Waltham plans to renovate the Fernald Developmental Center
The former mental institution has a controversial history, sparking discourse over the city’s renovation plans.
On Dec. 3, city councilors Colleen Bradley-MacArthur, George Darcy, and Jonathan Paz held a town hall meeting at First Parish Church in Waltham to discuss their thoughts about renovating the Walter E. Fernald Developmental Center in a way that represents the public’s concerns about memorializing the institution. Residents spoke about the plans to renovate Fernald, modeling public disagreement over what changes should take place. A common theme that residents agreed on was that they expect more communication from the Waltham City Council, with some stressing how the renovations ignore the institution’s history.
“We want to shed light into what’s happened there before, into what’s kind of at stock right now, what could possibly happen, and we want to talk about the future. So this is an opportunity for folks to kind of get on the same page. We have some councilors here and we want to make sure that we get your input on the potential uses of the 196 acres of opportunity. Fernald is a historically precious piece of Waltham and it’s on us to make sure we can secure a brighter future,” Councilor Paz addressed the town hall attendees.
The plan to renovate the institution is overshadowed by Fernald’s history. According to City of Waltham files, Fernald is the oldest institution in the United States for the care of individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities. Additionally, in 1848, Samuel Gridley Howe founded the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded in South Boston. In 1887, the school needed to take care of adults with more chronic disabilities, so it moved to Waltham to have more land. As it grew, the school became more focused on experimentation. Walter E. Fernald, a superintendent from 1888-1924, was an authority on intellectual disability.
In a Nov. 28 interview with the Justice, Waltham resident Josh Kastorf, whose father worked at Fernald as assistant superintendent, said that his father did not remember the institution as a good place. Kastorf’s father said that there was violence between staff, staff and residents, and residents themselves. “He remembered when he was assistant superintendent getting lots of calls about people being beat up,” Kastorf recalled.
“My understanding is that what was going on there was very ingrained. Up until the 1980s this was normal for people with disabilities … and that was standard,” Kastorf said.
The Arc of Massachusetts, an organization dedicated to advancing the rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and autism, has shared the history of Fernald and former residents’ stories in order to prevent institutionalization from occurring again.
In a Dec. 2 interview with the Justice, Maura Sullivan, the senior director of government affairs and health policy at the Arc said, “The Arc thinks that a memorialization is needed — one that memorializes the true and painful history. It would be best to see the land used for walking trails and to have signage reckoning with the dark history of the site.”
In the town hall meeting, along with great disagreement over how Fernald should be renovated, residents spoke about how the issue is causing political tensions because of the city’s lack of open dialogue, rather than showing disdain for ignoring the site’s history.
Susan Link, a Waltham resident, advocated to keep seniors and veterans in mind when renovating Fernald to include more affordable housing and transportation services on Trapelo Road, where the institution is located. Many individuals spoke about the need for more input in the conversation around Fernald and some spoke about the positive aspects of Fernald’s origin.
Emily Szczynek once visited a friend at Fernald and described her experience at the meeting. She talked about one of the residents pulling her hair during meal time. “I was not traumatized at all. I am traumatized [by] the fact that people are not allowed to speak about what they want done in this city,” Szczynek said. “There is no cohesion [and] no transparency … I am just really very terribly upset about what’s happening. I feel like we are just being bulldozed.”
Waltham resident Patrice McDonald has lived near Fernald her whole life, emphasizing that there is more to the institution’s history than its worst. “I know horrible things happened at Fernald but I also know a lot of good things happened at Fernald. I was a nurse at Waltham hospital [and] the patients would come from [Fernald] and I worked in the Intensive Care Unit and they would be in really good condition,” she said.
A CBS article includes testimony from Fred Boyce, who was taken to Fernald at the age of eight after his mother died, reported that the school labeled him as a “moron” even though his tests showed him having normal intelligence levels. Mental, physical, and sexual abuse was ingrained in the school’s practices. The school did not offer formal, adequate education, which left Fernald’s alumni with even fewer job prospects and a “feeble-minded” label in the state’s eyes. Fernald also included Ward 22, a detention section for children who tried to run away from the institution. Boyce reported that he was placed in solitary confinement and stripped naked in the detention section.
Boyce added that Fernald deprived him of educational opportunities and affection growing up. Another Fernald alum, Joe Almeida, said that he did not see loving relationships as a child within the institution and that it has made it difficult for him to form loving relationships as an adult.
In the 1950s and 1960s, with the support of Quaker Oats and scientists working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Fernald conducted nutrition studies using radioactive milk and oatmeal. Smithsonian Magazine reports that Robert Harris, an MIT professor of nutrition, led three experiments that involved 74 Fernald boys from ages 10 to 17. The milk and oatmeal were each laced with radioactive iron and calcium while scientists directly injected the boys with radioactive calcium in a different experiment. The experiments violated the Nuremberg Code, established after World War II, because the scientists did not have informed consent to carry out the experiments, according to state attorney David White-Lief.
In the 1970s, after the class action lawsuit, Ricci v. Okin, abusive conditions at Fernald began to change. State institutions meant to take care of people with developmental disabilities invoked controversy at the time because people had different beliefs about the role that Fernald took.
Fernald had a direct role in the debate about the care of people in state institutions as opposed to private care institutions. The institutional movement in Massachusetts began dismantling in the 1980s by closing similar mental institutions with abusive circumstances, but Fernald stayed open until 2014.
Waltham Mayor Jeannette McCarthy bought the 196-acre land for $3.7 million following Fernald’s official closing after a legal battle with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, according to the town hall. The Fernald Reuse Committee, established in 2004 and chaired by McCarthy, has come up with plans to renovate Fernald multiple times since it closed. However, most of the planning has occurred behind closed doors. Instead, the committee’s note from Mayor McCarthy emphasizes that “local community planning is imperative” because residents currently cannot access Trapelo Road to reach their homes.
An outline of Waltham’s plans from August 2022 shows the city’s intention to renovate the site by building more housing, a driving range, an electric train, and other recreational activities for children and families to enjoy. In the latest development, McCarthy requested a $9.5 million loan to support the undertaking.
“The institutions started closing and Fernald was one of the last to close. It played a lead role in closing institutions but it survived the longest, because there were people very invested in having their family members there,” Kastorf told the Justice.
Institutionalization is a dark part of Waltham’s history, and politically active members and the disability community are passionate about having a memorial included in the renovation to honor the people who suffered through Fernald’s abuse, bias, and neglect.
— Justice Editor Sophia De Lisi contributed to the reporting for this article.