Psychiatry’s dark debate, 1942

The latest issue of the History of Psychiatry journal contains an article by psychologist Jay Joseph, discussing a disturbing debate in a 1942 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry, over whether the ‘feebleminded’ should be killed.

The debate was held between neurologist Robert Foster Kennedy, one-time president of the American Neurological Association, and psychiatrist Leo Kanner, famous for his work on autism.

In an article entitled ‘The problem of social control of the congenital defective: education, sterilization and euthanasia’, Kennedy made the argument that ‘defective’ or ‘feebleminded’ children, reaching the age of five, should be examined by a medical review board and if found to have ‘no future or hope of one’, should be killed, suposedly for the good of society.

Kanner argued strongly against this position in a reply entitled ‘Exoneration of the feebleminded’, although Joseph notes that he did believe sterilisation was appropriate for those ‘intellectually or emotionally unfit to rear children’.

Perhaps most shocking was an unsigned editorial in the same issue, siding with Kennedy’s ideas in the debate.

Joseph is a stark critic of genetic research into mental illness, and so perhaps it is not surprising that he finishes the article warning that such research could support similar views today.

Whatever you think of Joseph’s take on the issue, however, it is surprising to learn that respected clinicians in America were supporting eugenics during the the time of World War Two.

Link to summary of the paper ‘The 1942 ‚Äòeuthanasia‚Äô debate in the American Journal of Psychiatry’.

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