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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.

A Times Editorial of November 1834 describes the long serving former Prime Minister Lord Liverpool as a feeble-minded pedant of office. Despite being pejorative, the term was considered, along with idiot and moron, to be a relatively precise psychiatric label in its day.

The Americanmarker 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 Jerseymarker. 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 Kardashian 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."

Jack London's 1914 story, "Told in the Drooling Ward," describes inmates at a California institution for the "feeble-minded." Such an institution existed (the California Home for the Care and Training of Feeble-minded Children, now the Sonoma Developmental Centermarker) close to the Jack London Ranch in Glen Ellen, California. The story is a narrative told from the point of view of a self-styled "high-grade feeb".

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  1. The Times, 8 November 1834; A precious exposure of the dignity and integrity of Statesmen is about to be made this day by Mr. EVANS

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