I just finished reading Leila Zenderland’s (1998) biography of Henry H. Goddard, a pioneering psychologist in intelligence testing. It is the best biography of any of the early psychologists involved with the development of intelligence testing.

Henry Herbert Goddard was a psychologist who, in the early 20th century, was America’s foremost expert on the identification and treatment of intellectual disabilities. Today he is (in)famous for his study (Goddard, 1912) of the “Kallikak family” (a pseudonym). This family had two branches: one supposedly descended from a liaison that the family’s progenitor had with a “feeble-minded girl” (to use the language of the time), and the other descended from his marriage to “a respectable girl.” Goddard’s research supposedly showed that the branch of the family descended from the out-of-wedlock birth was full of people with low intelligence, alcoholism criminality, and other societal ills. The other branch of the family was almost entirely bright and industrious. Goddard’s book was popular, and it confirmed a lot of class prejudices and served as one of the most influential texts of the early 20th century eugenics movement. Today it is rightly scorned as a shoddy work of pseudoscientific garbage.

I’m not here to review Zenderland’s (1998) book, so I won’t go into its strengths and weaknesses. The book is meticulously researched, and I could not find a single error in it. It’s packed with fascinating historical details. Here are some of my favorite tidbits:

  • Goddard coined the word “moron.”
  • While Goddard was a eugenicist, his form of eugenics was mostly classist and elitist. There is little or no trace of racism, xenophobia, or nativism in his work.
  • Goddard didn’t even bother finding out the name of the supposed “feeble-minded girl” that was the maternal ancestor of the degenerate Kallikaks until 1928–sixteen years after the book was published.
  • The controversy over the meaning of the results of the Army Alpha and Army Beta testing programs in World War I probably hastened the demise of the “mental age” concept in psychology. The result that the average American adult male had the intelligence of a 12-year-old was just too untenable to survive scrutiny.
  • Goddard changed his mind about low intelligence in the 1920s. Starting in 1920 he expressed doubts about the army data. By 1928 he was renouncing his old theories and claiming that “feeblemindedness” was curable through education.

If Zenderland’s (1998) book has a fault, it is the fault of being too exhaustive. Most non-experts don’t need 364 pages about Goddard. But it will be a useful reference for many years. Goddard’s career is much more than his study of the Kallikak family, and to paint him—as many do—as a one-dimensional crackpot is a mistake. Zenderland is fair in her evaluations, though she never excuses Goddard for his intellectual errors. She is also adept at explaining the context of Goddard’s career and why his influence faded so quickly.

References

Goddard, H. H. (1912). The Kallikak family: A study in the heredity of feeble-mindedness. New York, NY: The Macmillan Company.

Zenderland, L. (1998). Measuring minds: Henry Herbert Goddard and the origins of American intelligence testing. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

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