The Orphans of Davenport: Eugenics, the Great Depression, and the War Over Children’s Intelligence

Marilyn Brookwood. Liveright, $28.95 (336p) ISBN 978-1-63149-468-0
Psychologist Brookwood debuts with a lucid and immersive history of how researchers in 1930s Iowa refuted prevailing notions about childhood development. She focuses on Iowa Child Welfare Research Station psychologists Harold Skeels and Marie Skodak and their studies comparing children who had “barren, affectionless, detached childhoods” at a state orphanage in Davenport, Iowa, with those who received individual attention, play, and encouragement as temporary wards at institutions for the “feeble-minded.” The latter group of children showed a remarkable improvement in their IQ scores, buttressing the Iowa researchers’ argument that genetics was not the sole factor in intelligence. Brookwood provides insight into the Iowa researchers’ methods, and skillfully draws from primary sources to explain how racist and classist attitudes and fierce criticism from the era’s eugenicists prevented the station’s groundbreaking studies from initially gaining traction. It wasn’t until the 1960s that findings by Skeels, Skodak, and other station researchers entered the mainstream, helping to launch learning programs such as Head Start. Brookwood’s well-paced, character-driven account is a worthy tribute to these optimistic and determined researchers, and a reminder that scientific breakthroughs can come from the unlikeliest of places. This spirited history soars. Agent: Ayesha Pande, Pande Literary. (July)
Reviewed on : 03/31/2021
Release date: 07/27/2021
Genre: Nonfiction
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