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The Orphans of Davenport: Eugenics, the Great Depression, and the War over Children's Intelligence

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“Doomed from birth” was how psychologist Harold Skeels described two toddler girls at the Iowa Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home in Davenport, Iowa, in 1934. Their IQ scores, added together, totaled just 81. Following prevailing eugenic beliefs of the times, Skeels and his colleague Marie Skodak assumed that the girls had inherited their parents’ low intelligence and were therefore “Doomed from birth” was how psychologist Harold Skeels described two toddler girls at the Iowa Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home in Davenport, Iowa, in 1934. Their IQ scores, added together, totaled just 81. Following prevailing eugenic beliefs of the times, Skeels and his colleague Marie Skodak assumed that the girls had inherited their parents’ low intelligence and were therefore unfit for adoption. The girls were sent to an institution for the “feebleminded” to be cared for by “moron” women. To Skeels and Skodak’s astonishment, under the women’s care, the children’s IQ scores became normal. Now considered one of the most important scientific findings of the twentieth century, the discovery that environment shapes children’s intelligence was also one of the most fiercely contested—and its origin story has never been told. In The Orphans of Davenport, psychologist and esteemed historian Marilyn Brookwood chronicles how a band of young psychologists in 1930s Iowa shattered the nature-versus-nurture debate and overthrew long-accepted racist and classist views of childhood development. Transporting readers to a rural Iowa devastated by dust storms and economic collapse, Brookwood reveals just how profoundly unlikely it was for this breakthrough to come from the Iowa Child Welfare Research Station. Funded by the University of Iowa and the Rockefeller Foundation, and modeled on America’s experimental agricultural stations, the Iowa Station was virtually unknown, a backwater compared to the renowned psychology faculties of Stanford, Harvard, and Princeton. Despite the challenges they faced, the Iowa psychologists replicated increased intelligence in thirteen more “retarded” children. When Skeels published their incredible work, America’s leading psychologists—eugenicists all—attacked and condemned his conclusions. The loudest critic was Lewis M. Terman, who advocated for forced sterilization of low-intelligence women and whose own widely accepted IQ test was threatened by the Iowa research. Terman and his opponents insisted that intelligence was hereditary, and their prestige ensured that the research would be ignored for decades. Remarkably, it was not until the 1960s that a new generation of psychologists accepted environment’s role in intelligence and helped launch the modern field of developmental neuroscience.. Drawing on prodigious archival research, Brookwood reclaims the Iowa researchers as intrepid heroes and movingly recounts the stories of the orphans themselves, many of whom later credited the psychologists with giving them the opportunity to forge successful lives. A radiant story of the power and promise of science to better the lives of us all, The Orphans of Davenport unearths an essential history at a moment when race science is dangerously resurgent.


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“Doomed from birth” was how psychologist Harold Skeels described two toddler girls at the Iowa Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home in Davenport, Iowa, in 1934. Their IQ scores, added together, totaled just 81. Following prevailing eugenic beliefs of the times, Skeels and his colleague Marie Skodak assumed that the girls had inherited their parents’ low intelligence and were therefore “Doomed from birth” was how psychologist Harold Skeels described two toddler girls at the Iowa Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home in Davenport, Iowa, in 1934. Their IQ scores, added together, totaled just 81. Following prevailing eugenic beliefs of the times, Skeels and his colleague Marie Skodak assumed that the girls had inherited their parents’ low intelligence and were therefore unfit for adoption. The girls were sent to an institution for the “feebleminded” to be cared for by “moron” women. To Skeels and Skodak’s astonishment, under the women’s care, the children’s IQ scores became normal. Now considered one of the most important scientific findings of the twentieth century, the discovery that environment shapes children’s intelligence was also one of the most fiercely contested—and its origin story has never been told. In The Orphans of Davenport, psychologist and esteemed historian Marilyn Brookwood chronicles how a band of young psychologists in 1930s Iowa shattered the nature-versus-nurture debate and overthrew long-accepted racist and classist views of childhood development. Transporting readers to a rural Iowa devastated by dust storms and economic collapse, Brookwood reveals just how profoundly unlikely it was for this breakthrough to come from the Iowa Child Welfare Research Station. Funded by the University of Iowa and the Rockefeller Foundation, and modeled on America’s experimental agricultural stations, the Iowa Station was virtually unknown, a backwater compared to the renowned psychology faculties of Stanford, Harvard, and Princeton. Despite the challenges they faced, the Iowa psychologists replicated increased intelligence in thirteen more “retarded” children. When Skeels published their incredible work, America’s leading psychologists—eugenicists all—attacked and condemned his conclusions. The loudest critic was Lewis M. Terman, who advocated for forced sterilization of low-intelligence women and whose own widely accepted IQ test was threatened by the Iowa research. Terman and his opponents insisted that intelligence was hereditary, and their prestige ensured that the research would be ignored for decades. Remarkably, it was not until the 1960s that a new generation of psychologists accepted environment’s role in intelligence and helped launch the modern field of developmental neuroscience.. Drawing on prodigious archival research, Brookwood reclaims the Iowa researchers as intrepid heroes and movingly recounts the stories of the orphans themselves, many of whom later credited the psychologists with giving them the opportunity to forge successful lives. A radiant story of the power and promise of science to better the lives of us all, The Orphans of Davenport unearths an essential history at a moment when race science is dangerously resurgent.

35 review for The Orphans of Davenport: Eugenics, the Great Depression, and the War over Children's Intelligence

  1. 4 out of 5

    Cat

    Vile and shameful time in not only our history, but the world's. Lobotomies were being performed at about the same time and, of course, there's the rise of Hitler (who was actually inspired by the US's treatment of Native Americans and later eugenicists to exterminate people.) In more recent times, there were the poor, neglected Romanian orphans. Nothing good comes of warehousing babies and young children. It was interesting reading more about Alfred Binet's work and how it influenced intelligen Vile and shameful time in not only our history, but the world's. Lobotomies were being performed at about the same time and, of course, there's the rise of Hitler (who was actually inspired by the US's treatment of Native Americans and later eugenicists to exterminate people.) In more recent times, there were the poor, neglected Romanian orphans. Nothing good comes of warehousing babies and young children. It was interesting reading more about Alfred Binet's work and how it influenced intelligence testing. The nature vs. nurture aspect was fascinating.. Home life related to parents income has also been shown to be a factor in how much children know at a young age. More wealth, more experiences, better vocabulary, etc... Poorer children have very limited experience, so less vocabulary. Doesn't make them less intelligent, but less educated. I have a limited back ground in the psychology discussed in the book, but I work with children of a variety of backgrounds and have found much in the book to still be true. Kid's benefit from preschool; it exposes them to ideas and knowledge they may not get at home. Breaks my heart to read books like this. Too often children were removed from lower income or or ill or single parents to give to better off people who wanted babies. That in it self caused some horrors... Much can be said about today's love/hate of babies and children. But that's another subject. So much sadness. At least it shows how we all got beyond those days (tho' these new ones aren't looking to good of late) There's still a lot of work to be done. What the future holds is anyone's guess... Good, well researched and readable book. I received a Kindle arc from Netgalley in exchange for a fair review.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Kendra

    This account of intelligence testing and the desire for creating smarter people, as it took place with the children abandoned by parents or otherwise without families and living in state institutions in Iowa is a very mixed bag. While author Brookwood frequently emphasizes her position on the abhorrence of eugenics, she also fails to interrogate the development of IQ tests and the other assessment tools used by researchers. Too often the slightly more humane eugenicists are celebrated over their This account of intelligence testing and the desire for creating smarter people, as it took place with the children abandoned by parents or otherwise without families and living in state institutions in Iowa is a very mixed bag. While author Brookwood frequently emphasizes her position on the abhorrence of eugenics, she also fails to interrogate the development of IQ tests and the other assessment tools used by researchers. Too often the slightly more humane eugenicists are celebrated over their worse colleagues, and this makes for a rather contradictory narrative.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Mike

  4. 4 out of 5

    Deborah Eicher

  5. 4 out of 5

    Jovany Agathe

  6. 5 out of 5

    Janette Mcmahon

  7. 5 out of 5

    Krzysiek (Chris)

  8. 4 out of 5

    Kristen

  9. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca Munro

  10. 5 out of 5

    Alex Richey

  11. 5 out of 5

    Alex The Ninja Squirrel

  12. 5 out of 5

    ♥ Sandi ❣

  13. 5 out of 5

    Frederick Rotzien

  14. 5 out of 5

    Sam

  15. 4 out of 5

    Micielle

  16. 4 out of 5

    Lynn Demsky

  17. 5 out of 5

    Deborah Gerhart

  18. 4 out of 5

    Douglass Abramson

  19. 5 out of 5

    Kye Cantey

  20. 4 out of 5

    Nancy Adams

  21. 4 out of 5

    Wendy Phung

  22. 5 out of 5

    Kathy

  23. 5 out of 5

    Lydia Wallace

  24. 5 out of 5

    Christine Eckstein

  25. 5 out of 5

    Dayna

  26. 4 out of 5

    David

  27. 5 out of 5

    AC

  28. 5 out of 5

    Bailey S.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Melissa ahmed

  30. 5 out of 5

    Shelley

  31. 4 out of 5

    Staci Suhy

  32. 4 out of 5

    Kayla Kemner

  33. 5 out of 5

    Mbk

  34. 4 out of 5

    Melisa Dowling

  35. 5 out of 5

    Bettye Short

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