Receiving, Sorting, and Disposing of Children: The Place of Human Defect in Progressive America
Chelsea Chamberlain

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship

Award Year



University of Pennsylvania

Primary Discipline

Focusing on the years 1880-1930, my dissertation examines three key sites of Progressive reform: institutions for the feebleminded, diagnostic clinics, and "special" classes in public schools. I argue that the history of education in America cannot be understood apart from the development of institutions for the feebleminded. I use the newly opened archive of the Pennsylvania Training School for Feeble-Minded Children at Elwyn to examine how disabled people, their families, and their teachers bent eugenic institutional care to their own purposes. Informed by their intimate experiences of impairment, families turned to institutions as a resource their complex emotional, medical, and material needs. Elwyn's residents asserted their capacity for adult work and relationships and ran away with regularity. Institution teachers worked to expand their students' capacities and spread their pedagogical methods to public school teachers in special classrooms across the country. Crucially, those with greater care needs were frequently relegated to the background, not only in psycho-medical professionals' ideologies and administration but in the expectations that families and teachers brought to bear on institutional life. My project combines this social history of institutional life with a study of the production of medical, educational, and cultural knowledge. I show that the tense relationship between progressivism's grand vision for society and everyday people's hopes for themselves and their children produced new psycho-medical expertise, expanded the reach of public education, and constrained the power of compulsory eugenics.
About Chelsea Chamberlain
Chelsea Chamberlain is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Pennsylvania. With a focus on the nineteenth and twentieth century United States, her research bridges political history and the history of medicine, disability, and education. Exploring the years 1890-1930, her dissertation argues that disabled people, their families, and their teachers were key participants in the development of medical, political, and educational approaches to mental and ``moral`` disabilities. Conducting research in the archive of a still-operating provider for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities gave rise to Chelsea's additional research interests in archival ethics, medical privacy, and historical memory. Her work on these themes appeared in Nursing CLIO's Adventures in the Archives series. These interests also drive her current work as the Humanities Advisor for the pre-production documentary The Fate of Human Beings, which uses mid-twentieth-century institutional cemeteries as an entry point into broader conversations about disability justice, memorialization, and the ongoing fight over deinstitutionalization. Chelsea holds a BA in History from Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, and an MA in History from the University of Montana in Missoula. Her work has received support from the Consortium for History of Science, Technology, and Medicine and the Lilly Graduate Fellows Program.

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