Although persons with developmental disabilities living in the United States have been treated in a pejorative manner at various times throughout the nation's history, the eugenics era (1900–1930) stands out as a time when such individuals—then referred to as “feebleminded”—were subject to particularly extreme indignities. Numerous methods of dehumanizing such persons were employed during this era. Of special significance was the use of the organism metaphor, whereby the “unfit” members of society were compared to a parasite, cancer, virus, or plague infecting the social body. The use of rhetoric advancing the organism metaphor in eugenic writing is described in this paper as is the effect that such rhetoric had on the societal response to such persons.
The author thanks Jean McGurk O'Brien, James Trent, and Mike Firnmen for their thoughtful comments related to an early draft of this article. Thanks are also extended to Heidi Waldinger and Courtenay Rourke, for their assistance in locating and accessing relevant material.