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Two Moral Universes: The Social Problem of the Idiots from 1845 to 1855 and Mentally Retarded Sons and Daughters from 1945 to 1955
Hamill, Ann T.

2008, PhD, University of Cincinnati, Arts and Sciences : Sociology.

This historical-comparative story regarding idiocy and mental retardation in the United States is not about the underlying condition suggested by these terms, but rather the process of raising subjective concerns about that condition. The social presence of what today is called developmental disabilities was twice transformed into an urgent social problem and solved in opposite ways. Mid-19th-century physicians and their contemporaries claimed the problem was idiots themselves who were either the cause or consequence of immorality. Unless reformed in institutions, they inflicted moral harm on the community and future generations of Americans. The solution was temporary removal from the community to institutions for training by the “claimsmaking” physicians. Mid-20th-century parents and their supporters morally absolved the mentally retarded and located moral responsibility with everyone but them. “Claimsmaking” parents said that denying the mentally retarded the opportunity to better themselves was both paramount to denying their birthright and a betrayal of Americans' trust in their own nation. To solve (and define) this problem, white, middleclass parents emerged from decades of hiding and mobilized nationally. They created community schools and clinics and educated the public that, contrary to professional and popular claims, retarded children could be helped. This was the precursor to deinstitutionalization.


The emergence of the problem and its solution is traced in the professional and popular press in the middle decade of each century. Dominating the 19th- and 20th-century primary data are, respectively, annual reports issued by institutions for the feebleminded and records preserved by the Hamilton County, Ohio parents' group which played a strong leadership role in the formation of the national Parents' Movement. The subjective concerns raised in each mid-century period emerged from a particular symbolic, material, and power-structured context. To effectively answer why there were opposite solutions to the same underlying condition, some analytical strategies for selecting contextual elements are delineated. These strategies are applicable across research in the social construction of social problems. Three explanatory elements are compared across the two time periods: a cultural element of pervasive and profound influence (the Second Great Awakening and the Second World War), medical thinking, and power-structured relationships.


Annulla Linders, Dr. (Committee Chair)
Rhys Williams, Dr. (Committee Member)
Paula Dubeck, Dr. (Committee Member)
David Lundgren, Dr. (Other)
368 p.

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Hamill, A. (2008). Two Moral Universes: The Social Problem of the Idiots from 1845 to 1855 and Mentally Retarded Sons and Daughters from 1945 to 1955. (Electronic Thesis or Dissertation). Retrieved from https://etd.ohiolink.edu/

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Hamill, Ann. "Two Moral Universes: The Social Problem of the Idiots from 1845 to 1855 and Mentally Retarded Sons and Daughters from 1945 to 1955." Electronic Thesis or Dissertation. University of Cincinnati, 2008. OhioLINK Electronic Theses and Dissertations Center. 22 Nov 2017.

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Hamill, Ann "Two Moral Universes: The Social Problem of the Idiots from 1845 to 1855 and Mentally Retarded Sons and Daughters from 1945 to 1955." Electronic Thesis or Dissertation. University of Cincinnati, 2008. https://etd.ohiolink.edu/

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