A new article by Chelsea D. Chamberlain in the Journal of Social History will interest AHP readers. “Challenging Custodialism: Families and Eugenic Institutionalization at the Pennsylvania Training School for Feeble-Minded Children at Elwyn,” Abstract:
Historians have described how powerful eugenic ideologies fueled the rapid expansion of custodial institutionalization of the so-called feebleminded in the early twentieth century. Using new sources from the recently opened archive of the Pennsylvania Training School for Feeble-Minded Children at Elwyn, this article argues that in practice, this transition to custodialism was difficult, uneven, and subject to constant compromise. Institutional residents and their families contested expert prognoses and disciplinary methods and maintained relationships across institutional boundaries. Their vernacular ideas about mental impairment, curability, and the purpose of institutional segregation produced a gap between eugenic discourse and institutional life. The challenges that residents and their families levied were neither absolute nor consistent: their force and success depended on their class status, community contexts, and most significantly, the perceived severity of a resident’s impairment. Residents with greater care needs were frequently relegated to the background, not only in psycho-medical professionals’ treatises and administration but in the expectations that families brought to bear on the institution. Decades before institutionalized people and their families formed political advocacy groups that struggled for deinstitutionalization and civil rights, they fought individual battles that pitted their intimate knowledge against expertise. Although their victories were small and statistically rare, they tested the bounds of psycho-medical authority and established the ideological and practical limits of eugenic mass institutionalization.