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April 11, 2001

Mental RetardationThe Kennedy Family and the Story of Mental Retardation

Author Affiliations

Copyright 2001 American Medical Association. All Rights Reserved. Applicable FARS/DFARS Restrictions Apply to Government Use.2001American Medical Association

JAMA. 2001;285(14):1893-1894. doi:10.1001/jama.285.14.1893-JBK0411-3-1

Physicians as a group are largely uninformed about issues of mental retardation (and developmental disabilities). This brief history by Edward Shorter, PhD, professor of the history of medicine at the University of Toronto, reviews a specific element of the broader story, namely, the impact of the Kennedy family on public policy and image of the mentally retarded.

As Shorter shows, the involvement of the Kennedys, other parents of retarded persons, and their organizations has resulted in a light-year's change in the public's attitude. His book may also serve as a cautionary tale to physicians regarding uninformed pontification. The institutional treatment of orphaned and abandoned children in Eastern Europe during the past quarter century has been well publicized in the United States. Images of these children in photographs and television documentaries have been seared into public consciousness. However, for much of the 20th century citizens of the United States challenged by mental retardation were sent to institutions that are recalled in the book as hellish examples of inhumanity. This policy was aided and abetted by physicians who directed parents of mentally retarded children that this was the proper thing to do. Furthermore, physicians seemed to believe that the mentally retarded were useless people who should be permitted to die as soon as possible lest they contaminate the gene pool. That this was a prevailing social ethos hardly excuses physician attitude in an era during which doctors had more social and moral authority.

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