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Conference Abstract: Eugenics, rural cultures, and conceptions of intellectual disabilities

July 29, 2011

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It’s a touch late, I know, but I should include the abstract to the paper I recently gave at the recent AHA History at the Edge conference in Launceston.

“Our Tasmanian Secretary laments that some teachers in that State… think all their pupils feeble-minded”:[1] Eugenics, rural culture and conceptions of intellectual disability in Australia, 1911 – 1928

In 1911, delegates to the Australasian Medical Congress gathered in a smoke-filled theatre and unanimously agreed that “the feeble-minded” posed a grave threat to the Australian nation. The first stage in their plan to solve the problem was the implantation of a nation-wide into the prevalence of feeble-mindedness amongst school children. As Ross Jones has recently argued, these surveys were an abysmal failure: a national survey was not completed until 1928, under the auspices of the Commonwealth Department of Health.[2]

In this paper I examine these early attempts to survey the feeble-minded population in Australia. Using insights from disability studies and whiteness studies, as conceived by Matt Wray, I argue that schoolteachers’ diagnosis of feeble-mindedness were often informed by class and cultural considerations.[3]


[1] “Care of the Feeble-Minded in Australasia,” in Australasian Medical Congress: Transactions of the Tenth Session (Wellington: John Mackay, Govt. Printer, 1916), 708.

[2] Jones, Ross. “Removing Some of the Dust from the Wheels of Civilization: William Ernest Jones and the 1928 Commonwealth Survey of Mental Deficiency.” Australian Historical Studies 40, no. 1 (2009): 67 – 68.

[3] Wray, Matt. Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.

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