By Michael D'Antonio

Simon & Schuster. 308 pp. $25On Nov. 4, 1957, 15 residents of the Walter E. Fernald State School in Waltham, Mass., seized control of a building on campus. In a planned uprising, they looted, smashed windows and set fires. The rebels at Fernald, a state institution for the "mentally retarded," held the building for almost nine hours before they surrendered.

The boys and girls who rebelled had been born to "disorganized" families riven by poverty, alcohol and abuse -- environments that typically led to low scores on the I.Q. tests given in the 1940s and '50s. Boys who fared poorly on them sometimes wound up at schools such as Fernald, where the socially deprived and the mentally impaired were mixed with little discrimination. Michael D'Antonio examines the complex issues and brutal ironies of their ordeal in his engrossing book The State Boys Rebellion.

D'Antonio exposes the details of this system by weaving together two stories -- the history of human intelligence theory and policy in the past century, and the history of a group of State Boys who were warehoused at Fernald because their families couldn't manage child-rearing. D'Antonio's first strand traces the rise of the eugenics movement, which held that people of inferior brains and talent were diluting the quality of the gene pool. Eugenics attempted to keep "mental defectives" from reproducing, mostly by isolating them in public institutions (such as the Fernald School) that sprang up across the country during the middle of the 20th century.

To identify the "defectives," the scientists who led this movement relied on I.Q. tests, which were introduced during the 1920s. The tests ranked scores on a relative scale, with 100 representing average intelligence. Scientists had believed that intelligence was inherited, but during the 1930s studies began to show that impoverished, chaotic homes caused low I.Q. scores (especially scores in the 50-70 range). The same research found that more nurturing environments could raise scores dramatically. But just when scientific knowledge was casting doubt on the assumptions of intelligence theory, the I.Q. movement caught on in public policy circles.

And therein lies D'Antonio's compelling saga of the "State Boys." The central character, Fred Boyce, was taken from his alcoholic, widowed mother as an infant and spent six years in four loveless foster homes. Slow to learn speech and having scored 62 on an I.Q. test, he was placed in Fernald when his last foster mother died. Boyce grew up on the wards of Fernald, terrorized by older boys, verbally and physically abused by attendants and offered minimal training and education. He and the other boys like him -- normal boys from broken homes -- functioned as family to one another. They developed together in their teen years, when growing awareness of their circumstances bred an anger that spilled over in fistfights, in escape attempts and finally in the rebellion of Nov. 4th.

The uprising was a turning point but not the end of the story. A more skilled and compassionate work force arrived at Fernald in the late '50s and early '60s and sought to prepare boys like Boyce for the outside world. Boyce himself was "paroled" in 1960, at the age of 19. Together with many State Boys, he gravitated to a neighborhood of cheap restaurants, bars and apartments in Boston. He worked the counter at a drug store and at an all-night hamburger joint. Ironically, life at Fernald had prepared him for this sort of street culture: He had learned to make quick, shrewd judgments about people and had developed a strong instinct for survival. Yet he and his friends struggled in other ways, not only with their lack of education but with a lack of social training. Some of their deprivations were so fundamental that it aches to read about them. Boyce consistently referred to "the boondocks" as "the dune box." And he watched the bus to his first job pull away without boarding because he thought he had to wait for the bus driver to invite him on.

Eventually, the State Boys began to fan out from their beachhead in Boston. The majority married and most held regular jobs, some of them quite successfully. Boyce bought a home south of Boston and became a carnival worker, using his charm and savvy to lure customers to his games on the midway. Energetically self-educated, he read widely in science and philosophy during the off-season. He developed a deep-seated ethic of justice and forgiveness. He rarely saw other State Boys; like most of them, he worked hard to put Fernald far behind him.

Then, in 1993, a scandal broke in the Boston press -- Boyce and some other State Boys had been fed radioactive oatmeal as part of a radiation experiment at Fernald in the early 1950s. He emerged as an articulate spokesman for the group, explaining the Fernald experience to the media. A subsequent law suit against M.I.T., Quaker Oats and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts earned each of the human subjects $50,000-$65,000.

D'Antonio's book is both engaging and valuable. His State Boys are fascinating people who maintained their humanity and pride against the daily assaults of institutional life. He renders them as vivid individuals, and the warmth of his plainspoken prose makes their stories irresistible.

Still, I worry that the book will be overlooked. It is, on the surface, a crusading book about a problem that no longer exists. Institutions such as Fernald now serve only a handful of the least functional individuals. Long gone are the relatively normal children like the State Boys.

But this book has great value because it is a powerful cautionary tale. Stephen Jay Gould's classic Mismeasure of Man warned that pseudoscience and half-digested scientific knowledge posed great dangers if used to address social and political problems. Gould's targets included the early "science" of intelligence testing. The State Boys Rebellion puts a human face on Gould's warning. In moving and eloquent detail, Michael D'Antonio shows what happens to people when public policy enacts bad science. *

E. Anthony Rotundo is the author of "American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era." He teaches at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.

Former Fernald State Boys (from left): Gordon Shattuck, Larry Nutt, Lester Foye, Fred Boyce, Austin LaRoque,

Charles Dyer and Joseph Almeida.