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Widening the Story - Artifact 4

Eugenics Ideas About Education “Steps in Mental Development, 1913”


The “Exhibit of Work and Educational Campaign for Juvenile Mental Defectives” was first shown in 1913 in New York City.” The exhibition featured the work of a clinic, or Clearing House, that tested for feeblemindedness.

The image shows five steps that travel up on a diagonal (from bottom left to top right) with an adult person on each step. The steps are high, measuring just above the waist, to show the barriers to intellectual development. Each person is labelled with a mental age from lowest (at the bottom) to highest (at the top).

This same image was also published in 1914 in Dr. Helen MacMurchy’s eighth report to the Ontario government on feeblemindedness. In her report, MacMurchy, a eugenicist who later guest taught at Macdonald Institute in the 1920s and 30s, wrote, “The Outline sketches […] show the places where different grades of Mentally-Defective persons stop and can go no farther.”1(footnote)

The steps represent a measurement tool used by eugenicists to put people into categories of intelligence. But the categories were based on a false idea of intelligence, which was assumed to be solid, unchangeable, inherited, and measurable. MacMurchy used the image to show her belief that as one’s grade of intelligence went up so did their productivity and value to society. Thus, for MacMurchy, human worth depended on mental and physical ability, which were inherited and biologically fixed.

The 1913 image conceals what we aim to show in this learning module, that in fact eugenics created the conditions of inequality and poverty that led to a greater devaluing of difference and the dehumanization of people.

These measurements of intelligence are now understood to have mostly measured a knowledge of white Euro-American culture and language while also vastly underestimating the intelligence of those outside this group, such as new immigrants and First Nations Peoples.

This representation of mental development that depicts adult bodies with the minds of children, is an example of “mental age theory,” a major feature of the eugenics movement. Mental age theory is misleading in that difficulty with certain tasks is not tantamount to being childlike. It is also disrespectful to adults labelled with intellectual/developmental disabilities to refer to them as children.

Steps in Mental Development

Originally published in The Survey, October 11, 1913 Charity Organization Society of the City of New York, 1909-19372(footnote)

Image Description

  1. Dr. Helen MacMurchy (1862-1953), a physician at Toronto General Hospital and later Chief of Child Welfare for the Federal Government, made several reports to the Ontario Legislature on Feeble-Mindedness between 1907 and 1919. MacMurchy was a guest speaker for the Macdonald Institute Girls’ Conferences on at least two occasions. See RE1 OAC A0090 “OAC Annual Reports to the President.” The image was published in: Helen MacMurchy, “FeebleMinded in Ontario: Eighth Report (1913) to the Ontario Legislature, published in 1914, 20, (Source).

  2. Image ID: 2ACXFGP (Source)