The Walter E. Fernald State School was founded by Boston reformer Samuel Gridley Howe (1801-1876) in 1848 with an initial appropriation of $2,500 from the State Legislature, making it the first publicly supported institution for people with intellectual disabilities in the Western Hemisphere. From humble beginnings in South Boston, the school grew in size and stature under the strong leadership of Howe and his successor Dr. Edward Jarvis. In 1887, their achievements were recognized by the Legislature with purchase of a large new campus in Waltham, which was the second in the state to be developed on the cottage system, following the Lyman School for Boys in 1884. Here, Dr. Walter E. Fernald (1859-1924), the third superintendent, led the school into the twentieth century, instituting new programs in education, psychology, social work, and scientific research. In 1925, the name of the school was changed from the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded to the Walter E. Fernald State School in his honor. The Fernald School is unique in owing its development and stature chiefly to the dedication of its three renowned superintendents: Samuel Gridley Howe, Edward Jarvis, and Walter E. Fernald, who together, led the school from 1848-1924. The Fernald School clearly represents the development of the State Hospital and School System, with a period of significance extending from 1888 to 1940.
National Register Nomination