Idiots, imbeciles, and morons

Written by Garrett Boos on January 10th, 2011

One of the more interesting finding aids to come my way in recent months was the finding aid for the Elm Hill Private School and Home for the Education of Feeble-Minded Youth records, from the College of Physicians Historical Medical Library. If you think that name isn’t politically incorrect enough, it was originally called the Institution for the Education of Idiots, Imbeciles, and Children of Retarded Development of Mind. The name of this institution generated a lot of discussion between Holly, Courtney, and me on how the meanings of words have changed over time. Elm Hill was founded in 1848 and closed in 1946 with only one name change. This means that feeble-minded was still a legitimate term in the mid 20th-century. Once I started digging into the different clinical terms that have been used over time (including the most recent terms: intellectual and developmental disabilities), I became even more interested.

First, the terms feeble-minded, idiot, imbecile, and moron were all clinical terms that were in full use at the turn of the century. Idiot, imbecile, and moron corresponded directly with a patient’s “mental age.” “Mental age” is an intelligence test score that describes the patient’s ability in terms of what is an average level for a certain age. This concept is still alive and well in different games such as Brain Age, a game for the Nintendo DS that tests players with different math games, and even Sudoku.

Now back to idiots, imbeciles, and morons. In the early 1900s, Dr. Henry H. Goddard proposed a classification system that linked the terms idiots, imbeciles, and morons to specific mental ages. An idiot was the lowest with a mental age of less than three years. An imbecile was next with a mental age of 3 to 7, and a moron was one with a mental age of 7 to 10. These terms also corresponded with IQ score ranges. Idiot was below 30, imbecile was between 30 and 50, and moron was between 50 and 70.

What’s interesting is these definitions survived with different clinical terms. Idiot became profound mental retardation, imbecile became severe mental retardation and moderate mental retardation, and finally moron became mild mental retardation. The IQ score ranges have been shifted slightly to account for the extra term. I couldn’t find a year or time period when the terms began to fall out of use but it seems to be in the 1950s. During the 1960s, the term “retarded” began to gain some of its derogatory connotations.

While doing some research on these terms, I came across the Journal of the American Medical Association, Volume 64, Issue 19, which dates from 1915. In the “Queries and Minor Notes” section, M. T. from New York asked, “What is the correct usage of the word ‘feeble-mindedness?’”

The Journal’s answer gave a small history of the use of the term. It said that feeble-mindedness has been used freely to describe mental defect and only in the beginnings of the 20th century did anyone attempt to give it a standard definition. In 1904 the British Royal Commission for the Feeble-minded recommended that the term be used to describe all “mentally defective children who needed institutional care, in the three ascending grades of idiot, imbecile, and feeble-minded proper.” As we have learned moron came to replace “feeble-minded proper” as the clinical term of choice. It was the American Association for the Study of the Feeble-minded that changed feeble-minded proper to moron in 1906. The Journal also noted that moron was still not completely adopted by the medical community even in 1915.

Over the past few decades, mental retardation has been slowly fading in favor of “mentally challenged,” “intellectual disability,” and “developmental disability.” Although this discussion has been going on for about thirty years, only in 2006 did the American Association on Mental Retardation change its name to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

So to sum up, “feeble-minded” was the umbrella term used to describe individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, with “idiot,” “imbecile,” and “moron” as the three degrees of disability. This concludes a state-of-the-art psychology lecture from 1906! And I think I will stick with the long, unwieldy terminology of today!

 

1 Comments so far ↓

  1. I’m finding it a bit late, but great article. I just published a book with the same title.

    To add another wrinkle to a fascinating story, did you know that the term “moron” was preceded by “moral imbecile?”

    Feeble-mindedness actually described more than just varying degrees of what is now commonly called “retardation” or “disability” and even included “illegitimate” children and unwed mothers. In fact many people whom we would consider “normal” today were considered “borderline” or “high grade morons” in the early to mid 20th century.

    Thanks again for the read!

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