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COLLECTION Identifier: B MS c44

Isaac Newton Kerlin papers


The Isaac Newton Kerlin papers, 1838-1970 (inclusive), 1838-1891 (bulk) consist of correspondence, notes, photographs, reports, and publications produced and collected by Isaac Newton Kerlin as Superintendent of the Pennsylvania Training School for Feeble-Minded Children in Elwyn from 1863 to 1893. A letter from 1970 contains a request from the owners of the Elwyn Institute for the donation of Kerlin's papers.


  • 1838-1970 (inclusive),
  • Majority of material found within 1838-1891 .


Conditions Governing Access

Collection is open for research. Access requires advance notice. There are no restrictions on this collection. Consult Public Services for further information.

Conditions Governing Use

The Boston Medical Library does not hold copyright on all materials in the collection. Researchers are responsible for identifying and contacting any third-party copyright holders for permission to reproduce or publish. For more information on the Center's use, publication, and reproduction policies, view our Reproductions and Use Policy.


0.4 cubic feet ((1 letter size document box).)

The Isaac Newton Kerlin papers consist of correspondence, notes, photographs, reports, circulars, pamphlets, admission papers, obituaries, and publications from Kerlin’s work at Pennsylvania Training School for Feeble-Minded Children, Elwyn, Pennsylvania (now “Elwyn”), and pertaining to intellectual disabilities and to religion.

Materials are in English and Japanese. All Japanese materials have accompanying English translations.

Biographical Note

Isaac Newton Kerlin (1856-1893), M.D., 1856, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, served as superintendent of the Pennsylvania Institute for Feeble-Minded Children in Elwyn, Pennsylvania (later called Elwyn Institute and then Elwyn) from 1858 to 1893. His work there included the study and care of children with intellectual and developmental disabilities, as well as the promotion of similar charitable schools.

Isaac Newton Kerlin was born in Burlington, New Jersey on May 27, 1834. He was identified as white in the 1880 U.S. Census. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia, in 1856, he acted as the Assistant Superintendent of the Pennsylvania Training School for Feeble-Minded Children at Germantown, Pennsylvania (1856-1862). In 1859, the school was relocated to Elwyn, Pennsylvania. In 1862, Kerlin enlisted as a medical officer in the Army of the Potomac, serving for one year before being recalled to the Pennsylvania Institute for Feeble-Minded Children to become Superintendent, a position he held from 1863 to 1893. In the nearly three decades of his tenure at the Pennsylvania Training School for Feeble-Minded Children, Kerlin was considered a leader in the field of intellectual disabilities. During his time as superintendent, the school grew from 144 students to more than 800. Kerlin believed in the value of schools for people with intellectual disabilities as alternatives to insane asylums, penal institutions, and almshouses; he promoted this idea beginning in 1876. Like many superintendents of institutions like the Pennsylvania Institute at that time, Kerlin allowed corporal punishment under limited circumstances. He forbade attendants to carry switches for punishing students, stating in institution rules that “no severities or meanness towards the children will be tolerated” (1). Kerlin believed that institutions should not be solely for children, and that all people with intellectual disabilities were wards of the state. In addition to housing students with intellectual disability, the School also housed students with what Kerlin described as “moral imbecility” (possibly equivalent to what would later be called “psychopathy”). The School was known for Kerlin’s work with students with this condition, which he described as incurable and characterized by a lack of morals and insensibility to pain; it could present with or without intellectual disability. Students with this condition received only manual education (2). Under Kerlin’s leadership, some students whose parents consented were sterilized; this was to control sexual behavior and epileptic symptoms (3).

Isaac Newton Kerlin was a member of the American Association on Mental Deficiency. With psychiatrist and educator Edouard Séguin (1812-1880) and five other superintendents, Kerlin founded the Association of the Medical Officers of American Institutions for the Feeble-Minded (now the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities). Kerlin served as Secretary-Treasurer of the organization for sixteen years, and spent the summer of 1889 abroad examining foreign institutions in Great Britain, Norway, and Denmark. He later served as Nestor and succeeded to President in 1892.

In 1865, Kerlin married Harriet C. Dix (1842-1892) of Massachusetts. They had four children: John Ware Sharpless; Isaac Newton, Jr.; Ward Dix; and Thaddeus Leavitt. Kerlin died on October 25, 1893 and was buried on the grounds of the Pennsylvania Institute for Feeble-Minded Children.

1. Kerlin, Isaac Newton. The Manual of Elwyn: 1864-1891. (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1891).

2. Chamberlain, Chelsea D., ""Why Wait Until They Commit a Crime?": Moral Imbecility and the Problem of Knowledge in Progressive America, 1880-1920" (2015). Graduate Student Theses, Dissertations, & Professional Papers. 4469., p. 21, p. 30, p. 38, and p. 49.

3. Albrecht, G. L., Sage Publications, Thomson Gale (Firm). (2006). Encyclopedia of disability. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications.

Series and Subseries in the Collection

  1. I. Correspondence, 1838-1970 (inclusive), 1838-1891 (bulk)
  2. II. Collected Publications, 1839-1936 (inclusive), 1891-1894 (bulk)

Related Papers at Houghton Library, Harvard University

Resources about Isaac Newton Kerlin.

  • Guss, Jonathan J. and Anne C. Rose. Kerlin, Barr, and the early eugenics movement in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University, 2007.
  • Shutterworth, George Edward. Isaac N. Kerlin M.D. London: H.K. Lewis, 1894.

Processing Information

Processed by Jessica Lee Gleason under the supervision of Bryan Sutherland, October 2010.

Processing staff in the Center for the History of Medicine analyzed, arranged, and described the records and created a finding aid to improve access to the collection. To enhance preservation, processing staff re-housed the collection and, where necessary, photocopied documents onto acid-free paper. Folder titles were transcribed from originals.

Charlotte Lellman revised the Biographical Note and the Scope and Content notes in this finding aid in December 2020 to bring them into compliance with the Center for the History of Medicine’s Guidelines for Inclusive and Conscientious Description (2020). In particular, Lellman updated the terminology describing students with intellectual disabilities. She also added additional information about corporal punishment and sterilizations at the Pennsylvania Institute for Feeble-Minded Children under Kerlin's tenure. The previous version of the finding aid is being maintained for transparency around the descriptive process.

Kerlin, Isaac Newton, 1834-1893. Papers, 1838-1970 (inclusive), 1838-1891 (bulk): Finding Aid.
Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine. Center for the History of Medicine.
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Center for the History of Medicine (Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine) Repository

The Center for the History of Medicine in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine is one of the world's leading resources for the study of the history of health and medicine. Our mission is to enable the history of medicine and public health to inform healthcare, the health sciences, and the societies in which they are embedded.

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