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The term feeble-minded is documented in use as early the 19th century through to the early 20th century as a loose description of a variety of mental deficiencies, including what would now be considered mental retardation in its various types and grades, and learning disabilities such as dyslexia.

The American psychologist Henry H. Goddard, creator of the term moron, was director of the Vineland Training School (originally the Vineland Training School for Backward and Feeble-minded Children) at Vineland, New Jersey. Goddard was known for postulating most effectively that "feeble-mindedness" was a hereditary trait, most likely caused by a single recessive gene. This led Goddard to ring eugenic alarm bells in his 1912 work, The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness, about those in the population who carried the recessive trait despite outward appearances of normality.

In the first half of the 20th century, "feeble-mindedness, in any of its grades" was a common criterion for compulsory sterilization in many U.S. states. In the 1927 case Buck v. Bell, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes closed the 8-1 majority opinion upholding the sterilization of Carrie Buck, who along with her mother and daughter was labeled "feeble-minded", with the infamous phrase, "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

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