The Fernald Center, originally called the Massachusetts School for Idiotic Children, was founded by reformer Samuel Gridley Howe in 1848 with a $2,500 appropriation from the Massachusetts State Legislature. The school eventually comprised 72 buildings total, located on . At its peak, some 2,500 people were confined there, most of them "feeble-minded" boys.
Under its first resident superintendent, Walter E. Fernald (1859–1924), an advocate of eugenics, the school was viewed as a model educational facility in the field of mental retardation. It was renamed in his honor in 1925, following his death the previous year.
The institution did serve a large population of mentally retarded children, but the The Boston Globe estimates that upwards of half of the inmates tested with IQs in the normal range. In the 20th century, living conditions were spartan or worse; approximately 36 children slept in each dormitory room. This situation changed radically, starting in the 1970s, when a class action suit, Ricci v. Okin, was filed to upgrade conditions at Fernald and several other state institutions for persons with mental retardation in Massachusetts. U.S. District Court Judge Joseph L. Tauro, who assumed oversight of the case in 1972, formally disengaged from the case in 1993, declaring that improvements in the care and conditions at the facilities had made them "second to none anywhere in the world."
Despite widespread reports of physical and sexual abuse, the Fernald School is best known as the site of the 1946–53 joint experiments by Harvard University and MIT that exposed young male children to repeated doses of radiation. Documents declassified in 1994 by the United States Department of Energy revealed the following details:
In 1946, one study exposed seventeen subjects to radioactive iron. The second study, which involved a series of seventeen related subexperiments, exposed fifty-seven subjects to radioactive calcium between 1950 and 1953. It is clear that the doses involved were low and that it is extremely unlikely that any of the children who were used as subjects were harmed as a consequence. These studies remain morally troubling, however, for several reasons. First, although parents or guardians were asked for their permission to have their children involved in the research, the available evidence suggests that the information provided was, at best, incomplete. Second, there is the question of the fairness of selecting institutionalized children at all, children whose life circumstances were by any standard already heavily burdened.
The buildings and grounds survive as a center for mentally disabled adults, operated by the Massachusetts Department of Mental Retardation. In 2001, 320 adults resided at Fernald, with ages ranging from 27 to 96 years and an average age of 47 years. According to a December 13, 2004 article in the Boston Globe, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney announced in 2003 that the facility would be closed and the land sold by 2007. In 2003, a coalition of family advocates and state employee unions began a campaign to save Fernald and asked U.S. District Judge Joseph L. Tauro to resume his oversight of the Ricci v. Okin class action lawsuit that had led to improvements at Fernald and the other state facilities beginning in the 1970s.
In an August 14, 2007 ruling, Judge Tauro ordered the Department of Mental Retardation to consider the individual wishes of all 185 institution residents before closing the facility. However, in September 2007, the new administration of Governor Deval Patrick appealed Tauro's ruling to the First Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston. In a statement, the Patrick administration contended that Fernald had become too expensive to continue to operate and that equal or better care could be provided in private, community-based settings for the remaining Fernald residents. The administration's cost claims have been disputed by the Fernald League for the Retarded, Inc., the Massachusetts Coalition of Families and Advocates for the Retarded, Inc. (COFAR) and other family-based organizations, which have continued to advocate for the preservation of Fernald as a site for ICF/MR-level care for its current residents. Those advocacy organizations have proposed a "postage-stamp" plan under which Fernald would be scaled back in size and the remaining portion of the campus sold for development. The Patrick administration, however, has declined to negotiate with those Fernald advocates, and has pressed ahead with its appeal and closure plans.