Abandoned to their fate: A history of social policy and practice toward severely retarded people in America, 1820-1920

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Teaching and Leadership


Steven J. Taylor


Special education, American history, Rome (New York State)

Subject Categories

Special Education and Teaching


This study examines the history of severely mentally retarded people from 1820 to 1920 in America, and their relationship with an emerging class of professionals newly charged with their care. The early history of one specialized asylum in Rome, New York, receives particular attention as an illustrative case study of the processes that influenced institutional development throughout the last half of the nineteenth century.

The notion of "chronicity" is adopted to refer to a process of social construction whereby multiple dimensions of social failure (aesthetic, moral, and economic) in the lives of people called "idiots" and "imbeciles," were subsumed under a new dimension of therapeutic failure. By the end of the nineteenth century, the category of feeblemindedness had been successfully divided into the two groups of the potentially salvageable and the permanently helpless. Indeed, from the perspective of the most severely retarded people, the entire nineteenth century was essentially a period of more and more elaborate versions of abandonment, while optimism waxed and waned for their less handicapped peers. In many respects, it makes more historical sense to categorize the history of social welfare in America for disabled people along the functional division of severe and mild, chronic and curable, rather than the diagnostic categories of mental illness, mental retardation, epilepsy, and physical disability. The history of people viewed as chronically retarded in the nineteenth century had more to do with the concept of chronicity than with the concept of retardation. The history examines the first 25 years of the Rome Custodial Asylum for Unteachable Idiots, in upstate New York, as an interesting example of how this interpretation of chronicity can help explain institutional developments in America. Charles Bernstein, the progressive superintendent of the Rome facility during this period, struggled to establish a reputation for innovation and reform while mandated to serve a purely custodial function for the most severely retarded portion of the state's population. An examination of the case files for the first 1000 admissions to the Rome Asylum allows an important counterpoint to Bernstein's public accounts of this period.


Surface provides description only. Full text is available to ProQuest subscribers. Ask your Librarian for assistance.