by would-be adopters to Arnold Gesell
illustrate that the claims of scientific
adoption—to decrease uncertainty and increase predictability—were
welcomed by well-educated Americans interested in identifying children
of normal or superior intelligence. Was is possible to determine,
in advance, if any given child would turn out to be college material?
This question appeared frequently in Gesell’s files and was
especially telling before World War II, when higher education was
available to only a small minority of the population. While Gesell
and other professionals clearly believed that developmental research
could (and should) make adoption safer, these letters suggest that
some adopters wanted children to live up to exacting specifications
and hoped science might deliver on that promise.
March 29, 1939
. . . .We wish to start inquiries
with you about adopting a child. We have a daughter who will be
five years old this summer; and we have lost two children at birth,
one two years ago and one this month.
We are desirous of securing a boy between eighteen
months and two years of age with six months leeway either way on
this limit. To make a satisfactory little brother for our daughter
___, and to compete with her successfully, the boy should be quite
alert mentally and vigorous physically. Since we plan and probably
will be able to provide a higher education for our children we should
like to have the boy show evidence of a mental capacity which will
warrent [sic] such an education. We have understood from our reading
on the subject that you are able to judge mental capacity of a child
with fair accuracy even at such an early age. We feel that adopting
a baby is less hazardous if this is true. . . .
We shall welcome an investigation of our home and circumstances. . . .
Yours, very truly, . . .
* * *
July 11, 1940
I have just had the pleasure of reading Dr. Arnold Gesell’s
book entitled “The Guidance of Mental Growth in Infant and
This book was of particular interest to me, especially the chapter
entitled “Clinical Guidance in Infant Adoption,” as
my wife and I are interested in adopting a baby girl. . . .
My wife and I have been married for twelve years and we have a
fine, bright little daughter who is now seven years old. We have
wanted her to have a brother or sister for some time; but due to
two unfortunate operations which my wife had to undergo, we will
be unable to have any more children of our own. We can give a child
a great many advantages, and she would no doubt have the opportunity
of a college education.
Out of fairness to ourselves as well as the child, we desire to
avail ourselves of the latest scientific achievements, to insure
a happy outcome to the venture and with this in mind, my purpose
is to inquire how the Psycho-Clinic can help us. If we obtained
a baby, I presume we could bring her to your clinic as soon as possible
to permit you to make your first observations, and return at intervals
of about 3 months for the remainder of the one year trial period.
How long would your studies require each time? Can they be made
of a Saturday, permitting the trip to be made over a week end? What
is your fee for this service?. . . .
Looking forward to your reply with considerable interest, I remain,
Yours very truly,. . .
p.s. It has just occurred to me to add to my letter, that my wife
would like to get a baby as young as possible; but I feel after
reading Dr. Gesell’s book, that we should try to get a baby
not younger than three months in order to better judge it’s
[sic] mentality. I would appreciate your advice on that point.
* * *
June 29, 1950
Dear Professor Gesell:
My husband and I, being childless, have applied to adopt a boy.
Being middle-aged, the agencies have advised us that only older
children would be available to us. To this we agreed.
We have been offered for consideration a boy, aged 9, in good physical
health. Mother unknown, probably of Polish extraction, her pregnancy
having occurred in her third year in high school. Father completely
unknown. Child placed in boarding home for which mother paid for
a short time. He has spent most of his life with a German-Catholic
family as a boarding child. . . . This family being
disrupted, the child was returned to an orphanage run by nuns in
the New York area. The social worker mentioned that the boy was
doing averagely well in school, was likeable, and had good manners
which he used “because he knew he got things he wanted that
way”, was liked by other children, but that he would not talk
about himself with the social worker, and at the discussion of his
problems he would deliberately change the subject. . . .
I have waited many years for the fulfillment of my desire to have
a child to care for, and have persisted against the advice of friends
who tell me adoption will not be a satisfactory substitute for my
own children; that I will find the adjustments too difficult for
my admittedly “unsaintly” self; that I am too old and
settled, etc., etc. However, when faced with this case history which
seemed to me to be so meager, and being asked bluntly, “Are
you interested in considering this child for adoption?” I
became mentally panicky. Up until now I have had complete confidence
in the wisdom of my plans, even though I have worried at times as
to my fitness to handle all the problems which might arise. At this
point, I feel that I need impersonal advice from a properly trained
person who knows what may and may not be expected of children. Will
you try to help me?
Have you any suggestions as to how we can fairly judge a child?
What traits to look for in his favor, or against him as a subject
for adoption? How much weight should be given to first impressions
and feelings of liking, disliking, or pity?. . .
I am most anxious that this shall be a happy placement and shall
avoid any elements of “martyrdom”. I want very much
to be unselfish and charitable in planning for the welfare of a
child who needs help. Yet, at the same time, I feel it is only wise
to try to be sure that I am not being led by sympathy and sentimentality
into a situation which is essentially unworkable. . . .
Very sincerely yours. . . .