Authors: Carl Zimmer
Henry Goddard first came to the Vineland Training School to build a science of childhood, having escaped a disastrous childhood of his own. Around the time he was born in 1869 in Maine, his father was gored by a bull. The injury eventually cost the family their farm, and for a few years Goddard's father eked out a living as a day laborer before dying in
1878. Goddard spent the next three years with his older sister and her family, as his mother, a self-appointed Quaker missionary, vanished for months at a time to preach at Friends meetings across Canada and the Midwest. At age twelve, Goddard was sent to Providence on a scholarship to a Quaker boarding school. “
Nobody knew me or cared a whit whether I lived or died,” Goddard recalled in his old age.
After finishing his time in “
Quaker jail,” as he called it, Goddard then went to Haverford College. He wasn't any fonder of that school either, considering it nothing but “a convenient way to keep the sons of rich Philadelphia Quakers out of mischief.” He came to hate the very institution of school. It was all a pointless exercise in the rote memorization of Latin and Greek, along with the endless worry that students would fall into sin. It made no difference to how people turned out, Goddard believed; the students from wealthy families went on to prosperous lives, while poorer students like Goddard were left to struggle. “
In all my adult life,” he later said, “I have felt keenly the defects of my early training.”
For all Goddard's scorn of schools, he ended up spending his life around them. He coached football at the University of Southern California for a while before teaching at high schools in Ohio and Maine. But at age thirty, Goddard heard a lecture by the psychologist G. Stanley Hall that changed how he thought about education. Hall told his audience that schools could scientifically liberate the minds of children. Hall's own research had persuaded him that the mental development of children follows a predictable course, just like the metamorphosis of a wingless nymph into a dragonfly. If teachers and psychologists joined forces, Hall said, they could create a new kind of education based on science rather than superstitious traditions.
Goddard immediately quit his teaching job and traveled to Massachusetts to study under Hall at Clark University. After getting his PhD, Goddard moved to West Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1899 to become a psychologist at the state normal school. There, he began gathering the data that psychologists would need to transform teaching. Teachers from across Pennsylvania used Goddard's eye charts to test the vision of their students so that he
could figure out how many children were doing badly in school simply because they had trouble reading books and chalkboards. Goddard sent out questionnaires to gauge the moral development of students from one grade to the next. Much as his mother had traveled to Quaker meetings, Goddard went from conference to conference to preach to teachers about the glory of Child Study. He asked his audiences to join him on a quest for “
a law of child nature which we can bank upon when once we have comprehended it.”
At a 1900 conference, Goddard met E. R. Johnstone, who invited him to visit the Vineland Training School. Goddard was impressed. The Vineland teachers didn't mindlessly deliver the same lessons over and over again. They experimented, revising their teaching based on what helped the students improve. Johnstone insisted that Goddard spend some time during his visit talking with the students themselves. “
I never dreaded anything more,” Goddard later admitted. But it went better than he had expected, perhaps because Goddard knew what it felt like to be an abandoned child. Afterward, Johnstone congratulated him. “You talked as though you were accustomed to talking to the feeble-minded,” he said.
Goddard came away from his visit convinced that Vineland was an exceptional placeâ“
a great family of happy, contented, but mentally defective children,” he said. Over the next few years, he stayed in close contact with Johnstone, sharing ideas about using science to bring about a new way of teaching. In 1906, Johnstone invited Goddard to become Vineland's first director of research.
To Goddard, it was a rare scientific opportunity. Vineland could reveal clues about the human mind that studies on ordinary children could not. Anatomists often studied simpler animalsâflatworms or sea urchins, for exampleâto find important lessons that applied to humans as well. Psychologists might gain the same advantage by studying less complex minds. “The training school at Vineland, N.J., is
a great human laboratory,” Goddard declared.
But when Johnstone announced Goddard's appointment, he also let slip a gloomier motivation for bringing aboard a psychologist. The feebleminded
were continuing to have more children, who were inheriting their defects, and society thus faced an impending disaster.
Degeneracy is increasing, neurotic disease is increasing, defectiveness is increasing,” Johnstone warned. Building more Vinelands wouldn't hold back the tide. “By the time more room is made it is filled and the waiting-list is larger than before.
“We must stop the increase,” Johnstone warned. “And that means to find where they come from, why they come and what to do to check the stream.”
Goddard didn't share Johnstone's bleak view, at least not at first. He hoped that someday his research at Vineland could lead to treatments that could lift up the mental state of the feebleminded. “Suppose we could find
some way of exercising these brains so that other cells took up the work of the missing cells!” he mused in 1907. “Would we not find a far greater degree of intelligence than we have ever dreamed of?”
Before unlocking hidden intelligence, Goddard would first need a way to scientifically measure it. He wanted to assign intelligence a number, the way doctors measured blood pressure or body temperature or weight. In Goddard's day, doctors regularly diagnosed children as imbeciles and idiots, but they did so mostly by intuition. Goddard tried to craft a test that could drill down to the biological basis of intelligence. He guessed that the speed of the nervous system was crucial, and so he would put Vineland students in front of an electric key and tell them to tap it with their finger as fast as they could. It worked badly. Some students couldn't even understand what he wanted them to do. Goddard tried other tests. He had the students squeeze a dynamometer as hard as they could, to thread needles, to draw straight lines. But whenever Goddard sat down to analyze the test scores, he found they didn't hang together. A student might do well at one and miserably at another.
After two years my work was so poor, I had accomplished so little, that I went abroad to see if I could not get some ideas,” Goddard later said.
In Europe, Goddard visited universities, schools, and laboratories to observe their research. While he was staying in Belgium, a physician offhandedly gave him a sheet of paper with a series of questions on it. It was
a new exam called the Simon-Binet test, named after its creators, the French psychologist Alfred Binet and his assistant, ThÃ©odore Simon. At the request of the French government, Binet and Simon set out to design an exam schools could use to identify children who would need special help in class.
Binet recognized he would need a way to measure intelligence, “
otherwise called good sense, practical sense, initiative, the faculty of adapting one's self to circumstances,” he said. But how could he measure this quality, like a thermometer measures temperature? Instead of trying to measure it directly, Binet decided to measure how each child compared to other children.
Ordinary children got better over time at mental tasks. Highly intelligent ones seemed to Binet to develop faster, while feebleminded children lagged behind. Binet and Simon determined the average score that children of a given age got on a given test. They could then test other children and assign them a mental age based on how well they scored. A feebleminded ten-year-old might have a mental age of five.
It shocked Goddard that a psychologist would try to measure the human mind without some finely machined instrumentâa chronoscope, perhaps, or an automatograph. All Binet claimed he needed was for children to answer some questions. Other European researchers warned Goddard that the Simon-Binet test was bogus, but he ended up tucking it into his papers anyway. When he arrived back in Vineland, he discovered it once more and decided to give it a try. After all, he had nothing left to lose.
Goddard administered the test to some of the Vineland students and then looked over the scores. The Simon-Binet test did a remarkably good job of matching the judgments of Vineland teachers. Students who had been determined to be idiots consistently got the lowest scores. The imbeciles did somewhat better, and the children who were simply slow and difficultâlike Emma Wolvertonâdid better still, their mental ages lagging just a few years behind their chronological ones.
Here, Goddard decided, was the measuring tool he had been searching for. Idiots had a mental age less than three; imbeciles, between three and seven. People like Emma Wolverton functioned at a higher level, but lacked a proper label. For those with a mental age between eight and twelve, Goddard reached back to his dreary classics classes and coined the word
, based on the Greek word for “fool.” Goddard even sliced each of these new categories into three subdivisions apiece: low-grade, medium-grade, and high-grade.
Once Goddard was done testing Vineland students, he cast his eye over other schools. He managed to get permission to send out five assistants to a nearby school district and test two thousand ordinary students. They found that 78 percent of children had a mental age within a year of their chronological age. Four percent were more than a year ahead, while 15 percent were two to three years behind. Trailing at the rear, 3 percent of the children were three years behind.
“These figures practically amount to
a mathematical proof of the accuracy of the Binet tests,” Goddard declared. The regularity of the scores, no matter who took the tests, convinced him that they were accurately measuring a biological traitâthe mysterious wellspring of intelligence in the brain. They may have also played a part in changing how he thought about intelligence itself. Instead of something malleable, which could be increased by strengthening brain cells, he came to see it as largely determined by heredity.
It cannot be cured,” Goddard concluded. “It is caused, in at least eighty per cent of cases, by disturbances of function in parents or grandparents that might have been prevented.”
When Goddard spoke this way, he betrayed his nineteenth-century concept of heredity. He shared the common belief that people who took up a life of crime or alcoholism might somehow taint future generations with their sins. Growing curious about the degeneration of his students, Goddard thumbed through Vineland's admission forms, looking for details about their families. He could find only a little information. To get more, he drafted an “
after-admission blank” for parents and physicians to fill out.
Goddard asked whether Vineland students had any relatives who were insane, alcoholic, feebleminded.
When the blanks came back filled out, Goddard was surprised at how many relatives suffered from these weaknesses. To gauge the full scope, Goddard wanted to hire a team of skilled assistants to “
collect data on heredity.”
How he would pay for the project, Goddard couldn't say. In the midst of this uncertainty, a letter arrived at the school in March 1909 like an answered prayer. One of the country's leading scientists,
a geneticist by the name of Charles Davenport, wanted to know if anyone at Vineland had data about the heredity of feeblemindedness.
Davenport had leaped to fame only a few years before writing to Vineland. He had earned a PhD in zoology at Harvard in 1892, going on to a solid but obscure career studying scallops and other marine animals. He moved to Cold Spring Harbor, a Long Island village, where he ran a summer school for biology teachers.
But Davenport had great ambitions far beyond beachcombing. He pioneered new statistical methods to make precise comparisons between animals, based on their size and shape. Once these methods had matured, Davenport predicted, “biology will pass
from the field of speculative sciences to exact sciences.” He struggled to use statistics to understand heredity, comparing parents to their offspring. When Mendel's work came to light in 1900, with its concepts of dominant and recessive characters, it hit Davenport like a lightning bolt to the skull.
Davenport persuaded the Carnegie Institution to turn Cold Spring Harbor from a sleepy summer school into a full-time research station for genetics. In 1904 the Station for Experimental Evolution opened its doors. Hugo de Vries traveled by train to Cold Spring Harbor and gave a speech to celebrate the event. He celebrated Davenport in particular as its director. “With him it will open up
wide fields of unexpected facts, bringing to light new methods of improvement of our domestic animals and plants,” de Vries said.
For his first few years as director, Davenport fulfilled that prediction. He brought together a team of scientists who embarked on studies on heredity, investigating flies, mice, rabbits, and ducks. George Shull, the botanist who would later inspect Luther Burbank's gardens, grew corn and primroses in the Cold Spring Harbor fields. Davenport himself studied chickens and canaries.
Inspecting his canaries, he concluded that the crest of feathers on their head was a dominant Mendelian trait.
But Davenport wasn't content with canaries. He wanted to decipher human heredity, too. Davenport couldn't study human heredity by raising experimental families. Instead, he set out to create a science of pedigrees. For centuries, people had been recording their genealogy, and sometimes those trees offered hints of heredity. The Habsburg jaw reappeared in generation after generation of royal portraits. In the nineteenth century, asylums kept records hinting that insanity tended to run in families. Davenport realized that if pedigrees were detailed enough, they might reveal Mendel's signature over many human generations.