Disability in the Family: John and Alice Dewey Raising Their Son, Sabino
by Scot Danforth - 2018
Background/Context: The current biographic understanding of John Dewey’s experience adopting and raising an Italian boy named Sabino emphasizes the theme of finding an emotional replacement for Morris and Gordon, two young sons who had tragically died on family trips to Europe. Lacking is substantive attention to the fact that John Dewey’s son had a physical disability who grew up during the early surge of eugenics thought in American popular life. The leading biographer Jay Martin has portrayed John and Alice Dewey as rescuing Sabino from poverty, an experience that gave John Dewey “a special empathy for the second-best, the second-class citizen, the loser in society.” What is missing from all biographic research on the Deweys is their experience of raising a boy with a physical disability during a historical time when disabilities were highly stigmatized.
Purpose/Objective/Research: The purpose of this historical study is to supplement the current understanding of John Dewey fathering an adopted son with an account that attends to the fact that young Sabino had a physical disability. Working in the disability studies tradition, this analysis explores both how the Deweys contended with Sabino’s bone tuberculosis as an illness requiring medical treatment and how they navigated the complex political context of deeply discriminatory attitudes surrounding disabled persons. The conclusion initiates a discussion of the larger questions concerning how the experiences of fathering a boy impacted directly by disability oppression might have influenced John Dewey’s political activity and scholarship.
Research Design: This historical analysis utilizes prior biographic research, published and unpublished works by John Dewey, and primary historical documents such as family letters and medical and popular publications of the era.
Conclusions/Recommendations: This analysis finds that John and Alice Dewey were very loving and attentive parents who endured many struggles due to their child’s disability. They worried about their son’s health, and they capably navigated the available medical options. They were troubled by their son’s suffering and pain, and they worked together with great consistency to comfort and support him. Further, they directly confronted disability prejudice—including educational segregation—and worked assiduously against the powerful cultural assumption that their disabled son should lead a life of anything less than full participation in the community. The article concludes with a preliminary examination of how these experiences influenced John Dewey’s political writings and activities.
When John and Alice Dewey first spied Sabino, an eight-year-old boy, in Piazza San Marco in Venice, there is no doubt that they viewed him though eyes of deep sadness. Yet their hearts lifted at the sight of the boy. It was August 1905. The Deweys had recently endured a succession of painful emotional losses, and this boy appeared as a spark of hope on an otherwise bleak horizon.
Alice had been forced out of her position as principal of the Laboratory School at the University of Chicago, losing a prized professional outlet for her talents and social action energies. Her abrupt dismissal served as the coup de grâce for John after many administrative squabbles with University President William Rainey Harper. John resigned, bitterly leaving the University where he had spent 10 years establishing himself as a leading voice in the fields of education, psychology, and philosophy.
A family trip to Europe in the summer of 1904 was arranged as a respite, a way for the family to share a deep breath and an enjoyable adventure as they transitioned from Chicago to a new home in New York. John had accepted a position on the philosophy faculty of Columbia University to start in September. The plan was for John to attend the Science Association conference in Cambridge, England, and then return to New York for his fall semester teaching obligations while Alice would stay on in Europe with the five Dewey children. Evelyn and Fred, the eldest, would spend the year focused on studying French and German, and Alice intended to conduct a thorough survey of the education of girls and women in Europe.
But the plan was disrupted by tragedy. For the second time in a decade, the Deweys experienced the death of a son. Eight-year-old son Gordon contracted typhoid on the ocean passage, and he passed away in Ireland after a short hospitalization. Gordons death undoubtedly brought back distressing memories of losing their son Morris on a previous Atlantic crossing. Two-year-old Morris had succumbed to diphtheria in Milan in March 1895.
After Gordons death, the Dewey family mourned without the comfort of unity. John returned to New York alone. Alice and the children stayed on for the school year in Europe as originally planned. Professor Dewey spent his first year at Columbia wallowing in the depths of loneliness, living by himself in a dormitory room. He was a solitary figure walking along the Hudson River each evening at sunset. Alice abandoned her plan to write a book about the education of women. By some accounts, she was never the same after the loss of a second child. Anxiety and depression burdened her for the rest of her life.1
By the following March, the grief and loneliness had reduced John to desperation. He wrote to Alice, When I think that it is only six months next Saturday, since our light went out & how much harder and emptier thing it gets all the time, I dont know how much longer Im going to be able to hold out. He sought and received special permission from President Nicholas Murray Butler to leave Columbia before the end of the semester. He couldnt wait any longer to see his family. He rushed across the Atlantic to rejoin his wife and children in Italy.2
In the Piazza San Marco in Venice, John and Alice saw a dark-haired boys reflection in the window of a shop. The glistening visage brought back memories of both Morris, the son who had died in Italy 10 years earlier, and Gordon, the son John had once described as the only person I have ever known . . . who was at once always serious & always playful in his treatment of life.3 The Deweys bought snacks at a nearby sidewalk café for Sabino and his younger brother. It was the first time that the youngsters had ever tasted butter. The following day John and Alice Dewey asked Sabinos mother if they could take Sabino to New York. She agreed, telling her son that he would eat better if you go to America. From that day forward, although he was never legally adopted, Sabino was a Dewey.4
One factor in Sabinos birth mothers quick decision to allow him to go to America with well-meaning strangers was the fact that he had a serious infection, bone tuberculosis of the knee. Perhaps the family was poor and unable to arrange for proper medical care. Tuberculosis, most typically occurring in the lungs, was a relatively common bacterial infection in the early 1900s caused by the microorganism mycobacterium tuberculosis. The less familiar form of the disease involved an infection located in a bone, often the spine or a joint. Children with knee joint tuberculosis typically suffered from pain and limited flexibility of the joint. Swelling often caused subluxation, a dislocation of the kneecap.
The Deweys immediately placed Sabino in the care of an English physician in Venice for two weeks. The garden sanitarium housing a small number of patients probably provided a treatment that was more constitutional than medical. Since tuberculosis sufferers often wasted away, losing weight, and taking on a pale cast to their skin, sanitaria typically stuffed their patients with fattening diets of milk and eggs accompanied with extended rest in the sunshine. Perhaps a few pounds heavier, Sabino then accompanied his new family to Antwerp where he was seen by a German physician who advised that amputation of the leg was the only realistic option for the severely infected knee. The prospect of losing a leg frightened the boy. John and Alice decided to take their new son home to New York to seek a more conservative treatment.5
Disability historians have argued that disability is often an overlooked political category of historical research. Just as disabled persons are often invisible in society, disability has been, in the words of Douglas C. Baynton, conspicuously absent in the histories we write. When disabled persons do appear in historical narratives, researchers have tended to assume that disability is a personal tragedy, thereby failing to grant legitimacy to the lived experiences of disabled persons and to the oppressive politics of disability.6
The intellectual and personal life of the great American philosopher John Dewey has been carefully scrutinized and documented by multiple biographers. John and his wife Alices decision to adopt a young Italian boy is often described as part of the couples attempt to cope with the tragic loss of two sons to childhood illnesses. Sabino served as a sort of psychological replacement for the two deceased boys. Jay Martins account chiefly portrays Johns fatherhood experience of Sabino through this compensatory narrative. It also interprets Sabinos adoption as an act that likely rescued the boy from poverty, an experience that gave John Dewey a special empathy for the second-best, the second-class citizen, the loser in society. To some extent, this experience explains why Deweys philosophical scholarship and political activism from that point forward focused greatly on solving problems facing devalued social classes.
Overlooked in this interpretation is Deweys experience of raising a boy with a disability in the first two decades of the American 20th century. Although historians have briefly noted that Sabino limped or was crippled, no serious attention has been paid to Sabino as a person with a disability or to the parental experience of raising a disabled child. The thesis that John and Alice Dewey rescued Sabino from economic disadvantage is uncertain. What is clear is that the kind of second-class citizen adopted and raised by John and Alice Dewey was a boy with a physical disability during a historical time when disabilities were highly stigmatized.7
The purpose of this historical study is to supplement the current understanding of John Dewey fathering an adopted son with an account that attends to the fact that young Sabino had a physical disability. Further, John Deweys son lived with a physical disability in a specific historical context, New York City at the early surge of eugenics thought in American popular life. This study details the medical and educational challenges faced by Sabino and his family. Further, this study follows the lead of disability studies scholars who focus analyses on both impairment and disability, the physiological and the political, the individual and the social. Working in that tradition of scholarship, this analysis explores both how the Deweys contended with Sabinos bone tuberculosis as an illness requiring medical treatment and how they navigated the complex political context of deeply discriminatory attitudes surrounding disabled persons. The conclusion of this article initiates a discussion of the larger questions concerning how the experiences of fathering a boy impacted directly by disability oppression might have influenced John Deweys political activity and scholarship.8
LIVING WITH TUBERCULOSIS IN EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY AMERICA
Tuberculosis of the knee was a relatively uncommon illness in the United States at the turn of the century, occurring less often than tubercular bone infections of the spine or hip joint. A 1915 analysis by James Warren Sever and Eben W. Fiske, two orthopedic physicians, counted 638 cases of knee tuberculosis at Bostons Childrens Hospital between 1880 and 1910. The disease was more common among boys than girls. Initial diagnosis most often occurred between two and three years of age. While infections could involve bonefemur, tibia, patella, or fibulait could also infiltrate the soft synovial membrane. Almost one third of the cases resulted in bony destruction, and 55 percent showed definite bone deformity. Thirty-five percent of the children with tubercular knees underwent surgery. The most common surgery was forcible correction of flexion and subluxation, an attempt to improve range of motion. Second most common was incision to drain an abscess in the knee cavity.9
Sever and Fiske described four basic categories of knee tuberculosis symptomatology: swelling . . . limitation of motion . . . flexion . . . heat. Edward A. Tracy of Boston, in his lecture at the 1900 American Medical Association Conference, described the primary symptoms as limitation of motion, causing lameness . . . enlargement of the joint measurements, in some cases caused by fluid distending the joint capsule, in other cases caused by thickening of the synovial membrane. These were often accompanied by tenderness on pressure, fixation of the joint, muscle spasms, heat in the joint, and whiteness of the skin caused by swollen tissues underneath.10
In early October 1905, Sabino underwent surgery at St. Lukes Hospital in Manhattan. Although no specific details are available about the nature of the procedure, the very fact that surgery was performed speaks to the severity of the infection. Most physicians at the time viewed surgical intervention for knee tuberculosis as the last line of defense against a disease process actively deteriorating bone or threatening the patients life. A Boston surgeon wrote in 1907:
In such an operation, while as much of the diseased tissue should be removed as possible, it must always be borne in mind, and it is for this reason that such operations are resorted to only as extreme measures, that no matter how thoroughly performed the operation, it is absolutely impossible to entirely remove the disease.11
The surgery likely resulted in damage to the femur or other bones of the knee joint without fully eradicating the infection.
After surgery the leg was placed in a plaster cast, a common immobilization measure taken to firmly hold the knee and prevent flexion." As Sabino convalesced at home, his attentive father was a steady source of comfort and consolation. Sabino suffered from pain, swelling, and difficulty sleeping. For months after the knee surgery, John Dewey slept with his son each night, providing tender consolation as the child cried. Until Sabino was about 11, when the most pronounced symptoms of the bone infection finally waned, his parents often brought him into their bed at night. They told him stories in an effort to distract his thoughts from pain in his knee.12
The plaster cast served as a very temporary way to splint the joint. Seven months later, Sabino was fitted with a steel leg brace to provide a more lasting and secure form of support to his weak knee. Often physicians utilized a Thomas splint running from thigh to shoe on both sides of the leg to immobilize and keep weight off the knee. The steel brace was adjustable, allowing for refitting as the boy grew, an indication that the physician knew that this medical condition would continue through much of the patients childhood. Sabino wrote to his mother, Il dottore ha provato il ferro (The doctor has tried the iron). In the optimistic, jovial tone typical of his fathers attitude about his sons condition, John wrote to Alice, Sabino stays more cheerful than I anticipated. His brace fitted him well.13
By October 1906, young Sabino was bouncing about the house with vigor. He was a cheerful and energetic child, undeterred by the lingering ailment. A full year after the surgery, however, his knee was not much improved. Alice Dewey wrote to John, He seems stronger stands up a good deal and steps from one chair to another but doesn't like the crutches muchThe bad leg seems just the same as ever.14 The active symptoms and painful suffering persisted until at least summer 1908. A 1915 medical study of the duration of active illness for children with bone tuberculosis found that most cases required treatment for four or five years. Cases involving surgery often lasted over five years of active infection and medical treatment.15
Although the infection concluded and the most painful symptoms of the disease subsided, Sabino lived the rest of his life with an impaired knee. The functioning of the joint was compromised. A decade later, as a young man registering for the draft during World War I, he was categorized by an Army doctor as capable of limited duty. His sister Jane observed that the amount he could bend his knee disqualified him for most forms of military service. Despite this fact, he was a very active young man. In his early 20s, Sabino enjoyed many physical activities and sports. While his father taught for a year at Stanford and the University of California in Berkeley in 1918, Sabino spent many hours playing handball with San Francisco Call columnist John D. Barry. The following spring, he worked long, strenuous hours on a dairy farm at the College of Hawaii and spent his free time swimming.16
As they attended to the medical aspects of Sabinos condition, the Dewey family confronted a harsh array of intractable cultural beliefs concerning both tuberculosis and physical disability. Phil Ferguson has observed that a family's interpretation of the meaning of disability cannot help but reflect to some degree the larger context of social attitudes and historical realities within which that interpretation emerges. At the very least, highly independent-thinking parents such as the Deweys contended with the dominant cultural politics surrounding their sons physical condition. Young Sabino was, in the words of Sir Henry Gavain, superintendent and surgeon at Lord Mayor Treloars Cripples Hospital in Hampshire, England, a tuberculous cripple. His social identity involved a double stigma, mingling elements of the popular understanding of tuberculosis patient and an invalid or cripple. Sabino was subject to a complex of powerful social stigmatizations at the confluence of two concurrent strands of cultural belief and sensibility, the rise of eugenics thought in relation to disability and the anxious popular orientation to the deadly scourge of tuberculosis.17
GROWTH OF AMERICAN EUGENICS
Douglas C. Baynton and Paul Longmore have documented how social attitudes toward disabled people became dramatically more negative around the turn of the twentieth century.18 Undoubtedly, the growing popularity of eugenics among intellectuals, policymakers, and the public played a central role in the increasingly stigmatized interpretations of human biological and cultural variation. In an era marked by a series of dramatic cultural shifts, including industrialization, immigration, urbanization, and changing understandings of gender roles and sexuality, eugenics seemed to supply much-needed answers. Eugenics distilled complex social problems and a range of popular culture anxieties into an efficient, scientific rhetoric of ostensibly unbiased neutrality, successfully dressing racist assumptions about human diversity in rational discursive garb that appealed to multiple constituencies. Frank Dikötter observes that eugenics was (w)idely seen to be a morally and scientifically viable way of improving human heredity . . . embraced by social reformers, established intellectuals, and medical authorities from one end of the political spectrum to the other.19
The scientific research arm of the American eugenics movement was launched in 1903 when Charles Benedict Davenport secured Carnegie Institution funds to found the Station for the Experimental Study of Evolution in Cold Spring Harbor, New York. Davenport devoted his career to the development of eugenics as a branch of biological research, the science of the improvement of the human race. A short four miles up the road from the Long Island farm that became the Dewey family home in 1910, he built the Station into the prestigious research home of Eugenics Record Office.20
In 1906, the American Breeders Association formed a Committee on Eugenics to expand research, publications, and educational programs related to human heredity. Well-known committee members included educator of the deaf Alexander Graham Bell, Stanford University President David Starr Jordan, and Stanford entomologist Vernon Kellogg. In the same year, physician and cereal manufacturer J. H. Kellogg founded the Race Betterment Foundation in Battle Creek, Michigan. The Foundation organized important international conferences in 1914 and 1915 that coalesced and encouraged eugenics research and policy development. The Galton Society, named after the founder of eugenics, was initiated in New York City in 1918 with Charles Benedict Davenport as the first director.21
A number of popular books also propelled the field of eugenics into the public mind. Sociologist Richard Dugdales The Jukes (1877) and Oscar McCullochs The Tribe of Ishmael (1888) fueled eugenics thought with sordid tales of generations of familial degeneracy. Each traced a genealogy of inherited pauperism and criminality to the largely genetic roots, positioning poor people as biological generators of their own poverty and creating a standard family tree template for future eugenics studies.22
The most influential genealogy of familial defect was written by Henry H. Goddard of the Vineland (New Jersey) Training School. In 1912, he published The Kallikak Family: A Study of the Heredity of Feeblemindedness, a widely read examination of how intellectual and moral inferiority were inherited over multiple generations. A leading figure in early intelligence testing and special education teacher training, Goddard convinced many that a host of social problems could be traced to inherent deficiencies within disabled persons. His endorsed solutions were the institutional segregation and surgical sterilization of the disabled populations, eugenics strategies that found widespread support.23
Education was also an important tool in the promotion of eugenics. In April 1914, The Journal of Heredity proudly announced that 44 universities, including Harvard, Dartmouth, and Cornell, offered courses on eugenics. One of the most popular college texts on the topic was authored by Paul Popenoe, a leading advocate for the sterilization of the feebleminded and mentally ill. Applied Eugenics taught university students that eugenic practices would lead to the dramatic reduction of incompetent and nonproductive people in the United States, thereby erasing unrelenting social ills. Specific groups of identifiable, inferior strands of humanity would be systematically expunged. These dysgenic classes" included the feeble minded, insane, epileptic, delinquents as well as other "defectives embracing very diverse characteristics" such as physical weaklings or deformed, those born with a hereditary diathesis or predisposition toward some serious disease (e.g., Huntington's Chorea), and those with some gross defect of the organs of special sense. A wide range of disabled persons, including people who were deaf and people who were blind, fell into this defective group. If the task of eugenics were to establish a new aristocracy of inborn ability, as University of Chicago professor James A. Field claimed, then persons with disabilities or chronic health conditions were subject to strategic biological deletion.24
A central policy proposal of eugenics was the isolation of disabled persons in residential facilities or special schools. In the first two decades of the 1900s, as urban school districts around the country began developing special education programs, children who were physically disabled, deaf, and blind were often excluded from public education. A boy with a physical disability, if accepted by the public schools, was segregated in a special education classroom or school. Beginning in 1899, under the leadership of Elizabeth Farrell, the public schools of New York City enrolled students with a variety of mental and physical disabilities in segregated special education classes and schools. In New York, as in other urban districts, these ungraded classrooms were largely filled with boys who were recent immigrants living in impoverished neighborhoods.25
TUBERCULOSIS, INFERIORITY, AND ANXIETY
Tuberculosis was often viewed as not just a deadly disease but also an overt demonstration of underlying biological inferiority. Prior to German physician Robert Kochs discovery of the bacterial cause of the disease in 1882, it was widely held that tuberculosis was, at least in part, an inherited condition. Many physicians observed that the illness seemed to run in families. Even after Kochs scientific finding was common knowledge among American physicians, many within the medical and public health establishment clung to a modified heritability thesis in the form of a theory of tubercular diathesis, an inherited predisposition to having the disease. Well-known scientists such as medical text author William Osler and noted statistician Karl Pearson supported and propagated the notion that tuberculosis patients had a congenitally inferior biological constitution.26
For example, Dr. Ernest Laplace, in a lecture at Philadelphia Hospital, explained how a child with a diathesis inherited from his parents might be waiting for the occasion to develop tuberculosis. He gave the example of two children who experience a fall, one healthy and one with a diathesis.
The healthy child will develop a contusion of his knee which will be well in two or three days. Not so with the other child. The contusion is followed by a swelling of the knee-joint, and the child develops a white swelling or tuberculosis disease of the knee joint.27
To Laplace and many other physicians, the difference between the two children was like the difference between fertile and infertile soil. A child with a diathesis either had a receptive propensity or lacked a chemical resistance to the tubercle bacteria.28
Immigration laws in the early 1900s reflected the growing public fear that the social fabric of American society might be harmed by the influx of what Harry H. Laughlin, Superintendent of the Eugenics Records Office, called the socially unfit classes . . . who carry defective germ-plasm.29
New federal immigration laws passed between in 1882 and 1907 increasingly targeted immigrants with physical and mental disabilities and chronic health conditions as subject to deportation. Inspectors at Ellis Island were specifically instructed by New York Port Commissioner William Williams to screen out new immigrants who were likely to become public charges and who are suffering from physical defects which may affect their ability to earn a living. Further, the port excluded those of inferior genetics who would start a vicious strain that will lead to misery and loss in future generations and influence unfavorably the characters and lives of hundreds of persons.30
Beginning in 1904, public health officers and physicians conducting bodily inspections of incoming immigrants were instructed to identify immigrants not only with evident physical, sensory, or mental disorders but also those newcomers with a poor physique. Commissioner General of Immigration Robert Watchorn defined this broad new category of deficiency as including all those poorly able to withstand the onslaught of disease . . . (the) undersized, poorly developed, with feeble heart action, arteries below the standard size . . . physically degenerate. Such an immigrant was not only unlikely to become a desirable citizen, but also very likely to transmit his undesirable qualities to his offspring. Newcomers could be deported for any indication of biological inferiority, including weak general health, deficient bodily form, and infection with dangerous, contagious, or loathsome diseases.31
Tuberculosis in the early 20th century involved a distinct array of cultural understandings and fears. Popular response to persons with bone tuberculosis was infused with phthisis-phobia, a widespread fear of the more common pulmonary form of the disease, typically called consumption or phthisis. Between 1800 and 1870, the white plague caused about one of every five deaths in the United States. Afflicted persons often suffered with the incapacitating lung infection for decades, coughing up bloody sputum, their bodies wasting in sick beds, hospital wards, and sanitaria cottages. Families of all classes and races were haunted by images of loved ones gradually dissipating into bony skeletons with translucent white skin, awaiting a sure but often slow death.
The epidemiological trajectory of pulmonary tuberculosis had greatly turned before the 20th century. Due primarily to general improvements in public health and hygiene, the overall incidence and morbidity declined from 1870 on. By 1900, it was primarily a disease of the poor, of immigrants, African Americans, and Native Americans. Tuberculosis patients were frequently portrayed as morally suspect members of the dangerous classes at the lower rungs of the social ladder.32
Although Kochs germ theory did not yield an effective pharmacological treatment until the discovery of streptomycin in the 1940s, the concept of bacterial contagion fed the common view of tuberculosis patients as dangerous purveyors requiring isolation and social control. Dr. Herman M. Biggs, the Director of the Department of Health in New York City, focused public health efforts on the sanitary surveillance of the tubercular diseases.33 Based on compulsory disease report data provided by hospitals and physicians, the department identified high incidence neighborhoods and dispatched visiting nurses to educate, monitor cases, and prevent contagion. Biggs produced maps displaying high rates of infection in the close quarters of poor neighborhoods, providing data that further fueled the publics fearful perception of the lower classes.34
Consumptives of sufficient means often sought an open air cure, relocating to healthy air climates of the Adirondack Mountains of New York or the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and New Mexico. Sanitaria in Saranac Lake, New York, Rutland, Massachusetts, and White Haven, Pennsylvania, served the hygienic function of segregating patients safely away from the uninfected while providing access to the three ingredients of tubercular health: fresh air, rest, and a plumpening diet rich in milk and eggs. Patients rested and slept outdoors, even in frigid climates, soaking in the therapeutic value of clean air and bright sunshine. This constitutional treatment, believed to fortify the body against the infection, was initially developed for use with pulmonary tuberculosis. But it was also adopted by physicians treating children with bone infections.35
As doctors and public health officers integrated germ theory into their understanding of the disease, the contagion concept tended to reemphasize the need to isolate tuberculosis patients in hospitals and sanitaria. While 19nth century consumptives needed the quiescent remoteness of rural (often mountainous or seaside) climates to strengthen their bodily constitution, 20th century urban communities required the secure segregation of pestilential tuberculosis.
Tuberculous children, in particular, were often educated in special day schools or residential sanitaria designed for them. In 1904, the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor opened Sea Breeze, a residential treatment colony for children with tuberculosis located on the beach in Coney Island, New York. The following year, the New York City Public Schools initiated ungraded special education classrooms for students with mental and physical disabilities, including children with tuberculosis. The first open air public school for children with tuberculosis was opened in Providence, Rhode Island, in January, 1908. Nine months later, the Boston School Board launched an open-air school. Within the next two years, Hartford, Rochester, Chicago, Pawtucket, and New York each developed similar programs. Educators and physicians clearly believed that young people with tuberculosis should be segregated in special education classrooms. It was believed that tubercular children benefited from unique treatment programs while the healthy children profited from hygienic isolation from the minacious contagion.36
Driving the popular desire to quarantine was a panicky mass fear of the disease that often interpreted bone and pulmonary tuberculosis patients as dangerous public menaces. Even educated professionals and health care workers often embraced and perpetuated the publics attitude of exaggerated anxiety. William Sands Mills, Chief of Tuberculosis Clinic at New York Homeopathic Medical College, astutely observed,
This idea of the contagiousness of pulmonary tuberculosis has been instilled in the public mind in season and out of season for the past four or five years to such an extent that pthisis-phobia has become a common disease, not only with laymen, but with physicians. In consequence, in many communities, the consumptive has become a pariah, shunned like the pestilence.37
New York physician Ernest V. Hubbard noted that the first words typically spoken by his patients upon receiving the news of the tuberculosis diagnosis was an appeal that no one be notified. The law required that doctors and hospital register all tuberculosis patients with the City health department. Patients sought privacy for fear of losing employment, housing, and, indeed, ones moral reputation.38
One Worcester, Massachusetts, doctor complained that the public had gone much too far in their fearful response to contagion of the tubercle bacillus. He criticized his medical colleagues for playing an unfortunate influential role. "Already we have created a genuine phthisis-phobia, and whole communities will rise in arms when talk of establishing a tubercular hospital in their midst is made."39 Later in the same essay, however, he reluctantly admitted that he, too, was caught in the grip of phthisis phobia: "I should not like to have a consumptive for a near neighbor myself."40
A PLACE FOR SUCH A CHILD
Contrary to the dominant view that disabled children required isolation in special education classrooms and schools, John and Alice Dewey sought a general school for their son. The dominant early 20th century narrative of the lives of parents of disabled children, filled with what Lalvani and Polvere describe as chronic sorrow, helplessness, guilt, psychological distress, and a persistent state of mourning was far from the parenting experience of the Deweys. They embraced and supported Sabino without reservation and without the common preoccupation with pity and remorse attached to a medicalized orientation to disability. They approached Sabinos education with a philosophy that foreshadowed the concept of normalization espoused by 1970s deinstitutionalization advocates, a belief that disabled persons should inhabit conventional social roles of dignity and value in society. At every step of Sabinos academic career, the Deweys viewed him as capable of learning with nondisabled peers and succeeding in regular schools.41
Given Sabinos disability, arranging for admission to general education schools was no easy task. The work of pursuing school admission for their disabled son was a near-constant undertaking throughout Sabinos childhood years. The challenge of educating their son in schools that were unaccustomed to a boy with a disability required strong, persuasive parental advocacy. Due to John Deweys status as a philosopher and educator, they had a host of prominent social contacts that they employed regularly to seek Sabinos school placements. Alice typically took the lead in these efforts. Despite the social capital enjoyed by the Deweys, she experienced tremendous frustration in her many negotiations with local school leaders, prompting her exasperated lament, The search for a place for such a child as he shows to me how much we still demand beyond what exists.42
For example, disappointed in the rather traditional approach taken by the Horace Mann Laboratory School at Columbia University, the Deweys moved their daughters Lucy and Jane to Felix Adlers Ethical Culture School for the fall semester, 1906. The curriculum of the Ethical Culture School was undoubtedly more in line with the progressive program of study John had developed at the University of Chicago Lab School. Sabino had just completed kindergarten at Horace Mann. When they attempted to enroll him in the first grade at the Ethical Culture School, the school headmaster balked. He would not accept Sabino due to his disability. After the initial rebuff, Alice Dewey appealed to Ethical Culture School Superintendent Frank A. Manny, an old friend who had once worked closely with John on teacher education at the University of Chicago. She gently but persistently lobbied Mr. Manny, We have been disappointed that Mr. Lewis (school principal) was not ready to take in our little lame boy but we still hope he may later. Her optimistic phrasing framed the issue of Sabinos acceptance to the school not as a matter of school policy but of timing, providing the unsubtle hint that the boys enrollment would occur in the near future. By the following February, their advocacy efforts to have Sabino admitted to the Ethical Culture School succeeded. Unfortunately, the chronic pain in Sabinos knee was too severe for him to go to school that spring.43
The challenge of arranging for Sabinos education involved multiple factors. A native Italian speaker, he entered kindergarten in New York with virtually no oral or written English language skills. By his own recollection, he was bewildered throughout much of that first year of English instruction. Secondly, school leaders, even when pressured by socially prominent figures like Alice and John Dewey, often hesitated to enroll a crippled boy with tuberculosis. It was highly unconventional to educate a disabled boy in a regular school. Third, when Sabino was enrolled in school, the chronic pain he experienced during the primary grade years frequently interrupted his attendance for weeks at a time.
It is not surprising, given the language acquisition challenge as well as the prolonged periods of absence in the primary grades, that Sabino experienced learning struggles. Unlike the other Dewey children who prospered in academic settings, Sabino excelled in activities more mechanical than scholastic. When the Deweys purchased a car, neither Alice nor John were particularly capable drivers. Young Sabino became the family chauffeur and the mechanic who maintained the 1908 Ford. During his teen years, he was also the main maintenance and repair worker on the familys Long Island farm. While attending the seventh grade at Horace Mann School, his father convinced the school principal to place him in high school level technical courses such as electronics to take advantage of his interests and skills. He excelled.
Sabino once described himself as a living example of his fathers philosophy of education because he was a learner who greatly preferred active, interested engagement in real projects over the decontextualized abstractions of traditional academic tasks. When Dewey wrote in 1896 that the educational thing to do is to get at the conditions that lie back of and compel interestthe childs own powers and needs, employing instruction that builds forward from a childs own desires and skills, he unknowingly forecast what would become his own sons stringent requirements for school success. Unfortunately, rare was the school that applied Deweys educational thought in ways that met Sabinos needs. I wish Bino were as happy in his school as Lucy is in hers, Alice bemoaned her sons burdensome situation, but he is not and his classes are not suited to him.44
The Deweys considered sending Sabino away to private boarding schools that offered a progressive learning-by-doing program of study that included mechanical or vocational training to match his talents. The Sanford School in Redding, Connecticut, had a strong academic reputation. Noted graduates included liberal theologian Charles Augustus Briggs and Colorado Governor and Senator Charles S. Thomas. But the tuition was too high and the social environment, like many East Coast boarding schools, Alice thought, was perhaps too aristocratic.45
The Interlaken School for Boys in LaPorte, Indiana, was more closely attuned to the Dewey philosophy of progressive education. Founder Dr. Edward A. Rumely created a curriculum founded on the basic principle hand and muscle work as well as brain work and development of the mind. In additional to standard academic subjects, the boys were taught to grow their own food, spin and weave their own cloth, make their own soap, dip their own candles. One mother, based on her own sons experience, pronounced joyfully, Here are Dr. Deweys and Colonel Parkers ideas practically carried out. In 1915, John and his daughter Evelyn Deweys Schools of To-Morrow, a guide to progressive schooling in the United States, boasted that the Interlaken School buildings were built by the pupils, including four or five big log structures, the plans being drawn, the foundations dug and laid, and the carpentry and the painting on the building done by boy labor.46
This was certainly the kind of school that would nurture Sabinos interests and capacities. The one at La Porte offers on paper the best of what he needs, Alice told confidant Frank Manny. She was concerned, though, that the faculty might not have the necessary supportive attitude toward their disabled son. She directly references his past difficulties dealing with teasing and unkindness due to his disability, Sabino is sensitive and easily harried and he is equally easily managed. But without a certain assurance of sympathy I shouldn't care to think of the La Porte school. The Deweys decided not to send Sabino to Interlaken due in part to the mistaken impression that Dr. Rumely was no longer directing the school. Given their many concerns, it is probable that they felt uncomfortable sending their beloved son off to live far away in Indiana. After briefly attending a private school in Tarrytown, New York, Sabino ultimately graduated from a vocational program at Stuyvesant Technical High School, the only public school that he attended.47
Sabinos experiences with university education continued the familiar pattern. His mother and father took great and worried interest in finding him a college where he might succeed. Sabino generally preferred working in a technical or industrial field over pursuing a scholastic program. But, at the repeated urging of his parents, he made multiple attempts at college matriculation. Often John took the lead, using his many university contacts to search out an appropriate program of study and seek admission for his son. He arranged for Sabinos enrollment in a veterinary school program at McGill University in Canada. Sabino almost completed a two-year degree, falling just two final exams short before he left to work as a machine operator in a foundry outside Montreal.48
As Sabino approached 21, the age at which he would become eligible for the World War I draft, he was working a manufacturing line job at the Lincoln Motor Works in Detroit. His parents repeatedly urged and begged him to return to college in order to avoid conscription. John took a visiting faculty position for the 19181919 school year at the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University. He spent much of the fall semester trying to convince either Berkeley or Stanford to grant admission to Sabino so that he might serve his military duty under the safety of a campus-based Student Army Training Corps (SATC).
Although Alice and John succeeded in convincing Sabino to leave Detroit to join them on the West Coast, the parents and son often seemed to be working at cross-purposes. In August, Sabino told his mother, About entering a university I do'nt remember that rash promis (sic) . . . as for attempting college after all my successive failures is more than have nerve to try again for a while any way. Despite Sabinos expressed reluctance, his father continued negotiating with a variety of senior university administrators. He succeeded in obtaining admission to the engineering program at Stanford University only to discover that Sabino did not meet the physical requirements for acceptance in the SATC. His disability precluded participation in the campus military program.
Meanwhile, Sabino had secretly enlisted in the Army, seeking a job as a mechanic in the aviation corps. Fearful of their son going off to war, the Deweys made arrangements through a series of influential contacts to have Sabinos enlistment papers quietly destroyed. Sabino didnt attend a university in California, and war ended before he could be drafted. In 1921, John Dewey made one last attempt at helping Sabino to complete college. He negotiated Sabinos admission at Antioch College in Ohio, a school with an innovative work-study approach to higher education. Apparently, he thought that his son would excel in a program that connected academics directly to work experiences. By his second semester, however, Sabino was expelled for poor academic performance.49
FATHER OF CHILD WITH A DISABILITY
As a father adopting and raising a son with a physical disability in the early decades of the 20th century, John Dewey undoubtedly went through what many parents of disabled children endured. He and Alice worried about their sons health, and they did what they could to navigate the various medical options available to them. They were troubled by their sons suffering and pain, and they worked together with great consistency to comfort and support their boy as much as possible. Sabinos parents loved him dearly and devoted themselves, often through extreme and perhaps overbearing effort, to carve a path of dignity and opportunity for their boy.
Many of the challenges they confronted arose from the troubling cultural terrain of stigmatized and oppressive meanings of disability and disabled persons. The growing prominence of eugenic thought in the early 1900s contributed to a common belief that disabled children required treatment, educational and medical, that involved geographic isolation from the general public.
Segregation, whether in institutions, hospitals, or special education programs, achieved two goals simultaneously. Persons in need of medical care could receive what physicians, special educators, and other professional caregivers had to offer in institutions and locations devoted specifically to healing. The Deweys were highly involved in this effort. They donated frequently to the New York State Hospital for the Care of Crippled and Deformed Children in West Haverstraw, New York, an institution that treated orthopedic impairments, mostly bone tuberculosis, for poor children. Beginning in 1908, Alice Dewey served on the Board of Managers of the Hospital.50
But segregation of disabled persons served an additional purpose. It offered the general public the comfort of a form of sociological hygiene through the expulsion and control of persons viewed as morally suspect, as lacking the characterological strength and goodness of normality. The commonplace cultural belief in the safety and decency of the community depended, in part, on measures of social control that identified and isolated persons who were viewed as embodying moral compromise and weakness. As a crippled boy with tuberculosis, Sabinos identity was doubly colored by the symbolic cultural force of both inferior statuses. Tuberculosis was the frightening menace that very slowly and mysteriously reduced millions of Americans to ghostly images of approaching death. Cripples were the unfortunate carriers of societys evils, the lesser bodies demonstrating the beliefs and social improvement strategies of eugenics thought.
While Sabino Deweys parents certainly supported the development and utilization of the best medical science possible to treat orthopedic impairments, they worked assiduously to resist the powerful cultural assumption that their disabled son should lead a life of anything less than full participation in the community. What made them unique in comparison to most parents of disabled children living in New York City in the early 1900s was both their knowledge of teaching and learning as well as their social prominence due to Johns fame. They had substantial social capital and connectionsprivilege involving dimensions of race and social class as well as the appurtenances of Professor Deweys famethat they employed when necessary to help their son.51 Drawing from their experiences with the Chicago Lab School and their disappointment in the pedagogy of the public schools, they sought a progressive form of education for all of their children. This effort was redoubled in the case of Sabino, a boy whose interests and talents diverged sharply from the standard academic program. This led John and Alice Dewey to seek out liberal, humanistic (mainly) private schools for Sabino. Yet even within the progressive cultural circles where the liberal intelligentsia and elites educated their children, the Deweys still encountered the rarely questioned belief that disabled children do not attend regular schools. Even the scholar viewed widely by progressive educators as the father of their school philosophy had limited influence in persuading school leaders to open the doors of their school to a disabled student. Parents of students with disabilities today who experience frustration with the rigidity of educational systems that seem to be designed for someone elses child would easily relate to the Deweys struggles.
How the intimate, personal experience of watching his son be rejected and misunderstood due to his disability affected the philosophy and social activism of John Dewey is an obvious but complex question that deserves attention. Contemporary scholars understandably wonder how Deweys thinking about disability aligns with or perhaps supports current scholarship on the medical model or social model of disability. It is hoped that this historical study supplies the impetus to ask new questions about how John Deweys life as a husband and father influenced his beliefs about power and diversity in democratic society. Although answering these questions in a satisfactory and complete way is beyond the scope of this study, a few final observations are offered as a way of launching the dialogue about how Deweys experiences raising Sabino might have impacted his thinking on disability and education.
It is likely that the empathy that John Dewey developed for the oppressed classes, a sensibility that contributed to his democratic writings and political activities, benefitted from his experiences raising and struggling on behalf of his disabled son. We know that he and his wife Alice experienced the full, harsh slap of disability discrimination that rejected and reduced their son. If experiences of witnessing and examining social prejudice and political oppression powerfully affected this great scholars philosophy, then the intimate, personal experiences he endured with his son and wife must count as contributing in some substantive way to his scholarship and action.
A number of scholars have observed that John Dewey became more active in civil rights activities in the years after the Dewey familyincluding the newest member Sabinorelocated to New York City. Deweys political writings, speeches, and public activism during these Columbia University years focused mainly on achieving equality for African Americans and women. A highlight of his racial justice work was his address at the 1909 National Negro Conference when he asserted that, on a scientific basis, there is no inferior race. What held African Americans down, he stated, was not an innate lack of ability but a variety of societal obstacles including insufficient educational and employment opportunities. This Conference became the birthplace of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), with John Dewey as one of the founding members. An active contributor to the organization and the cause for many years, Dewey helped found the American Federation of Negro College students in the 1940s and convinced Eleanor Roosevelt to lead its Advisory Council. On Deweys 90th birthday, NAACP Secretary Roy Wilkins celebrated the philosophers immeasureable contribution to the struggle against racial discrimination.52
In 1922, speaking to an audience of Chinese scholars, Dewey presented his most thorough analysis of the psychology and sociology of racism. Race prejudice, he proclaimed, is a deep-seated and widespread social disease. He theorized racial discrimination as one form of the broader social problem of multiform prejudice through which human judgment is subverted and distorted. In his description of multiple types of prejudice, Dewey cited bias against women but did not mention disability. Although individuals can be freed from racial prejudice as a belief system, he theorized, the larger task of healing society required more profound and lasting cultural reform, a change not only in education . . . but also political and industrial organization.53
Dewey was also very active in the early womens movement. His understanding of the politics of gender was influenced greatly by feminists such as Jane Addams and Julia Lathrop of Chicagos Hull House, author Charlotte Perkins Gilman, educator Elsie Ripley Clapp, and his wife Alice, a local leader of the Womens Suffrage Party. During the decade leading up to passage of the 19th Amendment, Dewey was a frequent speaker in support of womens suffrage and political equality. He joined Upton Sinclair and other prominent intellectuals in a public symposium on the topic sponsored by the literary journal, the International. He marched with Alice through the streets of New York in suffrage movement protest parades. He gave frequent speeches on the Columbia University campus expressing the need to grant women full citizenship, the outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace which is liberty. One presentation Dewey made to summer school students in 1912 gained such attention that the eager audience overflowed the auditorium into the hallways.54
In contrast to Deweys vigorous written and spoken support for the causes of political equality for women and African Americans, it would appear that his record on disability issues is remarkably slim. As public school special education systems developed in many American cities during the first two decades of the 20th century, Dewey offered little direct comment. His only published references to the education of students with disabilities occurred in brief passing as he publically defended Depression Era public schools against budget cuts. In magazine articles and radio addresses for lay audiences, he warned that cutting important school programs such as health care, kindergarten, vocational education, and special education would be unwise.55
Despite his lack of substantive analysis of disability issues in the schools, it would be an error to think that Dewey did not write about special education. In response to the rapid growth of special education programs, he targeted the growing administrative system of psychometric assessment that framed the intellectual capacity of students along a hierarchy of ability and value. World War I greatly boosted the development and acceptance of psychological measures of mental functioning. The U.S. Army commissioned 40 leading psychologists, including Robert M. Yerkes of Harvard, Henry H. Goddard of the Vineland Training School, and Lewis M. Terman of Stanford University, to develop tests of intellectual capacity. After the war, many school districts turned to the new psychology of mental measurement for a more precise way of making special education diagnoses and placements. Quickly, intelligence tests became the authoritative tool at the hub of the administrative process of sorting normality and abnormality, regular and segregated instruction.56
Disappointed both in the direction taken by the young field of American psychology and public education, Dewey responded in 1922 with a harsh critique of intelligence testing in two articles in the New Republic. Together they comprise a fierce, multifaceted critique of the use of the new intelligence testing in education. Dewey argued that democracy, and education within a democracy, should encourage and nurture persons in the growth of their individuality, promoting the development of uniqueness of quality . . . a freedom . . . which is intrinsic and constructive. The goal of education should be the appreciation and cultivation of the interests, talents, and fruitful tendencies of each student. Intelligence testing (operating only under the title of science) diverts the educators attention away from the unique, creative, and potentially useful capacities of an individual child in favor of universal schemes of classification and hierarchy. The social and economic inequalities of society are reinforced by intelligence tests as inevitable demonstrations of natural differences in mental ability, a conclusion that harms both democracy and the educational appreciation of the complex array of skills and capacities present in individuals.57
Disability studies scholars will note that Dewey was a strident critic of the psychological testing that later became a central plank in the ideological platform of the special education system, the cornerstone of the medical model of disability in the public schools. He fiercely opposed the sorting of students based on notions of superior and inferior ability as well as the political hierarchies of human value that later became known as fundamental features of the medical model.
But it would be an overstatement to argue that Dewey espoused an early concept of disabled persons as a political minority, as an oppressed group having similar social status to women or African Americans. Among many who embrace Dewey as the forefather of modern liberalism, it would be tempting to view him as a scholar who knew that disabled persons shared a common political identity and cause. It would tempting to think that the great philosopher who inspired much of the current progressive school of democratic thought came to the conclusion that disabled citizens constituted an oppressed political minority whose situation would only be improved through concerted political action. Nothing in his writings or the historical evidence available indicates that Dewey made the leap from his own experience with this son to such a political articulation of disability.
Such a political understanding of disability did not even exist in American society or academic circles during Deweys lifetime. The first, very brief appearance of a public conceptualization of disability even remotely similar to the social model employed by contemporary disability activists and disability studies scholars arose when a small group called the League of the Physically Handicapped protested Franklin Delano Roosevelts Works Progress Administration policy of not employing disabled persons in May 1935. That short-lived burst of disability activism during the Great Depression, unnoticed until Longmore and Goldbergers more recent historical research, did not inform the work of the leaders of the disability rights movement during the 1960s and 1970s. The politicized view of disabilitythe conceptual shift from a notion of private tragedy to one of systemic and structural oppressionwas primarily created and developed by disabled persons seeking unity with one another and freedom from social oppression, not by philosophers or even the parents of disabled young people.58
As John Dewey worked toward the goals of political equality for women and African Americans, he learned from conceptual frameworks of the civil rights activists that he read, conversed with, and befriended. Although his critique of the use of intelligence measures in the public schools demonstrated his fear that administrative processes ranking students abilities could produce social inequality, there is no evidence that he went on to theorize disabled Americans as a disadvantaged political minority. His experiences witnessing the disability oppression of his son, while undoubtedly impactful to this thinking about classes of persons poorly served by democracy, did not lead him to view disability as impetus for civil rights activity.
Jay Martin, The Education of John Dewey (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 236. Herbert M. Kliebard, John Dewey's Other Son, Teachers College Record 83, no. 3 (1982): 453-457. Steven C. Rockefeller, John Dewey: Religious Faith and Democratic Humanism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991). George Dyhuizen, The Life and Mind of John Dewey (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1973). Robert B. Westbrook, John Dewey and American Democracy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993). Alan Ryan, John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997). Sabino L. Dewey, interview by Malcolm P. Douglass and Enid H. Douglass, Claremont Graduate School, June 19, 1966, July 20, 1967, and September 12, 1970.
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Rand, The Prevention of Tuberculosis from the Medical, Economic and Social Standpoints, 1099.
Priya Lalvani and Lauren Polvere, Historical Perspectives on Studying Families of Children with Disabilities: A Case for Critical Research. Disability Studies Quarterly, 33, 3 (2013), n.p. Wolf Wolfensberger, The Principle of Normalization in Human Services (Toronto: National Institute on Mental Retardation, 1972). Alice Dewey to Mary Bloom Manny or Annette Sawyer Manny (Mrs. Frank A.), February 27, 1907. Sabino L. Dewey, interview, 29.
Alice Dewey to Frank A. Manny, August 26, 1908.
Biography, Frank Addison Manny, Bentley Historical Library, Michigan Historical Collections, University of Michigan. http://quod.lib.umich.edu/b/bhlead/umich-bhl-852267?view=text. Alice Dewey to Frank A. Manny, November 26, 1906. Alice Dewey to Mary Bloom Manny or Annette Sawyer Manny (Mrs. Frank A.), February 27, 1907.
Sabino L. Dewey, interview, 42. John Dewey, Interest in Relation to Training of the Will, in John Dewey: The Early Works, 1882-1898, Volume 5, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1896/1967): 146. Alice Dewey to Jane, Lucy, & Evelyn Dewey, September 1913.
Notes and Queries: A Once Famous School to be Revived, The Journal of Education 62, no. 16 (1905): 451452 Alice Dewey to Frank A. Manny, August 3, 1908.
Philip Morehouse McGarr and Fanny Scott, The Autobiography of Dr. Edward A. Rumely: The La Porte Years, 1906-1914. Indiana Magazine of History 67, no. 1 (1971): 1-44. Marion Foster Washburn, A New School in America, The Elementary School Teacher 9, no. 2 (1908): 102. John Dewey and Evelyn Dewey, Schools of To-Morrow (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1915): 8788.
Alice Dewey to Frank A. Manny, July 1908. Sabino L. Dewey, interview, 42.
John Dewey to Alice Dewey, July 6, 1918. Sabino L. Dewey, interview, 3839.
Sabino Dewey to Alice Dewey, June 4, 1918. John Dewey to Alice Dewey, July 6, 1918. Sabino Dewey to Alice Dewey, July 12, 1918. Sabino Dewey to Alice Dewey, August 10, 1918. John Dewey to Evelyn & Lucy Dewey, October 1, 1918. Alice Dewey to Evelyn Dewey, September 21, 1918. Sabino L. Dewey, interview, 35. Stephen R. Herr, Connected Thoughts: A Reinterpretation of the Reorganization of Antioch College in the 1920s (Lanham, MD: University Press of America), 111112.
Ninth Annual Report of the New York State Hospital for the Care of Crippled and Deformed Children (West Haverstraw, New York, 1909). Tenth Annual Report of the New York State Hospital for the Care of Crippled and Deformed Children (West Haverstraw, New York, 1910).
The Dewey family racial and social class privilege undoubtedly offered Sabino opportunities unavailable to, for example, students from African American or low income families.
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