By Thomas W. Pearson, author of An Ordinary Future: Margaret Mead, the Problem of Disability, and a Child Born Different

In 1944, Margaret Mead helped banish a disabled child to a dismal existence in an institution.

Mead was close friends with Erik Erikson, a psychoanalyst who would also become a famous twentieth-century intellectual, especially after publishing his landmark Childhood and Society in 1950. After Joan Erikson, Erik’s wife, gave birth to their son Neil, she lay sedated in a hospital bed. The doctors told Erik that Neil had “mongolism” (an old, racialized term for what is now called Down syndrome) and recommended sending the baby away immediately. The child would be incapable of learning, they said. Raising a “mongoloid” would sap Joan’s emotional energy and the stigma of abnormality would destroy his family.

Unsure of what to do, Erik called his friend Margaret Mead.

Mead was already a well-known public figure. An expert on culture and childhood development, she used anthropology to challenge the dominant beliefs of her own society and to cultivate a better world, a mission many anthropologists still identify with today. But Mead, surprisingly, agreed with the doctors. Erikson went home and told his other children that Neil had died during childbirth. Neil spent the next two decades institutionalized and excluded from his family.

When I first heard this story, it caught my attention because I am the father of a daughter with Down syndrome. My daughter’s diagnosis after birth was unexpected, and I have felt that same impulse to reject what I didn’t understand. As her father, I now experience a world that still dehumanizes and devalues my daughter and others with disabilities.

As an anthropologist, I was disappointed in Mead. Even as we comb through the complexities of her life and work, Mead is remembered as an intellectual renegade who both celebrated and sought to understand human variation, pioneering the principle of cultural relativism to counter scientific racism and eugenics. Yet when a friend called her for advice about a child born different, she conformed to the ableist culture of her time.

When I started to examine my own experience of coming to terms with my daughter’s diagnosis, recounted in my book An Ordinary Future, I dug deeper into the story about Mead, Erikson, and Neil. Along the way, I kept encountering instances in which Mead challenged prevailing views about disability, and I found myself charting her path to disability rights activism.

Some of the first disability advocacy groups, often led by parents, took shape in the 1950s. Given her significant public profile, these groups often invited Mead to speak at events. In doing so, they pushed her to think differently about disability. To these groups, Mead commonly spoke about disability as a unique and valuable human experience worthy of anthropological attention.

In response to an interviewer question about “second-rate” and unfit people, Mead said: “I think we are going to have to widen the range of people who we treat as human. And we build our society so they can live in it, so the deaf can live in it, and people with special disabilities. At the same time, we may hope to have a greater range of human variability, and therefore greater ability also.”

Mead also joined other social scientists, such as Erving Goffman, in critiquing the dreadful institutions and asylums that housed the so-called mentally deficient. In a 1959 talk to the American Association on Mental Deficiency, she scolded the professional group for its linkages to eugenics and for reinforcing narrow conceptions of normality. She told a story about a “little mongoloid girl” who thrived because she was recognized as a whole person and viewed as a part of her culture. She used the story to call for “adapting the world” to people with cognitive disabilities, building a “culture in which they belong.”[1]

Mead was pulled into disability rights activism in other ways as well. In a 1967 address to the President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped, started a decade earlier by President Eisenhower, Mead shared an anecdote about the discovery of an ancient human fossil showing evidence of a severe fracture that would not have healed without the care of others. Over the course of human evolution, “we know we are approaching what we regard as true humanity,” she claimed, when people begin to “care for anyone who was disabled,” including any “infant who showed any deviation from the norm.”[2]

Neil Erikson had died two years earlier, alone in an institution.

When my daughter was born and diagnosed with Down syndrome, I initially failed to understand that disability is a basic truth of the human experience. We all experience vulnerability, and we all rely on the care of others. Perhaps Mead had also misunderstood this when Erik Erison called her about Neil, a friend reaching out in a desperate moment.

Parenting my daughter has enrolled me into disability advocacy and pushed me to confront the histories that still influence anthropology and still shape perceptions of disability and difference in the present. Like Mead discovered, situating disability at the center of our work transforms how we approach fundamental questions of what it means to be human, as well as the shared goal of making the world more just and inclusive.

[1] I recount this in greater detail in my book. Mead’s presentation is reproduced in Mead, Margaret. “Research: Cult or Cure?” American Journal of Mental Deficiency 64 (1959): 253-64.

[2] See “Dr. Margaret Mead’s Adress.” In Annual Meeting Minutes: The President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped, 7-9. Washington, DC: Bureau of Labor Standards, 1967. Other anthropologists have written about the continued public circulation of this anecdote and questioned its attribution to Mead. This address is evidence that Mead indeed used the anecdote.