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David North – a peculiar story you have probably never heard of

Let me take you back to 1950s America, and specifically Illinois.  At EasternIllinoisStateTeachers College, classes were run in Home Economics.  Twelve students would live in a home on campus and learn how to run a house and how to manage the domestic science aspects of doing so. 

 One of the College administrators [Dr Schmalhausen – and yes, if you are thinking that this name reminds you of Allo Allo, you may be right *] had the bright idea that if there was an infant to care for, that would be a really good way of replicating the task of a mother caring for a child and working the domestic duties around that.  (This was the 1950s, remember, and those sorts of concepts which seem overtly sexist to us now, were not viewed as peculiar at those times)


*[It was Von Smallhausen, Herr Flick’s sidekick…]

 von smallhausen


The College duly acquired a baby, who would otherwise have been given up for adoption; the very first one was called “Margaret Ann” and was given the surname “North”  – another later followed, this time a boy , who they called “David North”.  This was in 1952.


By the way, in case you are thinking that the baby came into the campus for a few hours a week, or a couple of days a year, no, this infant lived there full time, and all of their needs were met by the students.



So these infants lived in the campus homes, and received care from the twelve students who would be studying domestic science that year. There would be three students each academic quarter, so the child would have three primary carers and then acquire three brand new ones after three months, and so on. Nobody really seemed to have given any thought to what being used as a teaching prop would do for a child who needed a permanent and stable home.


[Note in this prospectus the proud boast that “Each of Cornell’s two practice departments is equipped with a real baby”  – also that the babies were given nicknames and weren’t even addressed by consistent names]


This came to the attention of Illinois child welfare services, and their boss Roman Haremski  [yes, that does look a lot like Roman Harem… this story is packed with good names]  after a newspaper article appeared, which was generally positive about the scheme, and they were exceedingly unhappy about the arrangement.


This is what the paediatrician who looked at the case thought   “The infant boy is in excellent physical condition. He has received physical care which is far superior to that given in the best foundling homes and in most American homes. Furthermore he is loved, which is the basic factor in the healthy developmental environment. This child has benefited tremendously from the good start he is receiving and will show it for years to come…”

The controversy was a clear two sided argument. Haremski and the Child Welfare Services believe that a child’s environment in the first year of life was pivotal to its development of character. They argued that being separated from its mother would be damaging to a child’s personality, but to be surrounded by twelve mothers would be even more confusing. Haremski thought the baby was being used like a textbook as an experiment in the study of home economics. He was also extremely concerned with the lack of a male father figure in this baby’s situation, especially for a baby boy. He threatened to intervene legally, arguing that Eastern Illinois State Teacher’s College did not hold a license to act as a child welfare agency.

Dr. Schmalhausen’s argument countered each of Haremski’s points. The love and care the baby was receiving from its “twelve foster mothers” would be much less damaging to his overall personality than being returned to its unwed mother only to be placed in a group home. She indicated that the problem of not having a father figure would still exist in either situation. David’s condition on campus at least provided him with the care of doting mothers


The nation’s media, including Time magazine, the New York Times ran with the story and it became something of a national controversy. [With the passage of time, it seems a bit inconceivable now that there were people stacking up behind the College and feeling that it was a good thing , but there was a division of opinion as to who was right]


Despite all this controversy, baby David stayed at the College and his care continued to be provided by batches of four mothers at a time, for three month periods, before having a fresh batch of four student mothers.  Because the College had entered into a private arrangement with David’s birth mother, it was not an adoption, and they did not need the licence.  The furthest the Illinois Welfare department was able to go was to say that they would not assist the College in finding any more babies for the teaching programme.


More babies were acquired, as it was newborn infants that the College really wanted, and even after the national publicity, it wasn’t until 1960 that the College stopped having live babies as a teaching aid for their students.

It doesn’t seem that anyone ever did any follow up studies on the children who spent their infant years receiving primary care from 12 different carers who would come and go, and were providing this care as part of their education rather than any desire to provide the infant with a home. 

Having said that, the medical studies that were being done in America  about whether children were being screwed up or damaged were not terribly great or accurate in the 1960s  – for example David Reimer (who suffered genital damage in some surgery, and a psychologist, John Money, recommended that he be instead raised as a girl and never told that he had been born a boy. This was exciting for the psychologist, because he believed that gender identity was entirely a product of environment and learned behaviour and even more so because David had a twin brother as a control.)

 John Money over many years wrote all sorts of research on how gender identity is not innate or biological but learned… unfortunately, John Money was utterly wrong about how wonderfully easy it would be for poor David to adjust to this fundamental change.  That didn’t stop his theories on the malleability of gender being the prevailing medical view for several years because he was misreporting how awfully the experiment was actually playing out for this poor child, and indeed his sibling.

About suesspiciousminds

Law geek, local authority care hack, fascinated by words and quirky information; deeply committed to cheesecake and beer.

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