My particular passion over the last two years, the Fernald State School was the first institution created in the Western Hemisphere for the care of the developmentally disabled. Founded in 1848 by renowned reformer Samuel Gridley Howe, the institution opened in South Boston as a school to train feebleminded youth. As time went on, more and more children were being admitted and space in their first location ran out.
In 1888, the Massachusetts School for Idiotic and Feebleminded Youth moved to Waltham, Massachusetts, eventually encompassing an 196 acre campus. Walter E. Fernald would become the first residential superintendent when the school moved to Waltham and would carry the institution into its golden years of research and expansion. During the first quarter of the 20th century, Walter Fernald was known as one of the leading experts on the study of the feebleminded, having many famous writings on the subject. Unfortunately after his death in 1924, his name increasingly waned into obscurity, although the renamed Walter E. Fernald State School would continue to serve as one of the chief institutions for the developmentally disabled in the Commonwealth and in the United States.
As time went on and deinstitutionalization of institutions for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled became common place, the Fernald School succumbed in 2014. Now, the campus remains empty, eerily beautiful among its overgrown trees and crumbling roads.
After moving to Massachusetts, I was seeking out opportunities to get involved in historical research of a defunct state hospital or state school. After talking to several members of different towns, I was put in contact with the Waltham Historical Commission.
A meeting with Alex Green, the then Commissioner of the Waltham Historical Commission, provided me with the opportunity I was looking for – a chance to learn the history of the Walter E. Fernald Developmental Center. A few months later I was awarded the Harvard Divinity School Dean’s Summer Internship Award which allowed me to conduct full time research over the summer of 2016. This work included digging through archives all over the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, while also completing building assessments on the site, and learning about all the policy works that goes into saving a historic site.
My work however did not end at the end of the summer. I have continued working with Alex and other interested parties on sharing the Fernald Schools’ fascinating history with others. A part of this work is the MetFern Cemetery project, in addition to other forthcoming writings on the School’s history.
For more information on the Chapel of the Holy Innocents, where I focused much of my research efforts over my summer internship, check out: http://www.thebostonpilot.com/Opinion/article.asp?ID=177337.