Fernald State School – Waltham, Massachusetts - Atlas Obscura

Fernald State School

Run by a eugenics advocate, this aging institution conducted secret radiation experiments sponsored by Quaker Oats. 


Built in 1888 the Fernald State School grew to have one of the most despicable reputations for facilities of its kind in the country with its eugenics obsessed warden and illegal radiation testing, but it is still in operation today as the oldest state run mental health facility in the country. And it actually needs help.

Originally operated as the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded, the mental institution was later named after its third superintendent, Walter E. Fernald. Fernald was a proud advocate of the eugenics movement, believing that the best way to improve society and the general human race was to separate unwanted and inferior people so they could not breed. While on paper this philosophy was applied only to the mentally-handicapped, Fernald began taking in perfectly capable patients who were simply poor or unwanted. It has been estimated as many as half of Fernald’s patients were of normal intelligence. 

The hospital was a sprawling facility sitting on 186 acres and featuring its own power plant and multiple buildings. Despite its size, basic conditions at the center were notably inadequate with overstuffed dorms, widespread squalor, and multiple reports of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of the staff. Things got even more troubling in the 1940s and 50s when the semi-secret radiation tests began. Overseen by researchers from Harvard and MIT and with funding from the Quaker Oats company, the inmates were systematically exposed to small doses of radiation and their absorption of the toxic energy was monitored. The inmates, mentally deficient or no, were incentivized to join a “Science Club” in which they were offered parties, trips to baseball games, and extra portions of food. Then they were injected with radioactive chemicals. To be fair, this nightmare scenario was not completely devoid of consent from the patients’ guardians, although most reports agree that it was less than informed.

It was not until the 1970s that Fernald finally began to turn around after a state lawsuit that forced the facility to correct its horrifying conditions. The hospital was brought up to a humane standard and operated above board for a number of decades, although the inmate population continually dwindled. MIT and Quaker Oats also settled in a class action suit regarding the radiation tests in 1998.

13 patients still occupied a small cluster of buildings on a portion of the massive campus in 2013. The patients all suffered from such extreme mental handicaps that taking them out of their routines and familiar surroundings could prove detrimental and possibly even deadly to the fragile inmates. In 2014 the school was shut down.

Know Before You Go

There are many no trespassing signs and video cameras. They don't want visitors, sadly.