Born in High Forest, Minnesota on October 8, 1876, Joseph Howard Ladd was the son of George W. and Emma (nee Corey) Ladd. He was educated in Vermont and continued his studies at Norwich University before entering Dartmouth Medical College, where he graduated in 1900 as a Doctor of Medicine. From there, he took up residency at the Walter E. Fernald School in Waverly, Massachusetts, receiving valuable insight into treatment of the disabled. In 1908, he moved to Rhode Island to assume the position as the first superintendent of the Rhode Island School for the Feeble-Minded in rural Exeter. It was a new kind of school, created to train young people with disabilities in the application of farm work and mechanical trades. An accomplished physician and classically educated pedagogue, Dr. Ladd’s administration of the institution during its early development was noteworthy.
Dr. Ladd’s goal for the disabled members of society was profoundly different than earlier practitioners. Unlike his peers in the early 1900s, he believed that with the proper education, training, and supervision, the disabled could be gradually integrated into mainstream society. He rejected the idea that these young people should be permanently removed from society and institutionalized.
The 1916 January Session of the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a resolution to remove the stigma associated with the term “Feeble Minded” by changing its name to the Exeter School located in Washington County, Rhode Island. With the name change came a transformation in the character and purpose of the institution. Children continued to thrive at the school, learning to read and write, and, if able, were also taught manual trades to prepare them for integration into society. Following their discharge, however, these adolescents were then required to meet with social workers to conduct periodic assessments of their progress.
The Ladd School once covered nearly one square mile, had a population of over 1000 residents, and was comprised of more than 30 buildings including a hospital, a school, a farm, and a fire station. It has been the subject of several books emphasizing its limitations and minimizing its accomplishments.
Ladd’s imprint on a large segment of Rhode Island remains controversial. His story is complicated and his performance debatable because of the questionable practices of some staff members. But Dr. Ladd’s near half-century tenure as the top official supervising the vulnerable segment of Rhode Island’s population must be recognized, if not for the effectiveness of his service, then at least for the challenges he attempted to overcome.
For his efforts on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, Ladd was inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1969, five years before his death. He also served as past president of the American Association of Mental Deficiency and was former vice president of the Rhode Island Medical Society. In 1965, he became state chairman of the Easter Seals campaign of the Meeting Street School.
Dr. Ladd was a distinguished member of the New England Society of Psychiatry, the Rhode Island Medical Society, the Washington County Medical Society, and the American Association of the Feeble-minded. He laid the foundation for treatment of the disabled and eventually, the institution was named “The Ladd School” in his honor. Dr. Ladd died in 1974, leaving his wife Pauline [nee Falco] Ladd, a son Joseph H. Ladd, Jr. of Monterey, California, two daughters, Mrs. Theodora M. Kendrick of Providence, and Mrs. Valorie Ladd Scott of Westfield, Massachusetts.