Keynote Address to the White House Conference on Mental Retardation

Washington, DC | September 11, 1963

For we are working to understand, not the universe around us, but the world within us; not the matter which surrounds us, but the nature of our own organism; not the forces which affect life, but life itself.

This is the keynote address to the first White House Conference on Mental Retardation, held on September 11, 1963, and attended by leaders of medicine and mental retardation programs from over forty states.

In 1922, Sinclair Lewis published Babbitt; Rudolph Valentino played in Blood and Sand; and "Toot, Toot, Tootsie!" was at the top of the hit parade. There were probably few who knew, or even had heard of, Niels Bohr or knew of the discovery for which he had just been honored. Sixteen years later, in 1938, the name of Enrico Fermi rang few bells in the minds of Americans, most of whom were taking their children to see a new film called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Fermi's Nobel Prize for his work in nuclear fission went virtually unnoticed by people who were-applauding the return of Neville Chamberlain, home from Munich with "Peace in Our Time."

Throughout the roaring twenties and the depression-ridden thirties, few Americans, consumed with problems at home and dim threats abroad, were aware that in laboratories all over the world scientists were laying the foundation for a revolution in the physical sciences-a revolution which has shaped and is shaping our lives far more importantly than all the activities of the statesmen and dictators, songwriters and moviemakers.

As we sit here in this White House conference, the United States Senate is considering an historic treaty partially banning nuclear tests.

That treaty is an outcome of that scientific revolution- a revolution which, among many other things, set loose the power of the atom, brought a great war to an end, created vast and perilous problems for the very existence of the human race, and brought us to today's debate on the Senate floor.

Our modern world has been shaped by this scientific revolution of the twenties and the thirties. Yet when it was happening, you and I, citizens and statesmen, were conducting our daily affairs in virtual ignorance of the earth-shaking events that were going on around us.

As a result, we were unready for the responsibilities placed on us by the new powers and possibilities science had given us Even now, as the Senate debate shows, we are struggling to catch up. We are here today to make sure that we never get left behind again.

We are a preparatory conference for the next scientific revolution in the history of man-a conference of officials whose job it is to make sure that society is ready for the discoveries -scientists.

For all around us the signs of a new and momentous revolution are looming larger every day. Those of us working mental retardation are at the center of that revolution, the advance guard for the wave of the future in science, and thus, in this scientific age, in the life of man.

In 1953, Watson, Crick, and Wilkins discovered that hereditary information, the biochemical code which dictates the nature of every living organism, is carried in a chemical known as DNA.

In 1959, Kornberg won the Nobel Prize for synthesizing this chemical. In 1958, Lederberg shared the Nobel Prize for uncovering some of the basic mechanisms underlying heredity. He is now working in the Kennedy Laboratories of Molecular Medicine, laboratories devoted to the study of mental retardation. He shared that prize with George Beadle, President of the University of Chicago, who recently dedicated the Kennedy Laboratories at the Massachusetts General Hospital.

Dr. Lejeune of France recently won the Kennedy Award for proving that mongolism was characterized by an extra chromosome in the cells, a discovery which offers hope of ultimately controlling that dread human affliction, a discovery which again attacks one of the most intransigent forms of mental retardation. Donald Glaser, winner of the Nobel Prize in physics, a young and brilliant scientist, announced his intention to switch his field of interest to microbiology, because this field was the challenge of the future. He is now working on mapping the genetic characteristics of bacteria, work which may ultimately shed light on many forms of mental retardation.

A Nobel Prize winner has proclaimed: "Darwin's theory set off the historic debate on man's past. Today, with biology, we mirror his future."

All of this, the new discoveries, the surge of interest, the current of excitement sweeping through the scientific community are the auguries of a new scientific age. And this revolution, this new knowledge, will have consequences for man more important, more awesome, and more complex than the uncovering of the forces which unleashed the atom and set us on a pathway to the moon.

For we are working to understand, not the universe around us, but the world within us; not the matter which surrounds us, but the nature of our own organism; not the forces which affect life, but life itself.

Over the ancient temple at Delphi was carved the maxim, "Know thyself." For the first time in the more than two thousand years since that command was set forth, science is beginning to open the doors to knowledge of ourselves-to the mechanisms and the stuff of life itself.

In the decades to come, our world, and the world of our children, will be profoundly shaped by what we are now, tentatively, hesitatingly, but surely, beginning to learn. That is why we are here today.

Mental retardation is not one disease. It is the result of a hundred diseases-of genetic structure, chemical imbalance, failures in techniques of learning and training. Wherever scientists are laboring to understand the human mind and the human body, wherever they seek to understand fundamental life processes, their work will have consequences for the millions of mentally retarded.

It is your job to seek out and apply the practical consequences of this new knowledge, to translate theory into techniques and applications which can affect the health of mankind. It was decades before the theoretical discoveries of Einstein could be transformed into the realities of nuclear fission. We cannot afford to wait decades to use the vast potential of our new knowledge to help the sick, relieve the afflicted, and give hope to those threatened with darkness.

Many of you began your work among the retarded when we were still the prisoners of the theories such as that expressed by Dr. Walter Fernald: "The feeble-minded are a parasitic, predatory class, never capable of self-support or managing their own affairs." We have all seen, in the past few years, advances in knowledge and understanding which make these words of only fifty years ago seem like echoes from the remoteness of the Middle Ages. We have discovered ways to prevent some of the most dread forms of retardation like phenylketonuria, PKU. We have discovered new ways to educate and rehabilitate those who, a few years ago, were condemned to hopeless darkness.

Yet we are only at the beginning. For we will learn more about retardation in the decade to come than we have learned in the entire history of medicine.

This knowledge, these new discoveries, the painstaking work of the laboratories, will only take on meaning from your work. The retarded will not be helped merely by reactions in a test tube, by papers in a journal, or even by Nobel Prizes.

They can only be helped if you, the workers in every state and community, develop the institutions and the interest, the cures and the concern, the treatments and the techniques, for putting our knowledge practically and immediately to work in the life of the retarded and those threatened with retardation. Today, and in the days to come, you will examine specific techniques and programs- political, institutional, social, and scientific-designed to accomplish this end.

The opportunities for advance are all around us. Science discovered that the cause of hydrocephalus was a flow of spinal fluid to the brain. But it remained for a private citizen, an engineer, to develop a small valve which could be placed in the neck to control this flow.

We know the cause of PKU, and we know it can be controlled by regulating the diet of infants. But unless you establish testing centers in hospitals in every state this knowledge will be useless and thousands of children will be unnecessarily condemned to an existence as retardates.

A leading authority has estimated that one-third to one-half of all retarded persons could be released from institutions, made relatively self-sufficient, by new techniques of training and rehabilitation. But they will remain in institutions, a burden to society, deprived of basic elements of human dignity, unless we put these techniques to work in our cities and towns and states. On you and others like you lies the responsibility for this new light now being shed on the nature of man. It is your privilege to be part of an historic surge of new knowledge, to help open up a new life for the retarded, to begin a new journey across the unknown to the land of hope.