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Common Clay

Henry Herbert Goddard (1866-1957), the man who made morons

I imagine that the sexton at the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris is a very busy man. After all, he has to deal with the upheavals caused by Alfred Binet spinning in his grave, all day, every day.

In the late 19th century, Binet was a titan of the burgeoning field of psychology, and personally responsible for numerous breakthroughs in the sub-disciplines of developmental, social, experimental, and differential psychology. 

So it was no surprise that in 1904 the French government turned to Binet for help. France was then implementing its first real regime of compulsory primary education and teachers were having difficulty dealing with the influx of students, many of whom had never had any sort of formal schooling before and were having trouble adjusting. Teachers needed a quick way to determine which students needed extra attention and assistance before they became discouraged and dropped out of school.

Binet and his research assistant, Théodore Simon, came up with a devilishly clever solution to the problem: a series of thirty simple but not necessarily easy tasks. Through a series of experimental trials, Binet and Simon figured out how many tasks an “average” child of a given age would successfully complete. By comparing a child’s score for the average score of his age group, you could determine which children needed extra instruction. The lower a child’s “mental age” was when compared to their “physical age,” the more help they needed.

The test worked like a charm, but Binet wasn’t entirely happy with the results. He knew his test wasn’t a meaningful measure of anyone’s intelligence or potential, just a rough indication of how far they’d gone in their schooling. He was worried that others might confuse the nice neat “mental age” the test produced for a fixed quantitative measure, instead of the variable qualitative measure that it was intended to be. It felt awfully scientific, but it wasn’t. Someone who didn’t understand the test’s limitations could do a lot of damage.

Binet was right to be worried, because that someone had a name.

Henry Herbert Goddard (1866-1957)

Henry Herbert Goddard was born in Vassalboro, Maine in 1866. When Henry was still a young boy, his father was gored by a bull; he never quite recovered from his injuries, which forced him to sell the family farm and eventually cost him his arm, and later, his life. 

Despite the hardship caused by his father’s death, Henry’s mother and sisters made sure that he received a solid Quaker education at a series of boarding schools, and he was ultimately awarded a bachelor’s degree from Haverford College in 1887, a master’s degree in mathematics from the same institution in 1889 and a doctorate in psychology from Clark University in 1899.

Goddard served as a professor at the University of Southern California for one year in 1888, and spent the years between his masters degree and doctorate teaching at a series of Quaker schools. After receiving his doctorate, he took a position at the State Normal School in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

Education was not just a job for Goddard, but a calling. He felt that it was a way that he could help make the world a better place. It sounds great, unless you know that Goddard was a huge fan of eugenics.

From the moment Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution in 1859 there were people wondering how it could be turned into something practical. Some of them asked, how can we use evolution to improve humanity itself? That, more or less, is the idea behind eugenics. 

There was just one small problem: no one had any idea which traits were heritable. Obviously purely physical traits like height or hair color were heritable. But what about mental traits, like intelligence or curiosity or patience? Could acquired physical traits, like cardiovascular conditioning, be passed on? How about learned behaviors like artistic temperament or good posture or moral virtue? In the absence of hard facts, many eugenicists assumed on faith that all traits were heritable.

If that was the case, the easiest way to improve the human condition would be to crossbreed people with the most desirable traits. Treating human beings like prize cattle seemed somewhat distasteful, so most eugenicists promoted the opposite approach: culling those with undesirable traits from the herd through segregation and forced sterilization.

Sadly, that turned out to be a very popular idea. Everyone loves getting rid of undesirables, as long as they’re the ones defining what “undesirable” means. It’s also surprisingly easy to get people on board, since humans have been othering our enemies and reclassifying them as something lesser for millennia.

This being Victorian times, the list of undesirables was extensive and also quite moralistic and extremely racist. It included all of the non-white people of course. And most of the off-white peoples, like the Irish, Portuguese, Spanish, Italians, Greeks, Slavs, Russians and Jews. Also alcoholics, criminals, homosexuals, the promiscuous, the degenerate and immoral, the impoverished… and the feeble-minded.

The feeble-minded were of special interest to eugenicists, because they seemed to come out of nowhere. Feeble-minded parents gave birth to feeble-minded children, but an equally large number of them came from perfectly healthy and moral parents. If that was the case, how could you stop more feeble-minded children from being born?

Of course, there was a reason that feeble-mindedness seemed to come out of nowhere: it wasn’t a specific condition, but a catch-all term for undesirables who didn’t fit neatly into any other category. 

Some of the feeble-minded had heritable physical conditions like cerebral palsy or Down syndrome, or even environmental ones like fetal alcohol syndrome. Others had neurodivergent conditions like autism, dyslexia, or Tourette’s. Some were just stupid or under-educated. Others were suffering from mental illness. And some were just kids with behavioral problems ranging from juvenile delinquency to sass mouth. The only thing the feeble-minded had in common was that society considered them little better than animals, and had given up on them entirely.

By Henry Herbert Goddard’s reckoning, the feeble-minded made up half of America’s population and were the biggest threat to the country’s future. He made it his life’s mission to identify them, segregate from the general population, and make sure that they never ever had children.

To that end, in 1906 he accepted a position as the Director of Research at the Training School for Backward and Feeble-Minded Girls and Boys in Vineland, New Jersey.

At the time, there were hundreds of homes for the feeble-minded all across the country. Most of them were little better than prisons, but the Vineland School prided itself on being more humane than that. It endeavored to make the feeble-minded comfortable, happy, and productive members of society. At the very least, it tried to give them a purpose in life by training them to perform menial household chores for their betters.

Goddard spent his first few years at the Vineland School passively going with the flow: teaching, observing, and getting a feel for how things were done. By all accounts he was a wonderful educator; gentle, kind, and understanding. After a few years he knew enough to start making meaningful long-term reforms to the school’s structure and mission.

He also felt he knew enough to take the first step towards solving the problem of feeble-mindedness once and for all: figuring out how to identify them in the first place.

The Makings of a Moron

That meant establishing a dividing line that separated the “high-grade feeble-minded” from the dull but acceptable members of the toiling masses necessary for the functioning of society.

Early eugenicists had tried to identify the feeble-minded by measuring their physical characteristics, like the proportions of their limbs or the patterns of bumps on their heads. This didn’t work, partly because there was no single source of feeble-mindedness, but mostly because the then-accepted “sciences” of anthroposcopy and phrenology were actually pseudo-scientific junk. More effective methods would have to be found.

Henry Herbert Goddard became convinced that he’d found the perfect solution in Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon’s rudimentary intelligence test and the concept of mental age. He made the very first English translation of the test and began administering it to every one of the Vineland School’s 300 students, in the process ignoring every one of Binet’s warnings that the test was vague, unscientific, and not meant to be a true measure of intelligence.

Goddard used the data he acquired to refine the test and establish the long sought-after dividing line. Anyone who took the test and wound up with a mental age of three or less was an “idiot,” completely unable to function without constant supervision. Anyone with a mental age between four and seven was an “imbecile” capable of handling simple tasks but not much else. The “high-grade feeble-minded” had a mental age between eight and twelve and could handle complex tasks but had defects of character and intellect that only became apparent by observing their long-term behavior.

Goddard gave the “high-grade feeble-minded” a snappy new name: “morons,” a neologism he adapted from an ancient Greek word meaning foolish.

As scientific as Goddard’s intelligence test seemed, it was still completely arbitrary and failure carried catastrophic consequences. Score a thirteen on the test and you were free to do as you please and have as many kids as you wanted. Score a twelve and you were forbidden to breed and locked up in moron jail for the rest of your life. It didn’t matter if you missed the cutoff by a single question. As far as Goddard was concerned, your mental age was immutable — even though Binet had been very insistent that it wasn’t.

No amount of education or good environment can change a feeble-minded individual into a normal one any more than it can change a red-haired stock into a black-haired stock.


The Goddard translation of the Binet-Simon test proved to be the breakthrough that eugenics needed. It was trivial to administer and produced accurate results, or at least, it produced results that eugenicists could live with.

With that problem solved, Goddard turned his attention to the other part of the problem: proving that feeble-mindedness was an inheritable condition and not caused by environmental factors or upbringing.

The Kallikak Family

To that end, he hired a small army of field researchers and put them to work assembling detailed genealogies of the Vineland School’s students. The resulting family trees were then given a vigorous shaking to see if any ancestral morons dropped out. With any luck, this process would produce data showing that that feeble-mindedness was hereditary.

It succeeded beyond Goddard’s wildest dreams.

One of the school’s brightest field researchers, Elizabeth Kite, kept running into an odd problem. The family tree of her student subject was filled with feeble-minded aunts, uncles, and cousins, but in the course of her research she kept stumbling across another family with the same unusual surname and no history of feeble-mindedness. It was an annoying complication that made her work difficult.

Then, one day, Kite had a breakthrough: the two families had a common ancestor who lived 134 years ago, but the branches had diverged sharply since his time. And the source of that divergence appeared to provide rock-solid proof for the hereditary nature of feeble-mindedness.

Goddard turned Kite’s research into a short case study of the family. To protect them from prying eyes, he used a pseudonym: “The Kallikak Family,” a name that combined the Greek words for good (kallos) and bad (kakos) into a single word that showcased the split nature of the family tree.

While serving in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, one “Martin Kallikak” had a brief fling with a barmaid that produced an illegitimate child. After the war, he returned home, married a nice Quaker girl and had a few legitimate children. The two branches of the family could not have turned out any differently.

The barmaid proved to be feeble-minded, as did her son, who became the first of the “Bad Kallikaks.” The Bad Kallikaks lived in poverty, consorted with people of low character, and married other feeble-minded individuals. The family tree of the Bad Kallikaks had 480 members in total. Of those 143 were feeble-minded, 36 were illegitimate, 33 were sex perverts and prostitutes, 24 were alcoholics, 3 were epileptics, and there were a handful of criminals tossed in as well.

Meanwhile, Martin’s legitimate issue became the first of the “Good Kallikaks.” The Good Kallikaks lived comfortably, married into some of the most distinguished families in New Jersey, and showed no signs of feeble-mindedness, licentiousness, or criminality. Instead, they were doctors, lawyers, judges and university professors; upstanding citizens all.

It would be hard to imagine a more convincing proof that feeble-mindedness, immorality and criminality were heritable. The two branches of the family were as different as night and day — and the only difference between them was that one branch consorted with the feeble-minded, and the other didn’t.

The icing on the cake was Goddard’s current student, Martin’s great-great-great-granddaughter Deborah Kallikak. To a casual observer she looked like a perfectly lovely young woman who was a capable nurse, seamstress, and homemaker. Those looks hid the dull and vacuous eyes of a certifiable moron. Repeated tests showed Deborah had a mental age of nine. She was restless and excitable and had difficulty concentrating. She could not do complex math and still had to count on her fingers. Even worse, she had no self-control and was a slave to her animal passions.

Goddard couldn’t have asked for a better demonstration of the dangers of moronity. He wrote:

This is a typical illustration of the mentality of a high-grade feeble-minded person, the moron, the delinquent, the kind of girl or woman that fills our reformatories. They are wayward, they get into all sorts of trouble and difficulties, sexually and otherwise, and yet we have been accustomed to account for their defects on the basis of viciousness, environment, or ignorance…

Today if this young woman were to leave the institution she would at once become a prey to the designs of evil men or evil women and would lead a life that would be vicious, immoral, and criminal, though because of her mentality she herself would not be responsible. There is nothing that she might not be led into, because she has no power of control, and all her instincts and appetites are in the direction that would lead to vice.

He closed the book with a plea for the rest of America to follow the Vineland School’s lead and segregate and sterilize the feebleminded.

The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness was published in 1912. Two years later Goddard published a follow-up, Feeble-Mindedness: Its Causes and Consequences, which shored up his argument by recounting the genealogies of every student in the Goddard school and showing that they were chock full of morons.

The Kallikak Family that captured the public imagination. The stark picture it created of two families, sprung from the same root but oh-so-very different, made a lasting impression. Eugenicists, psychologists and educators praised it as scientific proof of their beliefs. Legislators hotly debated how to put the book’s recommendations into action. The educated shared their copies and clucked their tongues at the sorry state of the modern world. A Broadway playwright even tried to turn it into a musical, though nothing was ever produced. In some areas “Kallikak” was even used as a synonym for “moron.”

Pseudoscience and Lies

Overnight, Henry Herbert Goddard went from an obscure educator to the country’s pre-eminent expert on moronity. So it wasn’t a surprise when his Uncle Sam came around looking for help.

At the time America’s WASP elite was wringing its hands about a recent influx of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Everyone knew the new arrivals were the wrong type of people, but you could never be too careful. So the government sent Goddard and his field researchers to Ellis Island to interview and test incoming immigrants and report their findings. In 1912 and 1913 Goddard tested several hundred immigrants and declared that 84% of them were feeble-minded. 

During World War I, Goddard tested the intelligence of Army draftees, to see which ones might be good candidates for officer training. His results showed that 54% of recruits were morons, and that southern Europeans, eastern Europeans, and blacks showed signs of moronity at higher rates than other ethnic groups. He also tested prostitutes and camp followers, who (surprise surprise) also turned out to be morons.

Goddard’s work became one of the cornerstones of eugenics. It was used as justifications for immigration restrictions, forced sterilization, and racial purity laws — not just in America, but in Nazi Germany, as well.

And they were built on a foundation of pseudoscience and lies.

Let’s talk about intelligence testing.

First, what is intelligence? We have a common sense understanding of the term, but a common sense understanding is usually full of oversimplifications, misconceptions and all sorts of accumulated cultural baggage. It’s hardly something you can use as a basis for a scientific theory.

But here’s there’s the thing: ask a cognitive scientist, a computer scientist, and a neuroscientist what intelligence is and you’re likely to get three very different answers. Ask a sociologist or a philosopher and you’ll get two more. If you can’t agree on what intelligence is, how can you test for it?

Intelligence tests are definitely measuring something, but is that something intelligence? One of its component parts? Something else? Are their results more art than science? Are they biased in ways we can’t perceive because of our own biases? Do we trust in their results because of scientific rigor, or out of unjustified faith in pseudo-science?

These are some of the reasons Binet cautioned against placing too much faith in intelligence tests. They’re great when you’re using them for a limited, specific purpose — say, identifying small children with learning disabilities who might need special attention at school. They’re not so great when you’re using them to make sweeping statements about the nature of humanity, with an end goal of using their results to deny huge swaths of the population their livelihoods, their legal and reproductive rights, or even their lives.

Even if you trust intelligence tests, you have to admit that Goddard’s adaptation of the Binet-Simon test was awful and the “mental ages” it produced were way too low. This was partly because his initial studies didn’t include a control group, and partly because he tweaked the results to match his preconceived notion that 50% of the population was feeble-minded. Goddard himself conceded that his test was flawed later in life, and most of his colleagues preferred to use the less-biased version of the Binet-Simon test created by Lewis Terman at Stanford University.

His Army tests, which showed that 54% of draftees were feeble-minded? The Army soon discovered the test couldn’t accurately predict who would do well in officer training and stopped using them. Nevertheless, they were trumpeted by Goddard and other eugenicists as real proof of their ideas.

Well, what about his Ellis Island tests, which showed that 84% of immigrants were feeble-minded? They’re enormously problematic. The subjects were often tired, confused, and overwhelmed by sights and sounds of a new country. Many of them didn’t speak English, so the tests had to be conducted through interpreters. The test questions showed mild cultural biases. It’s hardly surprising that they failed.

Oh, and the subjects didn’t even represent an accurate subset of the immigrant population. They were people who had been singled out by Goddard and his field researchers because they looked mentally defective.

That’s right. Goddard trained his field researchers to spot “mental defectives” at a glance. If that’s not bias, I don’t know what bias is.

Now, let’s talk about The Kallikak Family. 

Goddard and his researchers didn’t determine that the Bad Kallikaks were feebleminded by giving them tests. No, they made snap judgments based on the Kallikaks’ living conditions and their physical appearance, just like they had at Ellis Island. Photos in the book were even clumsily retouched to give the Bad Kallikaks sunken eyes, sloping brows, and sinister leers. 

Their long-dead ancestors were posthumously diagnosed based on their economic circumstances, garbled anecdotes and amateur genealogies. Goddard never questioned whether those sources might themselves be biased.

And he also discarded or ignored any individuals on the family tree whose behavior didn’t fit into his preconceived narrative. Many of the so-called Bad Kallikaks were fine, upstanding members of society. For that matter, the so-called Good Kallikaks were hardly moral paragons either, but Goddard turned a blind eye to their failings. After all, the Good Kallikaks had material success, which any good WASP knew was a sign of moral rectitude.

Throughout his research, Goddard focused solely on heredity and its role in feeble-mindedness, downplaying social and environmental factors that also might contribute to a diagnosis.

And now let’s talk about Deborah Kallikak herself.

A modern reader of the book will quickly note that Deborah sure doesn’t sound all that feeble-minded. She seems more like a young lady with a troubled background and a learning disability who’s acting out because of frustration.

And she had every right to be frustrated. During the early years of her life Deborah did not have a stable home. She was born in an almshouse, and then bounced between the residences of her mothers’ lovers. At the age of eight, she was unceremoniously dumped in the Vineland School when her mother’s current boyfriend told her to get rid of her children. 

She had never had formal schooling before entering the Vineland Shool, and the staff there treated that as an immutable fact rather than a treatable condition. They were constantly bemoaning that Deborah could do so much better if only she would care and/or pay attention. But why should Deborah care or pay attention? She was trapped in a home for the feeble-minded, and she would never be allowed out into the wider world no matter how well she pleased her instructors.

Sure, Deborah had trouble with numbers and difficulty spelling, which suggests she had some sort of learning disability. But she was an accomplished woodworker, dressmaker, and homemaker. She could play the cornet by ear. Over the years she worked in and around the school as a maid, nanny, and nurse. Goddard chose to downplay those accomplishments, dismissing them as mere animal mimicry.

And that, I think, is the real problem with Goddard and his so-called “research.” Any data point that plays into his preconceived value judgments is embraced without question. Any data point that contradicts them is dismissed off-hand or discarded without a thought. 

That’s not science. That’s ideology.


In spite of the serious flaws in his work, Goddard stood by it until the end of his life. The Kallikak Family was routinely used as an example in biology textbooks until the 1970s, when public opinion began to sharply turn against eugenics. (Yes, that’s right, the 1970s. Not even being associated with Nazi Germany could kill the momentum of eugenics.) The legacy of The Kallikak Family wasn’t truly demolished until the mid-1980s thanks to the tireless work of anti-eugenicists like Steven Jay Gould and J. David Smith. 

Of course, that hasn’t stopped Goddard’s work, and eugenics in general, from having a modern-day resurgence. It just goes to show: all the reasoned argument in the world can’t keep a bad idea down.

Deborah Kallikak reading a book with a cat in her lap


H.H. Goddard isn’t the only crank to come out of Vineland, New Jersey. It’s also the home of the current incarnation of Dr. Dinshah Ghadiali’s Spectro-Chrome Institute, the Dinshah Health Society. We covered the the history of Spectro-Chrome Metry and other forms of chromotherapy in Series 5’s “Normalating.”

If you’re looking for other influential figures who misapplied science for political reasons, there’s always Soviet scientist Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, whose denial of modern genetics held back Russian biology for several decades. We told Lysenko’s story in Series 7’s “Moron or Madman.”


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