America’s Hidden History: The Critical Role that the IQ Test Played in Eugenics

The IQ test became a tool in America for the spread of eugenics.

The IQ test became a tool in America for the spread of eugenics.

Note: Article includes graphic descriptions and potentially upsetting content.

The IQ test, or the intelligence quotient test, is used to measure a person’s intelligence. More specifically, it measures a person’s cognitive abilities to provide a score that serves as a representation of their intellectual and potential abilities (What is an IQ test?). Keep in mind that IQ tests don’t even take into consideration artistic abilities or resilience, among other things. They are based on memory, skills, and logic and cannot accurately predict the success of anyone. These scores are most commonly calculated based on an individual’s age group and are used to determine many different actions such as educational assessment and placement, assessment and diagnosis of intellectual disability, cognitive research, assessing cognitive abilities that include memory, speed, and attention, and even job candidate evaluations. What people don’t know about the IQ test is that it wasn’t initially used for these purposes.

The first IQ test (Binet-Simon Scale) was created in 1905 by psychologists Alfred Binet and Théodore Simon. Their purpose was to help children in France who were struggling in school. These tests singled out children who needed individualized attention to prosper in school (The Dark History of IQ Tests). However, as the test gained more popularity, it was used for a different purpose. 

In the early 1900s, America began using the test to sort students into programs. The “gifted and talented” children received scores around and above 115 and were considered smarter. They received higher education to make the most of their abilities. “Normal” children received scores ranging from 70-115 and stayed where they were. “Special Needs” children received scores under 70 and were later sent to state schools (institutions). This idea of using the IQ test to separate young children from each other fueled the idea of eugenics. People began to believe that “special needs” children weren’t fit for society. Only a small percentage of the “special needs” children actually had a cognitive disability. Many were from foster care, and they were only placed there because their parents or relatives were considered unfit for society (addicted to alcohol or drugs or had some sort of a mental or physical defect). 

The IQ test became a tool in America for the spread of eugenics. Eugenics is a “science” that deals with the improvement of hereditary qualities of a race or breed (most commonly associated with humans). Eugenics became an idea and movement based on a twisted version of Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory. The two more common examples of eugenics are abortion (Margaret Sanger) and the Holocaust (Adolf Hitler), both connecting to the idea of weeding out people who are deemed unfit for society. I, however, will be focusing on the role eugenics played in foster children in the 1900s. As a girl with three foster siblings and relatives that died in concentration camps, I can see the issues eugenics brings.

Poster supporting eugenics (

In America’s Era of Eugenics, children went into foster care because of problems with them or their heritage. If one (or both) of your parents were addicted to drugs and/or alcohol, or you had a birth defect, or even if you weren’t particularly smart (or had a learning disability), you would most likely be put into foster care or into an institution. A great majority of these foster “families” and institutions were incredibly abusive and solved nothing. They only caused problems. 

Not that many years ago, in Waltham, MA, the Experimental School for Teaching and Training Idiotic Children (later the Fernald State School then the Fernald Developmental Center) housed males of all ages that were considered unfit for society based on IQ tests. The “special needs” children ended up here along with other children who were considered on the lower and middle sides of “normal”. Male children were abandoned here to grow up as a ward of the state, essentially belonging and cared for by no one. Some children were abandoned by families that couldn’t take care of them or didn’t want them. These babies grew up knowing only the prison walls surrounding them. Beds were crowded into small rooms with conditions unfit for any human. They were treated as animals. These boys were stripped of their inherent human dignity in their daily life. Rape and other horrendous crimes were not uncommon. A hierarchy existed within this prison. The top boys (bullies) would steal from anyone and everyone and report false things to the attendees. These attendees were also a constant source of problems. In many cases, these attendees restrained children to their beds without food or raped them in the middle of the night. 

These boys grew up believing that everything they experienced in their “home” was completely normal. It was okay to make children be naked and use the bathroom in front of everyone. It was ok to not educate them past elementary school levels even though they were in their teens. It was okay to force small boys to strip and be raped as the bullies made sure the attendee and boys weren’t caught. The gender of the attendees didn’t matter. Both male and female attendees would rape these boys. After all, they weren’t considered fit for society, so no one actually cared what happened to them, right? Wrong. In addition to the physical and verbal abuse these boys faced, they were treated as human guinea pigs and oftentimes forced to become sterilized in order to keep their problems in their genes.

Note the age, IQ, education level, and “clinical history” (


In 1994, the United State’s Department of Energy discovered that both MIT and Harvard, with the Quaker Oats Company, experimented with radioactive isotopes on the boys from 1946-1953. These boys thought they were part of an elite science club. They were given oatmeal and other forms of food containing these radioactive isotopes. In turn, they were taken on occasional outings and were better fed than others (although that food did contain radioactive substances). This institution, among many others, is often overlooked and even forgotten by many. All of these negative effects were direct results of the eugenics movement in combination with the IQ test. The IQ test fueled the eugenics movement because it placed these boys into institutions that were inhumane.

Side note: I had never heard of eugenics until 9th grade, when I read The State Boys Rebellion by Michael D’Antonio. Even though I only read the book two years ago, it has been highly influential, especially in this article. I 100% recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about the horrors of eugenics at the Fernald State School. It does contain disturbing stories and graphics, so please be mindful of maturity levels.


By Anya Marino ’24, Contributing Writer