The Orphans of Davenport: Eugenics, the Great Depression, and the War Over Children’s Intelligence

Liveright. Jul. 2021. 336p. ISBN 9781631494680. $28.95. HIST
With this riveting history of an unsung scientific breakthrough in the 1930s, psychologist Brookwood tells how U.S. state and federal governments, backed by mainstream psychologists, had for decades enforced eugenicist policies. Authorities had institutionalized and even sterilized tens of thousands of people, mostly women and children deemed “feeble-minded” on the basis of specious intelligence tests. But in 1934, psychologists Harold Skeels and Marie Skodak disproved the core eugenicist belief that intelligence was fixed and hereditary. They chanced upon this discovery at the Davenport Home, Iowa’s overcrowded state orphanage. Bereft of stimulation and caregiver attention, children at Davenport saw their intelligence quotient (IQ) test scores plummet after admission to the facility. Once placed with families, however, the children’s test scores rose and remained in what’s called the “average” IQ range for life. Skeels and Skodak determined that children who were placed with intellectually disabled, institutionalized women gained up to 56 points on their IQ tests. But most psychologists, including the formidable Lewis Terman of Stanford University, denounced and suppressed these discoveries. Not until the 1960s did a new generation of psychologists accept what seems obvious today: caregiving and education have an outsize role in child development.
VERDICT A remarkable unsung history, told with empathy, nuance, and a knack for character-driven storytelling.
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