NH prof pens historical article on eugenicist who studied Shutesbury family



News Editor
Published: 11/19/2021 5:15:46 PM

University of New Hampshire professor emeritus Ben Harris describes himself as “sort of a contrarian” when it comes to studying the history of psychology. He always wants to understand the thought process behind theories that made sense at the time, but that today, may seem illogical or downright reprehensible.

“I was always interested in finding out if they were actually onto something,” Harris said, offering the lobotomy as an example of a practice that made sense to psychologists at the time. “People were searching for a solution.”

It was with this mindset that the Stratham, N.H., resident became intrigued by the story of Isabelle Kendig, a Chicago native who found herself in Shutesbury in 1913 for a case study in eugenics — the practice or advocacy of improving the human species by selectively mating people with desirable hereditary traits, thus breeding out disease, disabilities or other undesirable characteristics.

After first learning about Kendig through a 2002 Boston Magazine article about the eugenics movement in Massachusetts, Harris gradually researched her accomplishments over the course of about 10 years, ultimately releasing a 27-page historical article titled “Eugenics, Social Reform, and Psychology: The Careers of Isabelle Kendig.” His work was published this month in the History of Psychology journal, and was released online in October.

As the title of Harris’ historical article suggests, Kendig’s life was a multifaceted one. She studied at Oberlin College in Ohio, where her sociology professor taught her that students should “graduate and go out and make things better, rather than just be the stereotype of the self-satisfied college graduate,” Harris explained. He noted that, at the time, attending college was reserved for the upper middle class.

Inspired by her professor, Kendig borrowed money to go to eugenics summer school in Long Island. She hoped she could improve the lives of others by investigating genetic defects in the population, Harris said.

Kendig then landed a position working at a state home for epileptics in Palmer. A doctor there, who was a big figure in the eugenics movement, assigned his staff to profile families and thoroughly study their genealogy.

“This looked very scientific at the time,” Harris said, noting that scientists were aware of how to breed plants to produce large, healthy crops, and thought the same concept might be applied to people.

Kendig was tasked with studying Shutesbury’s Pratt family in 1913.

“I was interested in what was going on that made someone write a report that suggested that some family in Shutesbury was genetically defective,” Harris said of his research.

Though Harris did not visit Shutesbury himself until recently, he was not entirely unfamiliar with the area. He studied at Amherst College for three years and became a senior fellow at Hampshire College during the first year it was open in 1970 to 1971, graduating with his bachelor’s degree in psychology. He later earned his doctorate in clinical psychology from Vanderbilt University in 1975.

Harris explained the Pratts were known for delinquency. Some siblings were in homes for the poor or in the care of social service agencies. They were considered to be unintelligent and many struggled with alcoholism, which wasn’t understood in the early 1900s.

Kendig researched 400 relatives, making index cards for each person and ultimately completing a 75-foot-wide Pratt family tree that is preserved at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, Harris said. But what she discovered did not always align with the idea that the family was genetically defective.

“They were considered to be upstanding people by other residents,” Harris explained, referencing how the Pratts often owned automobiles and had a monopoly on weaving baskets. “They were considered shrewd in business, which doesn’t sound like someone who is subpar intellectually.”

Kendig presented her 40 pages of findings — including the 75-foot-wide family tree — during a conference in Northampton in 1914. Also that year, she got into a dispute with Charles Davenport, the head eugenicist in the country at the time, at a conference at Columbia University.

“Like all eugenicists, he thought that there was this bundle of defective traits that went together and would be seen in families,” Harris said of Davenport. “She said, ‘I found a couple of these negative traits, but the other ones are missing and that shouldn’t be possible according to the dogma.’”

Kendig was shunned by Davenport, who later doctored her findings to fit his ideology.

“That caught my interest, needless to say,” Harris recalled, thinking back to his own research process. “That was the thing that kept me going for a long time.”

The bulk of Harris’ research came through corresponding with Kendig’s granddaughter in Providence, R.I., who had a trunk of old letters that Kendig had written to her parents and future husband detailing her findings. Kendig’s work had also been rediscovered by people interested in local history, and Harris found her papers on investigating social problems in Shutesbury at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“You have to dig to find her name and the reports she wrote,” Harris said, “but thanks to UMass, you wouldn’t have to dig impossibly far.”

Kendig was later hired by Massachusetts and New Hampshire to survey intellectual disability in each state. Following her work in eugenics, she was briefly a leading figure in feminist and anti-militarist campaigns, including the National Women’s Party and the 1924 presidential campaign of Sen. Robert La Follette.

In 1933, Kendig earned her doctorate in clinical psychology from Radcliffe College and rose to the position of chief psychologist at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington D.C. In her personal life, she married Howard Gill and had four children. She died in 1971 in Siasconset, Nantucket.

Because her life’s work took her in so many different directions, Harris said his historical article about Kendig was a bit difficult to pitch, noting that it “doesn’t fit into boxes.”

“It became a story of a woman who was a self-described feminist when riding around Shutesbury in 1913, then in Washington D.C. working with activists, then when she was getting her Ph.D. working at Radcliffe,” Harris said of his historical article. “Her whole life.”

Those interested in reading “Eugenics, Social Reform, and Psychology: The Careers of Isabelle Kendig” can visit. https://bit.ly/30JLea4

Shelby Ashline is news editor at the Greenfield Recorder, where she has worked since 2016. She can be reached at 413-772-0261, ext. 270 or sashline@recorder.com.

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