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Idiots, imbeciles, and morons

Monday, 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!

Drexel University College of Medicine legacy finding aids: Parcelsus and Mary E. Walker

Friday, August 6th, 2010

Of all the different collections I have created finding aids for in Archivists’ Toolkit, two from the Drexel University College of Medicine stand out.  They are Hering’s Paracelsus Collection and the Lida Poynter collection on Mary E. Walker.  I had to do a fair amount of research to write detailed biography notes for each of these collections.  Hering’s Paracelsus collection is Dr. Constantine Hering’s personal collection of books that were first donated to Hahnemann University Hospital.   The collection is composed of books on, about, or written by the medieval doctor, scientist, and alchemist,  Philip Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim, who is best known now as Paracelsus.  The Lida Poynter collection on Mary E. Walker is composed of the research notes and a draft of Poynter’s unpublished biography on the suffragist, feminist, and Medal of Honor winner Dr. Mary E. Walker.  These two collections show the variety of material that can be found in just one archive.

Hering’s Paracelsus collection’s finding aid provided many challenges.  First it was a card catalog that had to be converted into a finding aid that would fit nicely in Archivists’’ Toolkit.  The cards were scanned and then made into a PDF that was then made into a Word document from which I could cut and paste the information.  As many people know, the Optical Character Recognition (OCR) process creates some mistakes in the text.  Also, only one or two cards were in English.  Through the process, which was actually sometimes more entertaining than tedious, I became well acquainted with old German and I enjoyed the chance to practice some high school and college Latin that I haven’t used in a long time.

Once the container list was entered, I began to do some research on Dr. Hering and Paracelsus.  Dr. Hering, the “father of homeopathy in America,” was interesting in his own right and he is the topic of another collection at DUCOM.  The breadth of activities in which Paracelsus was involved make him a fascinating topic, and there is a surprising amount of information that has survived about him.  He lived his short life in the early 1500s, a time period when people considered the ancient Greek and Roman doctors, Hippocrates and Galen, the authorities on medicine.  Paracelsus challenged many of the assumptions and established practices of the time, and helped bring medicine as a science beyond the ancient traditions.  He is credited with being the first one to say “it is the dose that makes the poison.”  Understanding this about Paracelsus makes it easy to see why the “father of homeopathy in America” wanted to learn everything he could about him.

The Lida Poynter collection on Mary E. Walker is about an equally fascinating individual.  Mary Walker was born in 1832 and died in 1919.  Her father had all his daughters work in the field with him and his son.  Since they were working in the fields, he wanted his daughters to be able to move freely and comfortably, so he banned his daughters from wearing heavy dresses and corsets.  He was also an amateur country doctor who believed most women’s fashions at the time were bad for their health.  This idea stayed with Mary and she devoted much of her life to dress reform.  She first experimented with trousers underneath dresses, then short skirts, eventually she abandoned the dress altogether and wore men’s suits that she altered to fit her frame.  She even wore a short skirt over trousers and a frock coat at her wedding in 1855.  She also had the word obey removed from the service, which in 1855 was remarkable.

Her father encouraged Mary to study medicine when she showed a talent for it.  When Mary was old enough to go to college, she went to Syracuse Medical College, the first medical school in the country to admit women.  She graduated as an M.D. and went on to open her own practice, which was not very successful.  At this point, the Civil War was getting underway and this is when her life gets even more interesting.

First she served in Washington D.C. as a volunteer in the army hospitals.  The doctor in charge was so impressed with her ability that he recommended that she be appointed an assistant surgeon, but she was repeatedly rejected because she was a woman.  After leaving and then coming back, she was finally given a commission and sent to Tennessee as the first female doctor in the Union army.  While serving on the front lines, she would often go unescorted and unarmed into enemy territory to offer medical aid to civilians.  She believed by doing this she would help turn the civilians to the Union cause.  She was also acting as a spy for the Union and reporting Confederate troop movements.  Eventually she was captured by the Confederacy, and later released as part of a prisoner exchange.

For her work with the Army, she was the first, and only, woman to be awarded the Medal of Honor.  In 1917 her Medal of Honor was rescinded along with 910 others when the requirements for receiving the Medal were changed.  She refused to return her Medal and wore it until her death in 1919.  Often police would stop and question her because she wore pants and was considered to be impersonating a man.  During these encounters when they would ask for her name, she would point to it on her Medal of Honor that was always pinned to her lapel.  In 1977, after many years of work by her grand-niece and a distant relative, President Carter restored her Medal of Honor.  This blog post only scratches the surface of this amazing woman’s life.

Legacy Finding Aids

Monday, July 12th, 2010

For the past two months I’ve been entering legacy finding aids into Archivists’ Toolkit.  So far, most of the finding aids I have entered have been from the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Pennsylvania.  I have also worked with finding aids from the Drexel University College of Medicine, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and I just started on a couple finding aids from the City of Philadelphia Archives.

The Penn finding aids were all electronic documents that I could easily cut and paste into the appropriate fields in Archivists’ Toolkit.  The finding aids were complete with extensive biographical/historical notes, scope and content notes, and detailed container lists.  I began with these because they were so complete and posed few obvious problems.

While the PACSCL/CLIR project is using MPLP to process collections at the individual repositories, the legacy finding aids that I am dealing with are for collections that have been processed to a variety of levels.  At Penn, all the finding aids are for collections that have been processed to the folder and sometimes item level.  The problems that did come up with these finding aids resulted from how detailed they were.  One collection had a 45 page biographical note.  Archivists’ Toolkit would not save this massive note and kept showing a bug report.  Thinking it was a formatting issue, I copied and pasted a few pages at a time and saved each time, until it produced the error report.  I then typed the note in Archivists’ Toolkit and saved until it produced the same error report.  This way I was able to confirm it was the size of the note that was producing the problem.  Another problem, with the same finding aid, was footnotes.  This was a very detailed biographical note and it referenced items in the collection.  Archivists’ Toolkit’s text entry is very basic and keeping most formatting that is in the original document is very difficult.  I was able to solve this by making the footnotes endnotes.

Drexel University College of Medicine’s finding aids often had detailed container lists with clearly identified series, so the data entry was rather straightforward.  However, each finding aid had only sketches or timelines for their biographical notes so I had to do some research and expand on them, which turned out to be a lot of fun, and I want to talk about them at greater length in a future post.

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s finding aids are a mix of standard finding aid, narrative description, and inventory.  So far, I have only worked on three collections.  The finding aid for the Mutual Assurance Company records, better known as Greentree, was fairly complete.  The problem with this collection was that it was written as a narrative rather than as a standard finding aid.  Many of the paragraphs began with a box number and a general description, and then finally, a list of what was in the box.  It was fairly easy to extract the box number, a general title, and the container list.  However, because it was a narrative, what would typically be the biographical note was spread throughout the entire document.  I was able to go through it and put it all together for a more traditional note.  Some of the other finding aids are more or less just container lists and I will need to write notes for them.

One thing I have learned over the past couple of months is that standardization is strongly needed in the archival community.  Learning about different attempts at standardization and standards that have been created is one thing, but this experience has shown me why it is needed.  That being said, it has also shown me how and why it is so difficult to create standards for archival collections.

Legacy finding aids entered into the Archivists’ Toolkit thus far:

Drexel University College of Medicine

  • Lida Poynter collection on Mary Walker, 1850-1946
  • Longshore Family papers, 1819-1946
  • Northwestern University Women’s Medical School records, 1870-1947
  • West Philadelphia Hospital for Women records, 1889-1932
  • Women’s Hospital of Philadelphia records, 1861-1964
  • University of Pennsylvania

  • Musical Fund Society records, circa 1820-1994
  • Musical Fund Society Supplementary records, circa 1820-2004
  • Mahler-Werfel papers, circa 1880-2004
  • Edward F. Fry papers, 1947-1992
  • Learned Collection on German-Language Theater, 1832-1898
  • The Records of the Women’s Health Concerns Committee, 1974-1984
  • Collection on the Physician’s Forum, 1939-1998
  • Paul Lowinger collection, 1951-1986
  • Historical Society of Pennsylvania

  • Mutual Assurance Company records (Greentree), 1784-1995
  • The records of the Second Baptist Church of Philadelphia, 1803-1972
  • Boies Penrose Pictorial Philadelphia collection, 1855-1992
  • These collections will be available for research soon!