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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Baldwin, Bird Thomas
(May 31, 1875–May 11, 1928)

–professor of child welfare and founding director of the Iowa Child Welfare Research Station (ICWRS) at the State University of Iowa—was born into a Quaker family in Marshallton, Pennsylvania. He earned his B.S. at Swarthmore in 1900; then, after two years as principal of Friends' School, Moorestown, New Jersey, he took advanced work in psychology and education at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his A.M. (1903) and Ph.D. (1905) in psychology and education at Harvard. He studied psychology at Leipzig University in 1906. After teaching at Westchester State Normal School for a year and at the University of Texas from 1910 to 1912, he taught at Swarthmore College until coming to the State University of Iowa in 1917 to direct the Iowa Child Welfare Research Station, the first research institute in its field in the world.

    Baldwin moved quickly to ensure its world-class status. He won a series of grants from the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial (a Rockefeller philanthropy) in the 1920s to enhance its mushrooming programs in research, training, and service. Baldwin's own research centered on the vexed problem of the relationship between mental and physical growth. He and his colleagues worked on a variety of problems relating to these issues, including proper nutrition, what went into the development of the "normal" child, the differences between up-to-date and regressive rural environments for children, and the intelligence of preschool children. The provisions of the Rockefeller grants, which totaled almost $1 million in the 1920s, stipulated that the ICWRS would do the basic research in the field, whereas a department at Iowa State College would train future preschool teachers, and Iowa State Teachers College would train teachers of classes in parent education. Together with the various child welfare reform organizations, which had led the political campaign for the ICWRS's founding by the Iowa legislature, Baldwin led the ICWRS to national eminence in the late 1920s.

    The ICWRS fulfilled the intent of the Rockefeller Memorial grants by integrating the science of child study and the applied social technology of parent education. Baldwin and his colleagues not only helped to build up a science of child study, or, as they preferred to call it, a science of child development; they also fostered the training of nursery school teachers and promoted parent education through classes and conferences.

    Baldwin's work centered on the phenomenon of development. In the early and middle stages of his career, he distinguished himself by becoming one of the most careful measurers of the physical growth of children, winning national and international recognition for his work. At the ICWRS, he also became interested in the problem of mental growth because his daughter was having learning difficulties. She was placed in the ICWRS observational nursery school, and, possibly because she received extra attention from her teachers, her test scores improved dramatically within about a year, showing that she was not mentally subnormal, but slightly above normal. Through his daughter's unexpected experience, Baldwin came to realize that IQ tests were flawed and could be misleading. As a result, his career veered off from the problem of physical growth to that of mental growth. By the later 1920s, when he was at the height of his career, he was becoming an increasingly severe critic of IQ testing if it was interpreted as a final judgment of the inheritance of intelligence on the part of any individual. At that point, in May 1928, he was at a conference, stopped in a barbershop for a haircut and a shave, received a terrible freak infection from the shave, and died within a few hours.
Sources There is no collection of Baldwin correspondence as such. He has considerable correspondence, however, in the Papers of the Presidents of the University of Iowa, in the central file for the ICWRS, at the University Archives, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City, and in the files of the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial, Rockefeller Archive Center, Tarrytown, New York. A useful secondary account, with many bibliographical leads, is Hamilton Cravens, Before Head Start: The Iowa Station and America's Children (1993).
Contributor: Hamilton Cravens

Cite as: Cravens, Hamilton. "Baldwin, Bird Thomas" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 11 December 2017