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COLLECTION Identifier: B MS c97

Clemens E. Benda papers


Contains early records of the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded, patient records from Benda's private psychiatric practice in Arlington, Mass. and Boston, Mass., correspondence and records from his time as Director of Research at the Fernald School, papers documenting his early studies and clinical work in Berlin before immigrating to the U.S., as well as records produced by research, lecturing, consulting, and other professional activities.


  • 1895-1975 (inclusive)


Language of Materials


Conditions Governing Access

Collection is open for research. Access requires advance notice. Access to personal and patient information is restricted to 80 years from the date of creation. Researchers may apply for access to restricted records. Consult the Reference Librarian for further information.

The Papers are stored offsite. Researchers are advised to contact Public Services for more information concerning retrieval of material.

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.


26 boxes

The Clemens E. Benda papers consist of Benda’s research records, patient records, and writings, dating from 1910 to 1975. Records are a product of Benda’s research, writings, and correspondence on intellectual disabilities and related topics; his work in private practice as a psychiatrist; and his work as director of the Wrentham State School and of the Walter E. Fernald State School. Also includes records from the Walter E. Fernald State School’s predecessor, the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded, pre-dating Benda’s work there. Additional records pertaining to studies Benda led involving radiation, using Fernald School students as subjects, may have been destroyed or discarded following Elisabeth (Knaack) Benda’s death in the early 1990s (1).

Records are in English and German. All pre-1936 material in Series I is in German. Bibliographies of Benda's monographs and articles in German and English are found in Box 1, Folders 16-17.

1. D’Antonio, Michael. The State Boys Rebellion. (Simon & Schuster, 2004: New York). Chapter Eleven.

Biographical Note

Clemens Benda (1898-1975), M.D., 1922, University of Berlin, Germany, was a German psychiatrist trained in Europe, who had a long career in research and clinical psychiatry at the Wrentham State Hospital, Wrentham, Massachusetts, the Walter E. Fernald State School, Waltham, Massachusetts, Metropolitan State School, Boston, Massachusetts, for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and in private practice. Benda also held many academic appointments. His research interests included Down syndrome, congenital hypothyroidism, intellectual disabilities, neuropathology, and existential psychology and psychiatry.

Clemens Ernst Benda was born in Berlin, Germany, on May 30, 1898. He was identified as white in the 1940 U.S. Census. His father, Carl Benda, was a pathologist, and his mother, Louise Rhode Benda, was from a family of Protestant theologians. Benda studied philosophy and medicine at the Universities of Berlin, Jena, and Heidelberg, all in Germany, earning his medical degree in 1922 from the University of Berlin. He began his medical career in Berlin and later became an assistant at the Psychiatric Clinic in Heidelberg. He studied existential philosophy with Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) and psychiatry with Karl Bonhoeffer (1868-1948) and Eugen Bleuler (1857-1939). He became a psychiatrist at the Binswanger Sanitarium in Switzerland. In the early 1930s Benda became editor of Die Medizinische Welt (The Medical World), a journal with a socio-philosophic slant. Benda, whose father was Jewish, left Nazi-controlled Germany in 1935, after being dismissed from his position amidst a rash of dismissals of Jewish physicians in Berlin (2). He immigrated to the United States with his family.

Benda became a research fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston where he worked with Stanley Cobb (1887-1968), and at Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts. Benda directed the Wallace Research Laboratory for the Study of Mental Deficiency at the Wrentham State School, Massachusetts, from 1936 to 1947. He also directed the Children’s Unit of the Metropolitan State Hospital in Boston during this time. From 1936 to 1967 he was Director of Research and Psychiatry for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. From 1947 until 1962, he was Director of Research and Clinical Psychiatry at the Walter E. Fernald State School in Waltham, Massachusetts. At the time, state schools like the Fernald School were residential institutions for people with intellectual disabilities as well as non-disabled students who were in state custody for other reasons (1). In addition to seeing patients at the Fernald School, Benda had an office on 21 Bay State Road, Boston, Massachusetts during his early years in the United States. He also saw patients in other places, such as at hotels in other cities, at a colleague’s office (Eric Siegel) in New York, New York, or at Ann’s Nursery School, Norfolk, Connecticut. In 1956, Benda moved his private psychiatric and counseling practice to 111 Pleasant Street, Arlington, Massachusetts. In 1973, he moved most of his practice to his second home in Hancock, New Hampshire. For short periods of time, he also had offices in Arlington, Boston, and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Fernald School was a very active site of medical experimentation during the time that Benda was Clinical Director, with a staff of 24 researchers (3). Among the studies he led were two that were later criticized on ethical grounds. In one study, with collaboration with Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge scientists and the Quaker Oats Company, Benda recruited non-disabled students to the “Science Club.” These students were fed oatmeal containing radioactive tracers to help the researchers study the nutritional qualities of the food, part of a larger pattern of radiation research on human subjects during the Cold War (4). For participating, club members were offered baseball game outings, extra milk, and other rewards, but the club existed to subject the participants to medical research about which they and their parents were not fully informed (5). No negative health effects were reported. In another Benda-led study, Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts researchers studied the thyroid, also by using radioactive tracers (6).In the early 1990s, former “Science Club” participant Fred Boyce learned about the radiation studies and worked with fellow students to take legal action and to publicize the abuses that occurred at Fernald (8). (In 1998, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Quaker Oats Company settled with thirty plaintiffs for $1.85 million). Benda also studied hormone treatments for students with Down syndrome (he believed that “feeble-mindedness" was caused by problems in the glands), and he collaborated with Max Rinkel (1894-1966) on lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) studies that involved inducing psychosis in participants (9).

Benda's academic appointments included positions at the following institutions: Harvard Medical School (Instructor of Neuropathology and Psychiatry); Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts (Associate Professor of Abnormal Psychology); the Institute of Pastoral Care at Massachusetts General Hospital (Lecturer); Tufts Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts (Lecturer); Boston University School of Theology (Assistant Professor of Psychology); and the University of Munich, Germany (Guest Professor of Psychiatry). Benda was affiliated with several professional associations, holding the presidency of both the American Association of Neuropathologists and the American Academy of Mental Retardation. He was a fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association and a member of the American Association for Mental Retardation.

Benda married Elisabeth Knaack, and they had two children, George Benda and Christian Benda. Benda died in Munich, Germany, in April 1975.

1. D’Antonio, Michael. The State Boys Rebellion: The Inspiring True Story of American Eugenics and the Men Who Overcame It. New York: Simon Schuster, 2004.

2. Zeidman, Lawrence A. Brain Science Under the Swastika: Ethical Violations, Resistance, and Victimization of Neuroscientists in Nazi Europe. Oxford University Press, 2020.

3. D’Antonio.

4. Ibid.

For more information, see: Hornblum, Allen M; Newman, Judith L.; and Dober, Gregory J. Against Their Will: The Secret History of Medical Experimentation on Children in Cold War America Macmillan, 2013.

5. D’Antonio.

Hornblum, Newman, and Dober.

6. Wright, Andrew. “Cold War Radiation Tests on Children Haunt Harvard.” Harvard Crimson, June 9, 1994.

D’Antonio, p. 244-245.

7. D’Antonio, Chapters Eleven and Twelve.

8. D’Antonio, p. 53-54, p. 123, p. 251.

Series in the Collection

  1. I. Subject Files, 1895-1975, undated
  2. II. Patient Files, 1923-1975, undated
  3. III. Wrentham State School Files, 1937-1956, 1961, undated
  4. IV. Walter E. Fernald School State School Files, 1904-1948, 1953-1963, undated
  5. V. Duplicate Materials, undated

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The collection was acquired from Elisabeth (Knaack) Benda in the mid to late 1970s.

Appraisal Note:

This collection contained many duplicate versions of articles written by Benda and reprints of articles by Benda and others which were discarded. Also discarded were galleys of several of Benda's books, miscellaneous personal bills, federal income tax returns for the late 1960s and early 1970s, and envelopes in which correspondence was sent to Benda if the return address and date were noted on the letter.

Processing Information

The collection was processed in April 1994.

Throughout the collection, all thermofax paper was copied. Newspaper clippings were either copied or isolated with acid-neutral paper. Photographs were also isolated with acid-neutral paper with the exception of the "brain photographs" (box 18).

The collection contains a large amount of highly acidic paper most of which Benda used for making carbon copies of outgoing correspondence. This paper, which is scattered throughout the collection, is rapidly deteriorating and should be copied as soon as possible.

The cloth and paper charts from the Walter E. Fernald State School are stored folded as they were found. Ideally, they should be stored flat or rolled, or they should be photographed to prevent loss of information.

Charlotte Lellman revised the Biographical Note and the Scope and Content notes in this finding aid in September 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 included more information about the radiation studies Benda led at the Fernald School. The previous version of the finding aid is being maintained for transparency around the descriptive process.

Lellman revised the Biographical Note and the Scope and Contents for Series I-IV in January 2022 to reflect updated guidance for harmful medical terminology in the Guidelines for Inclusive and Conscientious Description (2021). The previous version of the finding aid is being maintained for transparency around the descriptive process. Lellman also removed the previous language note from this Processing Note and added the following note:

It is the Center's standard descriptive practice to include historical medical terminology along with any equivalent contemporary terms in archival description of collections in order to support researcher discovery. However, given the racist and ableist nature of the terms "mongolism," "cretinism," and "mental retardation," the archivist has chosen to omit these terms from the archival description in favor of the contemporary preferred terms "Down syndrome," "congenital hypothyroidism," and "intellectual disabilities," respectively. Please note that the terms "mongolism," "cretinism," and "mental retardation" will appear in creator-supplied folder titles transcribed in this finding aid and in the papers themselves to refer to Down syndrome, congenital hypothyroidism, and intellectual disabilities, respectively. Please contact with any questions or concerns.

Benda, Clemens E. (Clemens Ernst), b. 1898. Papers, 1895-1975: 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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