Abstract

The eugenics era (c. 1900–1930) produced a strong desire among mental retardation professionals to recognize and control “the feeble-minded.” Some eugenicists believed it was possible to classify individuals visually by learning to recognize what they believed to be observable characteristics of idiocy and imbecility. In this paper I used qualitative methods to examine the visual classification scheme developed by Martin Barr and conclude that most of this classification scheme is a social construction that was reliant on modes of presentation, such as clothing and photographic style, which had very little to do with any inherent feeble-mindedness.

It is hard to downplay the importance and influence of the eugenics era to persons with mental retardation (e.g., Carlson, 2001; Haller, 1963; Kevles, 1985; Ludmerer, 1972). This period, often referred to as the “indictment” or “genetic alarm” period, was a time when mental retardation professionals concerned themselves with describing, explaining, and controlling a class of persons thought to be responsible for many of the social problems of the day. For example, inherited feeble-mindedness was widely believed to be the root cause of crime, pauperism, alcoholism, and prostitution. Barr (1904) believed that “the transmission of imbecility as at once the most insidious and the most aggressive of degenerative forces” (p. 102) and Goddard (1914) stated that “The feeble-minded person is not desirable, he is a social encumbrance, often a burden to himself. In short it were better both for him and for society had he never been born” (p. 558).

Eugenics may be defined as “the science of the improvement of the human race by better breeding” (Davenport, 1911, p. 1). The idea of breeding out problems and breeding in virtues became extremely popular in the first few decades of the 20th century. By 1914, eugenics was taught at many major universities, including Harvard, Columbia, Cornell, and Brown (Chorover, 1979). Eugenics exhibits could be found at many State Fairs, where families would be examined and trophies given to the “fittest families,” and numerous books, journals, and associations were devoted to the public dissemination of eugenics' ideals and policies. Prominent eugenics associations included the Eugenics Education Society, the American Breeder's Association, and the Race Betterment Foundation.

The goal of eugenicists was, therefore, to achieve a final solution to the problem of feeble-mindedness by such means as marriage and immigration laws, segregation, and sterilization of those deemed to be unfit to reproduce. No cost should be spared to this end, and even euthanasia was suggested as a possible remedy (Elks, 1993; Hollander, 1989).

Armed with theories of degeneracy, genetic inheritance, and mental retardation, eugenicists felt compelled to seek out the feeble-minded wherever they might be (Davies, 1930). This need to recognize these individuals is clearly stated by mental retardation professionals of the time. For example, Barr and Maloney (1920) wrote:

The information most eagerly sought by those entering upon the work among the feeble-minded is naturally how to easily recognize the various forms of mental defect, in order that they may define, and meet promptly, the special needs of those with whom they are brought in daily contact” (p. vii)

and Fernald (1912) stated:

The unrecognized imbecile is a most dangerous elements [sic] in the community. …In a rational policy for controlling feeble-mindedness it is essential that we recognize the condition in childhood. …The mental defectives in our penal institutions should be recognized and transferred to permanent custody in suitable institutions and farm colonies. …It is most important that the physician should recognize the so-called “borderline” cases. (pp. 91–97)

Goddard (1915) urged, in relation to the criminal imbecile, that “Unless their mental condition is recognized and they are cared for in such a way as to make crime impossible, many of them will repeat the career of Trouson [a convicted murderer]” (p. 81).

The belief that a person's physiognomy could convey a great deal of information about that person's character and mentality was widely held prior to the eugenics era; Various textbook illustrations of clinical physiognomy had been published in the 19th century (e.g., Morel, 1857). However, the advent of photography proved to be a boon to clinicians due to the camera's ability to “record accurately, rapidly, perhaps cheaply, and repeatedly” (Ollenrenshaw, 1961, p. 3). According to Gilman (1976) photography “was held to be the ultimate form of realistic portrayal” (p. 5), and the camera became a “diagnostic tool” providing empirical proof of psychiatric symptomatology and physiognomy (Gilman, 1982). Diamond (1856/1976) wrote:

The picture speaks for itself with the most marked pression … and [arrests] the attention of the thoughtful observer more powerfully that any laboured description … the Photographer secures with unerring accuracy the external phenomena of each passion, as the really certain indication of the internal derangements, and exhibits to the eye the well known sympathy which exists between the diseased brain and the organs and features of the body. … Photography, as is evident from the portraits which illustrate this paper, confirms and extends this [written] description, and that to such a degree as warrants the conclusion that the permanent records thus furnished [by photographs] are at once the most concise and the most comprehensive. (pp. 19– 21)

Goddard (1912) made extensive use of photographs in two important texts: The Kallikak Family (1912) and Feeble-Mindedness: Its Causes and Consequences (1914). Barr also made great use of photographs in two texts Mental Defectives (1904) and Types of Mental Defectives (1920). Barr and Maloney (1920) described the camera's utility in this way:

By comparing the picture with the short description of the case accompanying each—including the diagnosis, family history, and notes of mental progress or retrogression—a very fair idea of the type can be gained, and put into practice in daily examination of defective children. (p. 177)

The authors of these text books on feeble-mindedness were also building on a very successful tradition and format developed by Lombroso in the field of criminal anthropology in 1887. Lombroso's theories of the physical anthropology of the criminal were widely accepted in the United States at the turn of the century (Reilly, 1991). His classic text, L'homme criminel (1887), published in English in 1911, became the standard format for texts on feeble-mindedness. For example, Lombroso included diagrams of cells in different cortical layers of the brains of criminals, descriptions of the “stigmata of degeneracy,” anthropometric apparatus, photographic portraits of the physiognomy of criminals, photographs of the handiwork of criminals, and family pedigree charts. This was the same format used by Tredgold (1908) in his text on mental deficiency and by Goddard's (1914) in his text on feeble-mindedness.

Furthermore, in the early decades of the 20th century, mental retardation professionals believed that the field of mental deficiency was coming into its own and that “clinical types and degrees of feeble-mindedness are recognized by the alienist which are not yet familiar to the medical profession generally” (Fernald, 1912, p. 97). As a result mental retardation professionals created what they believed to be reliable and complete classifications of feeble-mindedness. Barr (1904) believed that a “simple and comprehensive, definite and clear” classification was paramount for students (p. 78).

There are other reasons why such classification schemes were important to eugenicists. The ability to classify feeble-mindedness would place mental retardation professionals on a par with other descriptive scientists, such as botanists and geologists. This would, in turn, ensure the future of the mental retardation professional. Classification schemes would also provide experts with an instrument with which to implement the various policies of eugenicists. For example, the need to correctly identify individuals was acknowledged to be very important when a decision to sterilize was being contemplated.

One important classification scheme was that of Barr and Maloney (1920), who claimed to discern five major types of mental deficiency, namely, idiot, idio-imbecile, imbecile, moral imbecile, and backward or mentally feeble. In addition, each of these major categories had up to four subcategories yielding a total of 12 classifications or “grades.” This classification scheme was endorsed by physicians and teachers as “the best one as simplifying the tasks of all engaged in the work” (Barr & Maloney, 1920, p. vii). It was first published in Barr (1904).

Although much has been written about the early decades of this century and its dominating eugenics ideology, scholarship has generally relied on written rather than visual sources of data for interpreting the period. Little work has been done examining the photographs of the era as primary data, even though we know that journals and textbooks were profusely illustrated. For example, Talbot's (1901) text contained 120 illustrations. Yet photographs can offer details and insights that lead to new avenues of exploration and understanding (Dowdall & Golden, 1989). Thus, by examining photographs of the feeble-minded during the indictment period, we may be able to increase our understanding of the period in ways not available through other sources.

In this paper I have analyzed the ways in which Barr (Barr & Maloney, 1920), who was chief physician at the Pennsylvania Training School for Feeble-Minded Children and an early president of the American Association on Mental Retardation, then called the American Association for the Study of the Feeble-Minded, employed photographs to illustrate and classify “feeble-mindedness.”

Method

Photographs in Barr and Maloney (1920) were analyzed using inductive or grounded theory methods (Bogdan & Biklen, 1992; Corbin & Strauss, 1990; Dowdell & Golden, 1989; Glaser & Strauss, 1967). Barr and Maloney's (1920) text contained 12 pages of photographs; each page had up to eight photographs corresponding to the 12 categories of feeble-mindedeness. For example, 7 photographs on one page were labeled “idiots—profound apathetic” (Plate1, see Figure 1), and eight photographs were labeled “idio–imbecile” (Plate 5, see Figure 2) and so on. These photographs were important because they reinforced the classification scheme by giving the impression that each type and grade had a characteristic appearance, and that it was possible, on the basis of the appearance, to recognize and distinguish the different categories and subcategories.

Figure 1

Plates 1–4. Plate 1 (top left): idiots: profound apathetic. Top row: Cases A to D. Lower row Cases E to G. Plate 2 (top right): idiots: profound excitable. Top row: Cases A to D. Lower row, Cases E to H. Plate 3 (lower left): idiots: superficial pathetic. Top row: Cases A to D. Bottom row: Cases E to H. Plate 4 (lower right): idiots: superficial excitable. Top row. Cases A to D. Lower row, Cases E to H

Figure 1

Plates 1–4. Plate 1 (top left): idiots: profound apathetic. Top row: Cases A to D. Lower row Cases E to G. Plate 2 (top right): idiots: profound excitable. Top row: Cases A to D. Lower row, Cases E to H. Plate 3 (lower left): idiots: superficial pathetic. Top row: Cases A to D. Bottom row: Cases E to H. Plate 4 (lower right): idiots: superficial excitable. Top row. Cases A to D. Lower row, Cases E to H

Figure 2

Plates 5–8. Plate 5 (top left): idio-imbeciles. Top row: Cases A to D. Lower row, Cases E to H. Plate 6 (top right): idio-imbeciles. Top row, Cases I to L. Lower row: Cases M to P. Plate 7 (lower left): imbeciles: low grade. Top row: Cases A to D. Lower row, Cases E to H. Plate 8 (lower right): imbeciles: low grade. Left column, top to bottom: Cases I, L, and N. Middle column, top to bottom: Cases J and J-I, Case O. Right column, top to bottom: Cases K, M, and P

Figure 2

Plates 5–8. Plate 5 (top left): idio-imbeciles. Top row: Cases A to D. Lower row, Cases E to H. Plate 6 (top right): idio-imbeciles. Top row, Cases I to L. Lower row: Cases M to P. Plate 7 (lower left): imbeciles: low grade. Top row: Cases A to D. Lower row, Cases E to H. Plate 8 (lower right): imbeciles: low grade. Left column, top to bottom: Cases I, L, and N. Middle column, top to bottom: Cases J and J-I, Case O. Right column, top to bottom: Cases K, M, and P

Thus, “idiots-superficial excitable” supposedly looked different from “idiots-superficial apathetic,” who looked different from “idio-imbeciles,” who in turn looked different from “middle-grade imbeciles” and so on. Being able to illustrate this classification gave great credibility to a diagnostic schema and, hence, to its underlying presuppositions about the nature of mental deficiency.

By arranging the photographs side by side from “idiots” through “hi-grade imbeciles,” I tried to understand the visual characteristics that defined the purported “ascending scale of mental defect” (Barr & Maloney, 1920, p. 50). This process is described below in detail.

Understanding Visual Classification

How, then, did the photographs illustrate the text's various classifications of feeble-mindedness? For example, what were the visual differences between “idiots—profound apathetic” (Plate 1) and “idiots—profound excitable (Plate 2), and how did they illustrate the written descriptions of the differences?

An overview of my answer to this question is presented in Table 1, which shows the visually differentiating characteristics between the various categories of feeble-mindedness. Photographically, the best indicators of feeble-mindedness were the presence of the helping hand, aprons (females), standing with feet apart, open mouths, and an absence of oval frames, studio settings, and accessories. For example, low-grade imbeciles were characterized by full body photographs, wearing ordinary clothes and standing at attention (males). High-grade imbeciles could be identified because they are shown less than full-length, in stylish clothes, and in studio settings.

Table 1

Differentiating Visual Characteristics of Photographs in Barr and Maloney (1920)

Differentiating Visual Characteristics of Photographs in Barr and Maloney (1920)
Differentiating Visual Characteristics of Photographs in Barr and Maloney (1920)

These visual conventions were clearly displayed in an interesting juxtaposition purported to show before and after changes in level of intelligence (see Case L, Plate 12, Figure 3). The standing photograph was E.S. at age 10 and the seated photograph, E.S. at age 25. “She learned to read, write, and do good housework, and she became a good laundress. … She is very easily influenced, and needs protection” (Barr & Malony, 1920, p. 72). E.S. was shown in the “after” photo using “high-grade” conventions (pose, grooming, jewelry, and half-length) to be compared to her as “low-grade” at age 10 (plain clothing, frontal pose, full-length). The impression given was that institutionalization can raise the intellectual level of an individual from low-grade to a high-grade imbecile.

Figure 3

Plate 9–12, Plate 9 (top left): imbeciles: middle grade. Top row: Cases A to C, middle, Cases D and E. Lower row: Cases F to H. Plate 19 (top right: imbeciles: middle grade. Top row: Case I, Cases J and K, Case L. Lower row: Cases M to P. Plate 11 (lower left): imbeciles: high grade. Top row: Cases A to D. Lower row, Case E (lower left). Case F (upper middle), Case G (lower middle), Case H (lower right). Plate 12 (lower right): imbeciles: high grade. Top row: Cases I and J, Case K, Case L. Lower row: Case M (lower left), Case N (upper middle), Case O (lower middle), Case P (lower right)

Figure 3

Plate 9–12, Plate 9 (top left): imbeciles: middle grade. Top row: Cases A to C, middle, Cases D and E. Lower row: Cases F to H. Plate 19 (top right: imbeciles: middle grade. Top row: Case I, Cases J and K, Case L. Lower row: Cases M to P. Plate 11 (lower left): imbeciles: high grade. Top row: Cases A to D. Lower row, Case E (lower left). Case F (upper middle), Case G (lower middle), Case H (lower right). Plate 12 (lower right): imbeciles: high grade. Top row: Cases I and J, Case K, Case L. Lower row: Case M (lower left), Case N (upper middle), Case O (lower middle), Case P (lower right)

How did these characteristics work within and between specific classifications? Barr and Malony (1920) gave the characteristics of idiots in general, and the difference between these two types of idiots as follows:

The idiot, commonly dwarfed and under-sized, exhibits those signs of physical weakness which at once betray mental degeneration. Mutism or deafness, where the cause is proven not local, indicates plainly a cerebral lesion or deficiency; so also insensitiveness to touch, inhibition to pain, lack of muscular coordination impeding or preventing locomotion, unclean habits, vacant expression, and drooling mouth, are all manifest signs of idiocy profound or superficial.

The profound idiot, apathetic, can give no expression to his wants by either speech or motion; he lies simply a breathing mass of helplessness. The excitable idiot is distinguished from him only by the bleating cry and almost constant imperative movements which seem his one gratification—the rolling of the head on its axis, the swaying of the body to and fro, and the rhythmical movements of fingers before the eyes. Both at any age whatsoever are more helpless than that the ordinary normal infant, and have not even an intelligent animal existence. (p. 3)

Of these characteristics, lack of coordination, “helplessness,” and drooling mouth might be able to be shown in photographs. From the photographs of the apathetic group (Plate 1, Figure 1), one can see several cases of (presumably) poor coordination in the crossed legs (Cases A and F) and curved hands (Cases B and E) of the apathetic group. The bib (Case B) might indicate a drooling mouth and the diaper (Case F) might also imply an infant's drool and overall level of development. However, the description “lies simply a breathing mass of helplessness” seems to be contradicted by at least two of the cases (E and G), who were shown standing up. Similarly, it is hard for me to find an individual in either category (apathetic or excitable) with a “vacant expression.”

With respect to the profound excitable group (Plate 2, Figure 1), the presence of the helping hand around the head, neck, and chin might indicate attempts to steady the “rolling head on its axis” and the “swaying of the body” said to be characteristic of this group. Moreover, perhaps the gestures shown in Cases D and H might be consistent with “excitability” rather than “apathy.” Similarly, Cases D and G seemed to show more animated facial expression than is found in the apathetic group.

Thus, the photographs did seem to illustrate some of the differences between the two groups described in the text in some cases. From viewing the photographs alone, however, the clearest examples of the difference between apathetic and excitable profound idiocy appears to be that the apathetic group used chairs (the case descriptions accompanying the individual photographs described those in chairs as paralyzed or unable to walk), had signs of physical disability (e.g., curved hands and crooked legs), wore a bib or diaper, and had a light presence of a helping hand (e.g., on the back of the chair), whereas the excitable group are all shown standing, with heavy presence of helping hand and with more animated expression. However, Case G of the apathetic type would have been better placed in the excitable category given her standing position and the heavy presence of the helping hand. Presumably, however, she was placed in the apathetic category because she was said to “remain perfectly passive unless roused” (Barr & Malony, 1920, p. 11). In this instance then, the written information seemed to trump the visual image because the presence of the helping hand on the body does not indicate perfect passivity.

These photographs illustrated the importance of the text and captions in influencing the interpretations of the images. For example, one would not necessarily assume from the fact that a person is sitting, or even lying down, that he or she could not walk. But when one is informed that they were paralyzed, the chair would convey the image of needed support rather than choice.

With respect to superficial idiots (Plates 3 and 4, Figure 1), Barr and Malony (1920) provided the following descriptions.

With the superficial idiot, whether apathetic or excitable, is found a certain degree of reflex muscular action, but poor coordination. Speech and locomotion are possible but always imperfect and halting. Mutism is the rule with apathetics of this type, who, with dribbling saliva, will blow bubbles from their lips and make known their wants by signs and inarticulate cries. The gait is the uncertain and tottering step of infancy, or, not infrequently, the limbs are partially or wholly paralyzed and the extremities cold and livid, owing to poor circulation. The excitable idiot of this class is a very imp of mischief, with violent temper, willful and irritable under restraint. Restless, always in motion, curious in the extreme, testing everything with finger and tongue, he will lick furniture, door-knobs etc. and even swallow stones, rags, sticks, and garbage of every description. His speech is delayed and confined to monosyllables, short phrases and broken sentences, supplemented by gestures or harsh animal cries. The gait is an unsteady shuffle, with dragging footstep and body bending forward, especially marked where there is a history of meningitis; or excessive excitation of temperament is often associated with a peculiar tip-toe step and automatic movements of head, hands and body. (pp. 3–5)

Here I find the photographs as illustrations of discrete categories less convincing. Photographically, we may see for the apathetic category (Plate 3, Figure 1), the uncertain gait (Case C) and somewhat awkward stances in general. The downcast faces of Cases C, E, and F may have also given the impression of “apathy.” However, all eight cases would seem to have fit equally well into the profound excitable category (Plate 2, Figure 1) given their stance and helping hand, except for the fact that only the females in Plate 2 wore aprons.

How did the photographs show the characteristics of the excitable superficial idiot (Plate 4, Figure 1), namely, mischief, violent temper, restlessness etc.? Perhaps the crossed arms of Case D expressed some “willfulness” and irritability” as might the folded arms and turned away head of Case F. Perhaps also Case B showed a rather mischievous expression. But if “constant motion” is a characteristic of this category, then photographing them standing still seems to be a significant and obvious contradiction. Moreover, the downcast expressions of Cases A and H would seem to fit the “apathetic” category as well as the excitable. In addition, the stronger presence of the helping hand in the excitable compared to the apathetic category of profound idiocy seen above did not seem to apply in the case of superficial idiocy. Here, the superficial excitable idiot (Plate 4) actually had somewhat less helping hand than the superficial apathetic group (Plate 3). Moreover, Case E (Plate 4) could just as easily have been located in Plate 2 (profound excitable idiot). Perhaps the authors had other information that enabled them to place individuals into these various categories. But the contention that one could reliably see in a photograph the features of a particular classification is highly questionable.

The ability to discern differences between classifications based on appearance seemed to fall apart dramatically with the category of idio-imbecile. The difference between “idiots,” “idio-imbeciles,” and “imbeciles” was acknowledged by Barr and Maloney (1920) to “merge so imperceptibly that the experienced eye alone can recognize and place him” (p. 4). They further described the characteristics of idio-imbeciles, few of which would have been visible in still photographs (such as the idio-imbecile's “chatter” and sudden tempers).

The basic difference in the photographs of idio-imbeciles and idiots was the almost total absence of the helping hand in the former compared to the latter: idio-imbeciles stood more erect and with their hands placed at their sides or clasped in front of them and the women wore more interesting dresses.

Case I (Plate 6. Figure 2), an idio-imbecile, is interesting in that except for her dress, which was congruent with the idio-imbecile type, her stance and head position seemed more like Case E (Plate 3, Figure 1) of the idiot–superficial apathetic class, and her apron was more “idiot” that “imbecile.” Thus, only her tartan dress elevated her above “idiocy.”

Barr and Malony (1920) acknowledged that Case P (Plate 6, Figure 2) “looked like an idiot” (p. 35), as was evidenced by the helping hand, plain dress, and somewhat awkward stance, but “appearances were deceptive as she has quite a little intelligence” (p. 36). Here the deceptiveness of appearance was acknowledged but as an exception rather than the rule.

If relative absence of the helping hand, stance, and dress visually distinguish idiots from idio-imbeciles, what were the distinguishing features between idio-imbeciles (Plate 6, Figure 2) and low-grade imbeciles (Plates 7 and 8, Figure 2)? The only reliable difference between them that I could discern from the photographs is that only low-grade imbeciles stood with their feet together military fashion. Perhaps there was some (unstated) neurological reason for this; but such a distinction could hardly be definitive in any case because three out of the eight low-grade imbeciles stood with their feet apart.

For the low-grade imbecile women (Plate 8, Figure 2), four of the eight (those shown full length) could also have been shown in the lower grades. Perhaps the hands-behind-the-back pose of Cases N and P was meant to indicate higher intelligence, but Case F (Plate 5), an idio-imbecile male, also stood with his hands behind his back. The presence of the five head-and-shoulder portraits (more typical of higher grades) was the only strong point of demarcation from the lower grades. Thus, Case O could just as well be placed under middle- or high-grade imbeciles as low-grade imbecile, and the square frames and frontal pose seemed to be the only reason why Cases L and M were here and not in the higher grades. Thus, for the women at least, the category “low-grade imbecile” was created by including four head and shoulder photographs with four photographs that could just as easily have been labeled idio-imbecile and one studio portrait that could have been labeled high-grade. For Plate 8, then, the authors relied on the editorial convention of the head and shoulder frame (a higher-grade convention) to raise the overall image of the page from idio-imbecile to low-grade imbecile. Thus, this classification was an illusion.

The presence or absence of the helping hand was one clear visual demarcation between grades up to and including idio-imbecile and the remaining higher grades. Thus, there appears to be no helping hand present in grades above idio-imbecile, indicating that this was definitely an image signifying “low-grade.”

The middle-grade imbecile was “the first to approximate in the slightest degree the normal” (Barr & Malony, 1920, p. 50). It was also the grade at which studio portraits become the majority and where couples first appeared. However, the first page of photographs devoted to middle-grade imbecility (Plate 9, Figure 3) was also an illusion. The page comprised two groups of photographs, those showing full-length portraits and those showing three-quarter length or head-and-shoulder portraits. All the full-length photographs could have been placed as low-grade imbeciles (Plate 7, Figure 2), and the three remaining photographs as high-grade (Plate 12, Figure 3), leaving no one to exemplify the “middle-grade.” Thus, Plate 9 (Figure 3) was another illusion created by encouraging the viewer to make some sort of “visual average” between the low-grade (full-length) and the high-grade (studio) images. The visual average of the two types of images was somewhere between low and high-grade—namely, the “middle-grade.”

In Plate 10 (Figure 3), also of middle-grade imbeciles, all but one of the photographs (Cases J and K) could have been placed as high-grade imbeciles. Only Cases J and K, being full-length (consistent with the lower-grade convention) but also shown wearing stylish clothing (higher grade convention) could have been classified as “middle-grade,” having both high and low-grade imagery. Thus, except for the presence of this one photograph, the category “middle-grade imbecile” could have been absorbed under adjacent classifications.

The characteristics of the high-grade imbecile (Plates 11 and 12, Figure 3) included studio settings (e.g., elaborate chair, swings, pedestals), less than full-length framing (three-quarter or head-and-shoulder), a variety of poses (full frontal being rare), more stylish clothing, and the presence of what may be called symbols of civilization or culture (e.g., books, jewelry, military uniforms, and gardens). All of these were editorial in nature. Moreover, it is not clear to me how these images differed from typical people. If the individuals shown did not look feeble-minded, how did they illustrate “feeble-mindedness”?

Exactly what theory of mental functioning could link feeble-mindedness with these visual characteristics is hard to imagine. It would appear that the “ascending scale of mental defect” coincided with an ascending scale of socially valued characteristics. The bottom of the scale carried images of abnormality, disability, and dependence (e.g., plain clothing and helping hands), whereas the upper parts of the scale carried images of independence and achievement (studio portraits, stylish clothing, books, and jewelry). There was no neurological reason why studio portraits and good clothes should not have been as valid for “idiots” as for “high-grade imbeciles.”

These grades and types were supposed to be real enough to see—the camera was believed at the time to provide objective documentation—yet several of the classifications (e.g., the middle-grade imbecile) were illusory, and some photographs even contradicted the written text, for example, when idiots supposedly in constant motion were shown standing still. Of course, one cannot say that these classifications were not justified under other (nonvisual) criteria, but the use of photographs to illustrate the categories is highly questionable. Yet the sheer number of photographs in an apparently logical and orderly sequence gave the strong impression that feeble-mindedness was now well-recognized and understood and that the classification scheme had strong validity.

Bogdan (1988) defined mode of presentation as a “standardized set of techniques, strategies, and styles” (p. 104) for depicting particular photographic subjects. Modes of presentation may be used to create a certain image, such as that of “freak” in freak show presentations. Thus, a person with a demonstrable physical difference, such as extreme height or excessive hair, is not a “freak” until a detailed presentation has been worked up that exaggerates the physical differences by using appropriate clothing, sets and props, and adding an accompanying historical sketch of the person's birth and early life circumstances. Thus, a “very tall man” only becomes a “giant” when he is presented using the conventions of giant (such as with a large hat and arms outstretched). Without these modes of presentation a “giant” is merely a “very tall man.”

In the same way, Barr's classification scheme may be seen to be an elaborate presentation of “feeble-mindedness” using various photographic conventions. That is, feeble-mindedness was not so much an actual neurological entity reflected in a visible difference in appearance (physiognomy) that could be communicated photographically but a social construction (Berger & Luckman, 1966; Blumer, 1969; Schneider, 1985). For example, idiots were people shown with helping hands, poor clothing, and in full length. High-grade imbeciles were people shown in elegant clothing and framed in head and shoulder. Thus, one could ask what would happen if “idiots” were photographed in stylish clothes in a studio setting at three-quarter length or less. Would viewers still see “idiocy”?

In defense of the photographs, one must also raise some possibilities. First, there did appear to be some validity in physiognomy in relation to differences in the extremes of mental defect; “idiots” did look different from “high-grade imbeciles” on some somatic dimensions, such as coordination and open mouths. Second, the photographs themselves may not have illustrated the concepts they were supposed to very well due to technological limitations. This was acknowledged in the text in some cases, for example, Case F (Plate 7, Figure 2) had this comment in the case description: “The distance between F's eyes is very short; and the head is oxycephalic, although it does not show well in the picture” (Barr & Malony, p. 42). However, the photograph presumably had enough merit as illustrating something to be included in the text despite its lack of clarity in certain aspects.

Third, it may be that at that time period there was a body of knowledge and expertise relating to the visual recognition of feeble-mindedness and the interpretation of photographs that was not recorded in writing or may even have been unconscious, and that this “secret knowledge” is now lost to us. However, such secret knowledge seems to go against using photographs when the textbooks were specifically written to teach students the ways and means of recognizing feeble-mindedness. As such, the authors made a conscious effort to “spell out” the differences between the various types and grades, not mystify them.

Believing is Seeing

Cultural value judgments are an inevitable part of defining human differences as a disease or disability, and the eugenics era is a particularly good example of this (Pernick, 1997). Coleman (1997) noted that the perceptual processing of human differences using stereotypes, “typifications,” and categorizations is universal—humans have, and probably always will, find ways to categorize and stereotype other human beings. Thus, Barr's classification system may be seen as one important example of categorizing and stereotyping people “recognized” to be feeble-minded that was created and informed by the cultural value judgments of professionals during the eugenics era.

I think we have to assume that Barr really did believe he could diagnose feeble-mindedness from appearance and that many others did also. Once eugenicists were trained in recognizing feeble-mindedness, it is not surprising that they could believe there existed an “appalling amount of defectiveness” (Goddard, 1912, p. 16).

The nonvalidity of associating mental age with appearance was eventually acknowledged by Popenoe (1930), a leading California eugenicist, in an article entitled “The stupid and the brilliant—can you tell them apart?” In this article photographs were used of boys of similar chronological age and in similar clothing and settings. In other words, the photographs eliminated differences in the visual conventions described above. Popenoe found that people guessed the boys' intelligence quotients no better than chance. People could not predict intelligence based on appearance in any reliable way, except for three or four photographs depicting the lowest intelligence.

Examples of scientists believing in something so much that they actually see it is not uncommon. One well-known example is that of the famous astronomer Percival Lowell believing he saw canals on the surface of the planet Mars and concluding that they were Martian irrigation systems and the work of intelligent beings. He was not the only one.

People seemed to want to believe in Martians. Telescope sales soared, and backyard observers reported detecting light signals from the planet. One newspaper published the claim that certain dark markings on the planet's surface spelled the words “The Almighty” in Hebrew. (Wilford, 1990, p. 26)

Despite much compelling evidence to the contrary, Lowell never gave up his belief in canals and intelligent beings on Mars (Wilford, 1990).

Eugenicists were wrong about the correlation between appearance and feeble-mindedness. Most finally admitted it. However, for people labeled feeble-minded, Barr's classification was a costly mistake because it fueled eugenics ideology and its many subsequent abuses (e.g., Black, 2003). We can only imagine how many ordinary, “unrecognized” lives were disrupted and changed forever through such recognition.

References

References
Barr
,
M. W.
1904
.
Mental defectives: Their history, treatment and training.
Philadelphia: Blakiston
.
Barr
,
M.
and
A. B.
Maloney
.
1920
.
Types of mental defectives.
Philadelphia: Blakiston
.
Berger
,
P. L.
and
T.
Luckman
.
1966
.
The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge.
New York: Anchor
.
Black
,
E.
2003
.
War against the weak: Eugenics and America's campaign to create a master race.
New York: Four Walls Eight Windows
.
Blumer
,
H.
1969
.
Symbolic interactionism.
Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall
.
Bogdan
,
R.
1988
.
Freakshow: Presenting human oddities for amusement and profit.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press
.
Bogdan
,
R.
and
S.
Biklen
.
1992
.
Qualitative research for education (2nd ed).
Boston: Allyn & Bacon
.
Carlson
,
E. A.
2001
.
The unfit: A history of a bad idea.
Cold Spring Harbor, NY: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
.
Chorover
,
S. L.
1979
.
From genesis to genocide: The meaning of human nature and the power of behavior control.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
.
Coleman
,
L.
1997
.
Stigma: An enigma demystified.
In L. Davis. (Ed.), The disability studies reader (pp. 216–231) New York: Routledge
.
Corbin
,
J.
and
A.
Strauss
.
1990
.
Grounded theory research: Procedures, canons, and evaluative criteria.
Qualitative Sociology
13
/
1
:
3
21
.
Davenport
,
C. B.
1911
.
Heredity in relation to eugenics.
New York: Holt
.
Davies
,
S. P.
1930
.
Social control of the mentally deficient.
New York: Crowell
.
Diamond
,
H. W.
1976
.
On the application of photography to the physiognomic and mental phenomena of insanity.
In S. Gilman (Ed.), The face of madness: Hugh W. Diamond and the origin of psychiatric photography (pp. 19–39). Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press. (Original work published 1856)
.
Dowdall
,
G. W.
and
J.
Golden
.
1989
.
Photographs as data: An analysis of images of a mental hospital.
Qualitative Sociology
12
:
183
213
.
Elks
,
M.
1993
.
The “lethal chamber”: Further evidence for the euthanasia option.
Mental Retardation
31
:
201
207
.
Fernald
,
W. E.
1912
.
The burden of feeble-mindedness.
Journal of Psycho-Asthenics
17
:
85
99
.
Gilman
,
S. L.
(
Ed.
).
1976
.
The face of madness: Hugh Diamond and the origin of psychiatric photography.
Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press
.
Gilman
,
S. L.
1982
.
Seeing the insane.
New York: Wiley
.
Glaser
,
B. G.
and
A. L.
Strauss
.
1967
.
The discovery of grounded theory.
New York: Aldine
.
Goddard
,
H. H.
1912
.
The Kallikak family: A study in the heredity of feeble-mindedness.
New York: Macmillan
.
Goddard
,
H. H.
1914
.
Feeblemindedness: Its causes and consequences.
New York: Macmillan
.
Goddard
,
H. H.
1915
.
The criminal imbecile: An analysis of three remarkable murder cases.
New York: Macmillan
.
Haller
,
M.
1963
.
Eugenics: Hereditarian attitudes in American thought.
New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press
.
Hollander
,
R.
1989
.
Euthanasia and mental retardation: Suggesting the unthinkable.
Mental Retardation
27
:
55
61
.
Kevles
,
D. J.
1985
.
In the name of eugenics: Genetics and the issues of human heredity.
Berkeley: University of California Press
.
Lombroso
,
C.
1887
.
Criminal man.
New York: Putnam
.
Ludmerer
,
K. M.
1972
.
Genetics and American society: A historical appraisal.
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press
.
Morel
,
B. A.
1857
.
Traite des degenerescences physiques, intellectuelles et morales de l'espece humaine et des causes qui produisent ces varietes maladives.
Paris: Bailliere
.
Ollenrenshaw
,
R.
1961
.
Medical illustration in the past.
In E. F. Linssen (Ed.), Medical photography in practice: A symposium (pp. 1–18). London: Fountain
.
Pernick
,
M.
1997
.
Defining the defective: Eugenics, aesthetics, and mass culture in early-twentieth-century America.
In D. Mitchell & S. Snyder (Eds.), The body and physical difference: Discources of disability (pp. 89–110). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press
.
Popenoe
,
P.
1930
.
Feeblemindedness today: A review of some recent publications on the subject.
Journal of Heredity
21
:
421
431
.
Schneider
,
J. W.
1985
.
Social problems theory: The constructionist view.
Annual Review of Sociology
11
:
209
229
.
Talbot
,
E. S.
1901
.
Degeneracy: Its causes, signs, and results.
London: Scribner
.
Wilford
,
J. N.
1990
.
Mars beckons: The mysteries, the challenges, the expectations of our next great adventure in space.
New York: Knopf
.

Author notes

Author: Martin A. Elks, PhD, Director, Bucks County Association of Independent Support Brokers, 1282 Estate Dr., West Chester, PA 19380. MartinElks@aol.com