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Holiday Lights and Horror!
Author: TriSec    Date: 11/21/2020 11:33:40

Good Morning.

This dark part of American History lies within walking distance of the TriSec compound.


We simply call it the "Fernald", but it is officially the "Walter E. Fernald Developmental Center".

Founded in Boston in 1848, it eventually migrated to the more pastoral setting of the then-wooded suburb of Waltham. Just reading the dry description from Wikipedia should give you pause.

The Fernald Center, originally called the Experimental School for Teaching and Training Idiotic Children, was founded in Boston by reformer Samuel Gridley Howe in 1848 with a $2,500 appropriation from the Massachusetts State Legislature. The school gradually moved to a new permanent location in Waltham between 1888 and 1891. It would eventually comprise 72 buildings total, located on 196 acres (0.79 km2). At its peak, some 2,500 people were confined there, most of them "feeble-minded" boys.

Under its third superintendent, Walter E. Fernald (1859–1924), an advocate of eugenics, the school was viewed as a model educational facility in the field of mental retardation. It was renamed in his honor in 1925, following his death the previous year. The institution was involved in several different procedures that used the residents as test subjects some of which include sterilization and radiation experimentation.

The institution did serve a large population of children with cognitive disabilities (referred to as “mentally retarded children”), but The Boston Globe estimates that upwards of half of the inmates tested with IQs in the normal range. In the 20th century, living conditions were spartan or worse; approximately 36 children slept in each dormitory room. There were also reports of physical and sexual abuse.

Perhaps most infamously, a lengthy study involving radioactive oatmeal was conducted, using human subjects to see what would happen. Rather Mengelesque, don't you think?

The Fernald School was the site of the 1946–53 joint experiments by Harvard University and MIT that exposed young male children to tracer doses of radioactive isotopes. Documents obtained in 1994 by the United States Department of Energy revealed the following details:

-The experiment was conducted in part by a research fellow sponsored by the Quaker Oats Company.
-MIT Professor of Nutrition Robert S. Harris led the experiment, which studied the absorption of calcium and iron.
-The boys were encouraged to join a "Science Club", which offered larger portions of food, parties, and trips to Boston Red Sox baseball games.
-The 57 club members ate iron-enriched cereals and calcium-enriched milk for breakfast. In order to track absorption, several radioactive calcium tracers were given orally or intravenously.
-Radiation levels in stool and blood samples would serve as dependent variables.
In another study, 17 subjects received iron supplement shots containing radioisotopes of iron.
-Neither the children nor their parents ever gave adequate informed consent for participation in a scientific study.

The Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, reporting to the United States Department of Energy in 1994, reported on these experiments:

In 1946, one study exposed seventeen subjects to radioactive iron. The second study, which involved a series of seventeen related subexperiments, exposed fifty-seven subjects to radioactive calcium between 1950 and 1953. It is clear that the doses involved were low and that it is extremely unlikely that any of the children who were used as subjects were harmed as a consequence. These studies remain morally troubling, however, for several reasons. First, although parents or guardians were asked for their permission to have their children involved in the research, the available evidence suggests that the information provided was, at best, incomplete. Second, there is the question of the fairness of selecting institutionalized children at all, children whose life circumstances were by any standard already heavily burdened.

It has been claimed that the highest dose of radiation that any subject was exposed to was 330 millirem the equivalent of less than one year's background radiation in Denver. A 1995 class-action suit resulted in a 1998 District court decision awarding the victims a $1.85 million settlement from MIT and Quaker.

Over time, the eugenic experiments conducted at the Fernald, and the tortuous human vivisection were eventually debunked...and the school itself fell into decline as funding dried up and efforts were re-focused on more modern treatment means. It was actually Governor Mitt Romney that finally closed the school for good around 2003.

It remained vacant and crumbling for a decade. Eventually, local official Tom Stanley pushed through a 'fire sale' at the state level and the City of Waltham picked up the property for pennies on the dollar - allegedly to prevent it from being re-developed inappropriately, and to preserve a significant amount of green space in the now heavily-urbanized Waltham.

So it is baffling that Waltham has granted a permit to the Lion's Club to operate a "holiday spectacular" on the property next month. A massive drive-through light and sound display is to be raised, and of course a slight fee will be collected to help the Club with their limited fundraising efforts this year.

It hasn't sat well with many of the locals.

WALTHAM (AP) — A battle is underway in a Boston suburb over whether it is appropriate to hold a joyous holiday celebration at the site of a now-closed institution where developmentally disabled children were once abused, neglected and warehoused under deplorable conditions.

The Waltham Lions Club drive-thru Greater Boston Holiday Light Show, a fundraiser for the service organization, is planned for the site of the Walter E. Fernald Developmental Center.
Calling use of the site “disgraceful,” a coalition of disability rights advocates has asked Waltham Mayor Jeannette McCarthy to pull the club’s permit and find an alternate site for the event scheduled to run from Nov. 27 to Jan. 3.

The problem is not with the Lions, who “do amazing work,” said Alex Green, an adjunct lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School and an activist who took part in a protest Friday to try to get the city to change its mind.

“We understand everybody needs a boost like a light show right now,” said Green, who also launched an online petition to get the city to change its mind. “Our only argument is this is not the place for one. This is a site with an enormous amount of torment in its history.”

The Fernald Center, which moved to Waltham in the late 19th century, became a place where the developmentally disabled, including those with cerebral palsy and Down syndrome, were shut away from a society of which they were deemed unfit to be a part.

Walter Fernald himself was a proponent of eugenics and forced sterilizations, which occurred at the institution, according to a letter to the mayor from Phillip Kassel, executive director of the Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee.

One experiment in the 1940s and ’50s involved feeding residents radioactive oatmeal.

“A city’s holiday celebration ought to be a source of joy for the entire community, particularly in these divisive times and in the midst of a spiking pandemic that is generating unprecedented stresses in our communities,” he wrote. “This cannot happen at the planned site.”

A message was left Friday with McCarthy.

The Fernald itself is receding into history; many of the historic buildings are in increasing disrepair. The facility itself remains behind miles of fencing, and the once-public streets through the area are all blocked off. No plan has ever emerged to either re-habilitate the buildings, or turn areas into public parkland, which was the point of buying the property in the first place.

As the advocates calling for the cancellation of the light show have pointed out, there is no memorial, no historic marker, no nothing. Once again, we seem to be living what the fictional Dr. Who once called "America's Superpower" - our ability to forget.

But on the backside of nearby Mackerel Hill, downslope from the equally infamous Metropolitan State Hospital, lies the small "Metfern Cemetery". There are about 300 numbered graves there of victims of both institutions. I have hiked past the site multiple times, and always stop to wonder.


There are no names here. Only numbers. While it is tidy, it is also somewhat unkempt and surrounded by overgrown trees and the natural parkland it's in the middle of.

Somewhere....somebody knows who these people are. It's up to us to remember them.


2 comments (Latest Comment: 11/22/2020 21:29:54 by BobR)
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