Henry Herbert Goddard was a psychologist who conducted research on intelligence and mental deficiency at the Vineland Training School for Feeble-Minded Boys and Girls in Vineland, New Jersey during the early twentieth century. In 1908, Goddard brought French psychologist Alfred Binet and physician Theodore Simon’s intelligence test to the US and used it to investigate intellectual disability in children at the Vineland Training School for Feeble-Minded Boys and Girls. Goddard also wrote a book in 1912 called The Kallikaks: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness, claiming that traits like mental deficiency were heritable traits. His observations and research led Goddard to advocate for sterilization and segregation of the intellectually disabled, which were ideas that reflected the emerging eugenics movement in the US, during the early nineteenth century. Although by the end of his life, psychologists largely dismissed Goddard’s work, schools and the US military used Goddard’s version of Binet and Simon’s intelligence test to identify mental deficiency.

Emil Kraepelin was a physician who studied people with mental illness in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in modern-day Germany. Kraepelin's examination and description of the symptoms and outcomes of mental illness formed the basis for his classification of psychiatric disorders into two main groups, dementia praecox, now called schizophrenia, and manic-depressive psychosis, now called bipolar disorder. He was one of the first physicians to suggest that those researching mental illness should gain scientific knowledge only through close observation and description. However, Kraepelin also believed that genetics played a role in the development and course of mental illness and characterized mentally ill people as weak-willed, which some have argued contributed to stigma about mental illnesses that persist today. Although some historians have pointed out issues with Kraepelin’s teachings, Kraepelin helped to establish psychiatry as a clinical science, which prompted future experimental investigations into mental illness.

Emma Wolverton, also known as Deborah Kallikak, lived her entire life in an institution in New Jersey after psychologist Henry Goddard classified her as feeble-minded. He also wrote a book about Wolverton and her family that psychiatrists previously used to show that intellectual disability is hereditary. At the time, researchers in the psychology field, including Goddard, were working to understand differences in people’s intellectual abilities. They used the term feeble-minded to refer to those they described as having lower intellectual functioning. While Wolverton spent nearly her entire life living and working in institutions for the feeble-minded, more recent investigations of her life show she was not what is now considered intellectually disabled. Wolverton’s involvement in Goddard’s research as Deborah Kallikak influenced twentieth century ideas around the heritability and treatment of those with disabilities.