was appointed his successor. 11 12 Jarvis identified four immediate needs for the School, including an asylum for trained students who lacked social skills, a separate institution for those with chronic disabilities, a new, larger site for the School, and increased opportunities for students to find work.

Towards those goals, a 100-acre farm was acquired in Dover in 1881 where older students could be sent to live and work permanently. 11 12 Two years later, a custodial department for “untrainable” adult residents was established, and the school was renamed the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded to reflect the broader mission. Finally, in 1887, the Commonwealth appropriated $25,000 for the purchase of land outside of Boston for the construction of a larger campus, and $200,000 to erect buildings. 2 11 12

Construction of the new school, designed by William G. Preston in the Queen Anne style with Romanesque and Craftsman details, began in 1888. 2 11 12 The buildings were laid out in the Cottage Plan, which followed the contours of the land and placed so as to allow for southerly exposures for the patient rooms. 11 12 It was the second such institution in the state to do so, patterned after the Willard Asylum in New York.

The first 61 students were admitted to the new campus on March 6, 1890, with the past pupil removed from South Boston on December 28, 1891. 11 12 As was the case at the old campus, students took part in traditional classroom education, domestic and industrial training, and recreation.

Walter E. Fernald took over as the third superintendent of the School for the Feeble-Minded upon the opening of the new campus. 2 Under his administration, the mission of the school changed from the care and reform of the disabled into the pursuit of experimentation, eugenics, and pseudoscience in the pursuit of Darwinian principles. Fernald, who was on the board of the Eugenics Society, advocated for IQ testing, and the institutionalization and sterilization of those with developmental disabilities or simply those who were orphans in state care. Subsequently, the population of the School increased to 494 residents in 1911 and over 1,000 by the 1920s.

In 1925, Dr. Ransom Greene took over as superintendent, 3 at which point the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded, with 1,330 residents, was renamed to Fernald State School. 1 2 Greene continued on the experimentation and eugenics that had been started under Fernald, but with an increased population and lower per-capita funding from the state, the School resorted to abusing non-disabled inmates as free manual labor. 3 With lower staff-to-inmate ratios, some overwhelmed employees began resorting to harsh tactics, such as starvation, to manage their residents. 3 4

With the onset of World War II, about 16% of Fernald’s staff went to serve in the war. 3 Greene tried to resolve the issue by allowing high-functioning residents to work for local companies and return to the School at night. It did little to resolve the overcrowding conditions, and by the close of the Second World War, the School was bursting at the seams with 1,890 residents.

Malcolm Farrell, who took over as superintendent of Fernald in 1945, was well aware of the changes that were needed. 3 While he initially presented himself as a progressive Psychiatrist, Farrell continued on with the experiments on residents that Greene had begun years prior.

“Science Club” Experiments

Farrell, along with Robert Harris, a professor of nutrition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, implemented the “Science Club” in 1946. 4 10 Seventy-four residents, aged 10 to 17, were recruited under the ruse that they would learn more about science and technology. Club members were able to venture off school grounds, attend Boston Red Sox games, win gifts, and eat free Quaker oatmeal breakfasts. The boys were fed oatmeal and milk laced with radioactive iron tracers and radioactive calcium tracers. In another experiment, scientists injected patients with radioactive calcium tracers. The tracers were radioactive atoms whose decay was measured to understand the chemical reactions.

At the time, Quaker was in steep competition with Cream of Wheat made with Farina. 4 A series of studies suggested that high levels of phytate, a naturally occurring cyclic acid in plant-based grains, might inhibit the absorption of iron, whereas Farina did not have the same effect. The experiments demonstrated that Quaker oatmeal was no worse than Farina when it came to the absorption of iron and calcium into the bloodstream and that calcium entering the bloodstream went straight to the bones, which proved vital in later studies of osteoporosis.

The field of eugenics was discredited after the discovery of concentration camps, the ultimate application of eugenic principles. 1 The Nuremberg Code, a set of research ethics principles for human experimentation, was formed in 1947 as a result of the Nuremberg trials at the end of World War II. 2 But the experiments continued until 1953, violating the Nuremberg Code. 10

It was not until 1993 that details of the radioactive experiments came to light when a number of Atomic Energy Commission documents were declassified, leading to an apology from President Clinton in 1995 and am $1.85 million settlement in 1998. 4


By the dawn of the 1960s, Fernald State School had a peak resident population of 2,600 people with a staff of just 800. 2 11 12 Deinstitutionalization, the process of replacing long-term psychiatric hospitals with community mental health services, took root during the decade, born out of a socio-political movement for community-based services, financial rationales, and overcrowded state institutions. 5

Advocates for the disabled filed a class-action lawsuit against the Commonwealth in federal court in 1972, claiming that the state’s five institutions, housing 5,000 with mental disabilities, were understaffed and in poor condition. 13 It resulted in increased state funding for mental institutions in Massachusetts. 2 11 It led to the construction of a sprawling complex of one-story cottages between 1976 and 1981 11 to provide home-like residences at the School. 2 Malone Park was added circa 1990 to provide additional patient space. 11

By 1979, the number of residents at Fernald had declined to 1,161 with a staff of 1,900, and to 855 residents with a staff of 2,400 in 1987. 11

Most of Fernald’s campus was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994.


By 2001, 320 residents remained at the School, with ages ranging from 27 to 96 years. Facing a vastly underutilized campus dotted with abandoned buildings, Governor Mitt Romney announced in 2003 that Fernald would be closed and the land sold by 2007. A coalition of family advocates and state employee unions began a campaign to save the School and in an August 2007 ruling, a judge ordered that the Commonwealth consider the individual wishes of the 185 remaining residents before closing the facility. But in September 2007, the administration of Governor Deval Patrick appealed the ruling to the First Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which contended that Fernald had become too expensive to operate and that equal or better care could be handled in private, community-based centers.

As of June 2013, Fernald had just 13 residents at the cost of t$1 million per resident per year, or four times the national average for a state-supported institution. 6 The last patient was discharged from the School on November 13, 2014. 7 8 The protracted legal and political battle cost the Commonwealth over $40 million in additional costs over the projected closure date of 2010.

The Commonwealth sold Fernald to the local city in 2014 for $3.7 million. 9


Chipman Hall/Girls Dormitory (Building 6)

Chipman Hall was designed by William G. Preston in the Queen Anne style and constructed in 1892 to serve as a dormitory for females. 11 It was named for Catherine Chipman, the Resident Psychologist in the 1930s.

East Nurses’ Home (Building 9)

The East Nurses Home was designed by William G. Preston in the Queen Anne style and constructed in 1906 to serve as a dormitory for nurses. 11

Greenhouse (Building 25)

The greenhouse was constructed circa 1940. 11

Kelley Hall

Kelly Hall was constructed in 1969. 11

Manual Training Building

The Manual Training Building was designed by William G. Preston in the Queen Anne style, constructed in 1904, and expanded in 1908. 11 Classes for boys occupied the first floor, which included equipment to produce brushes, canes, mats, mattresses, nets, pillows, and towels, and repair shoes and furnishings. Classes for girls occupied the upstairs and were organized similarly with a defined focus on domestics that included knitting machines and looms.

Schoolhouse & Gymnasium (Buildings 4 & 5)

The Schoolhouse and Gymnasium were designed by William G. Preston in the Queen Anne style and constructed in 1891. 11

Stephen Bowen Hall/Infirmary (Building 49)

The Infirmary was designed by William G. Preston in the Queen Anne style and constructed in 1893 for patients with contagious diseases. 11 It was expanded in 1901 and 1907 and was named Stephen Bowen Hall after a Trustee in the 1930s.

Lavers Hall, built in 1914, served as an infirmary for male patients. 11 Both the original Infirmary and Lavers Hall were replaced in function by the Seguin Building in 1934.

Wallace Hall (Building 46)

Wallace Hall was designed in the Colonial Revival style and built in 1936 by the Public Works Administration. 11

Warren Hall

Warren Hall was designed by William G. Preston in the Queen Anne style and constructed in 1906. 11 Named after L. Maude Warren, a physician in the 1930s, it served as a nurse’s residence.


Further Reading

  1. Spoonful of Sugar Helps Radioactive Oatmeal Go Down by the Smithsonian Magazine


  1. “Walter E. Fernald State School.” National Park Service, 2017 Sept. 7.
  2. Daly, Marie E. “History of the Walter E. Fernald Development Center.” Fernald Working Group.
  3. Green, Alex. “Enemies with Disabilities.” Lapham’s Quarterly, 4 Jun. 2018.
  4. Boissoneault, Lorraine. “A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Radioactive Oatmeal Go Down.” Smithsonian Magazine, 8 Mar. 2017.
  5. The Rockland Campus Plan. New York State Office of Mental Health, 1989.
  6. Ansberry, Clare. “At Nation’s Oldest Institution For the Disabled, 13 Lives in Limbo.” Wall Street Journal, 30 Jun. 2013, pp. A1-A6.
  7. Kovner, Josh. “Opposing Sides Clash As Debate Resumes Over Closing Southbury Training School.” Hartford Courant, 3 Dec. 2014.
  8. Edwards, Ralph. “Closing of Fernald Developmental Center.” TASH, 19 Nov. 2014.
  9. “Bill allows Waltham to buy Fernald site for $3.7m.” Boston Globe, 6 Aug. 2014.
  10. Final Report of the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments. 1995.
  11. Jenkins, Candace. National Park Service, United States Department of the Interior. Mass. School for Idiotic & Feeble-Minded Youth. Sept. 1993.
  12. Bernson, Peter. Massachusetts Historical Commission, Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Walter E. Fernald State School. May. 1984.
  13. Reynolds, Dave. “Pro-Institution Supporters Want 1972 Fernald Court Case Reopened.” Inclusion Daily Express, 14 Jul. 2004.

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