F1 Information Sheet the Mental Deficiency Act and Eugenicist Thinking
Eugenics is defined as ‘the science of improving a human population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics’ and was a false science largely based on wrong ideas and statistics and prejudice and scapegoating.
In the C19th after Darwin published his theories on Evolution an increasing number of people thought these might apply to human beings and help get rid of those with criminal, immoral or drunken behaviour as well as those incapable of fully intellectually functioning-people with learning difficulties. All were described as being mentally deficient.
The introduction of compulsory education for all children in 1870 had shown that by 1880 47% of the elementary school population failed to reach Standard 4-the expected outcome. As teachers were paid by the results of their pupils pressure built up to address this mental deficiency in the lower classes.
The mentally deficient were classed as idiots, imbeciles, feeble minded and morally defectives. Long term unemployed, tramps, petty criminals, alcoholics and unmarried women who became pregnant were all seen morally defective.
The major concern was for the ‘stock’ or ‘gene pool’ and that if these groups were allowed to go on having children the British labour force would be not be able to compete with German or French workers and Britain and the British Empire would suffer decline.
Following a lot of campaigning particularly by the National Association of the Feeble Minded and the British Eugenics Society, a Royal Commission (1904)was set up to investigate the situation and make recommendations. In 1909 the Royal Commission identified 149,628 mentally deficient people in England and Wales, 65,509 were in proper provision with 6,990 in the workhouse and 4,700 on out relief, but large numbers not catered for who were seen as a threat.
Their dislike of the poor and lower orders was shown in believing they were inferior. The solutions put forward were ranged from extermination (Nazi Germany 1930’s and 1940’s) banning marriage between the mentally deficient ( USA and UK in 1920s) and others, compulsory sterilisation(USA in 37 states) and segregation in separate institutions or colonies away from the rest of the population with strict separation of the sexes. The ‘solution’ adopted in the UK.
1. Listen and Lee Humber talking about the origins of the Mental Deficiency Act 1913.
2. Now write down the main reasons for this Act of Parliament coming forward.
3. Now read the quotes below by a number of advocates of the segregation of the mentally deficient.
Mary Dendy, an active eugenicist campaigner in the 1890’s, in ‘Feeble Mindedness of Children of School Age’, asserted that children classified as mentally handicapped should be “detained for the whole of their lives” as the only way to “stem the great evil of feeble-mindedness in our country.”
“This is one of the most difficult of the many social problems confronting us today.It is however satisfactory to find that earnest efforts are being made to grapple with it and realise the elimination of degenerate stock is the way to provide high standards of racial vigour” W. Moorhouse, Chair Wakefield Board of Guardians, 1911
“Feeble minded women are almost invariably immoral, and if at large usually become carriers of venereal disease or give birth to children twice as defective as themselves. A feeble-minded woman who marries is twice as prolific as a normal woman… Every feeble-minded person, especially the high-grade imbecile, is a potential criminal needing only the proper environment and opportunity for the development and expression of his criminal tendencies. The unrecognised imbecile is the most dangerous element in society.” (Fenald, 1912)
“There was much debate about the loss of liberty for those with mental handicap in Parliament during the passage of the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act, but the liberty from which they required most protection was, in the view of society, the liberty to ‘repeat their type’ and thus increase the numbers of the degenerate and wasteral classes, with disastrous consequences for the entire community.” (Wormald and Wormald, 1914, ‘A Guide to the Mental Deficiency Act 1913’)
“The unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of the feebleminded classes, coupled with a steady restriction among all the thrifty, energetic and superior stocks constitutes a race danger. I feel that the source from which the stream of madness is fed should be cut off and sealed up before another year has passed.” Winston Churchill MP, Home Secretary at the time the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913 became law.
4. What are the main arguments that these campaigners are using. Make a list of these arguments.
5. For each of the arguments above say why you think they may be false.
The legal definition of Mental Deficiency in the 1913 Act was as follows.
IDIOTS – persons in whose case there exists mental defectiveness of such a degree that they are unable to guard themselves against common physical dangers.
IMBECILES – persons in whose case there exists mental defectiveness which, though not amounting to IDIOCY, is yet so pronounced that they are incapable of managing themselves and their affairs. Or, in the case of children, of being taught to do so.
FEEBLE-MINDED – persons in whose case there exists mental defectiveness which, though not amounting to IMBECILITY, is yet so pronounced that they require care, supervision and control for their own protection or for the protection of others. Or in the case of children, that they appear to be permanently incapable by reason of such defectiveness of receiving proper benefit from the instruction in ordinary school.
MORAL DEFECTIVENESS – persons in whose case there exists mental defectiveness coupled with strong vicious or criminal propensities and who require care, supervision and control for the protection of others.
6.What problems do you think administrators might have implementing this definition?
The new Intelligence measuring system developed by Binet, which tried to classify all the variety and richness of human thinking in one measure the Intelligence Quotient, was promoted as a way of classifying the various grades of mental deficiency.
Mild Mental Retardation
IQ = 50 to 70
Moderate mental retardation
IQ = 35 to 49
synonyms: imbecile; moderate mental subnormality
Severe mental retardation
IQ = 20 to 34
synonym: severe mental subnormality
Profound mental retardation
IQ under 20
synonyms: idiocy; profound mental subnormality
7. Listen to Lee Humber IQ http://www.pulse-project.org/node/495
8. What are the difficulties with trying to measure general intelligence?
In practice it was after the 1914-1918 War that Local Authorities started to really implement the mental deficiency Act by building many long stay colonies and hospitals and rounding up the mentally deficient and placing them there for life. Between 1920 when 10,000 people with learning difficulty were in institutions and 1946 when 60,000 were in institutions
9.Meanwood Park was built on the outskirts of Leeds in 1919 eventually housing 2000 inmates. Go to the website and read accounts http://www.meanwoodpark.co.uk/ and watch 7 minute film http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYcQMpDQeng&feature=player_embedded
10. Often people who were deaf or had cerebral palsy were incarcerated. Imagine you are one such person. Now write a letter to the Prime Minister as a person who was forcibly taken to Meanwood Park asking to be released and your reasons.
ii. The above classification can be compared to the following analysis of mental retardation in the International Classification of Diseases (9th revision – 1975): (Mental retardation is defined as intellectual impairment starting in early childhood.)