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Dybwad, Gunnar (1909 – 2001)

Gunnar Dybwad (1909 – 2001): Early Advocate for the Intellectually Disabled

Editor’s Note: It is important to mention that in preparing an entry about Gunnar Dybwad’s career and many contributions to the field of the developmentally disabled requires including his wife Rosemary Ferguson Dybwad, born May 12, 1910 in  Howe, Indiana. She was the daughter of a missionary, and she spent her teen years in Manila. She then attended Western College for Women (now part of Miami University) in Oxford, Ohio.

After being awarded a two-year fellowship (1931–33) from the Institute of International Education, she pursued graduate studies in sociology at the University of Leipzig, Germany. During this time she met Gunnar Dybwad and in 1934 they married and moved to the United States. In 1935 she returned to Germany to attend the University of Hamburg, where she received a doctorate in 1936.

The Dybwads had a career that spaned fifty years of active participation in the fields of child welfare and mental retardation. Although often working together, both made significant independent contributions to the field as well.


Gunnar Dybwad
Gunnar Dybwad
Photo: The Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities

Introduction: Dr. Gunnar Dybwad was a nationally recognized authority on retardation, autism, cerebral palsy and other disabilities. He is credited with being one of the first professionals to frame mental disability as an issue of civil rights, rather than as a medical or social work problem.

Dr. Dybwad had a role in more than a dozen lawsuits in federal courts advocating civil rights for people with mental disabilities. Two of the cases went to the Supreme Court, and in both the court handed down decisions that affirmed the right to treatment and education of developmentally disabled children. The cases were: Pennhurst State School v. Halderman, 1981; and Board of Education v. Rowley, 1982. He also played a critical part in persuading leaders of the Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children to sue on behalf of disabled children. The case, PARC v. Pennsylvania, 1972, is credited with establishing the right of disabled children to get a public education and with helping lead to laws about disability rights.

Early Years: Gunnar Dybwad was born July 12, 1909 in Leipzig, Germany. He earned his J.D. from the Faculty of Law and Political Science at the University of Halle, Germany in 1934. His earliest professional work included studies of prisons and institutions having done research on prisons in Italy, Germany, and England.

Dybwad met his future wife, Rosemary Ferguson, in Leipzig, Germany in 1931. Rosemary had come to Germany as an exchange student following her graduation from Ohio’s Western College for Women (now part of Miami University), the previous year. A girl working in the foreign student exchange office invited a group of the new foreign students to her family’s home for afternoon tea. The girl’s brother Gunnar, a student of law and political science at the University of Halle, happened to be home at the time, and Rosemary recalls he seemed very interesting, in part because he rode a motorcycle. Their relationship developed quickly, and Rosemary was soon applying for a second year’s studies in order to remain in Germany.

Rosemary returned home in 1933 and began work as a caseworker with a local school department. Gunnar came to the United States in 1934 and he and Rosemary were married. Rosemary Ferguson Dybwad soon returned to Germany for another year in order to complete her doctorate at the University of Hamburg. The decision to return to Germany was a difficult one. The political situation in Germany had already begun to deteriorate, and Gunnar Dybwad’s family had money that could not be taken out of Germany. They decided to invest the money in an education for his new bride and used their savings to pay for her tuition. The country’s political situation had become so perilous that Gunnar and Rosemary selected the University of Hamburg for her studies simply because it was closest to the border, in the event she would have to flee the country in a hurry.

Early Career in the U.S.: In the United States Dybwad began similar penal work to what he had done in Germany and in the late 1930s worked in institutions for juvenile delinquents in Indiana, New Jersey, and New York. While working in the New York area, Dybwad took additional course work at the New York School of Social Work, completing the program in 1939. The large number of juvenile delinquents who, upon closer examination, were mentally retarded, sparked Dybwad’s interest in the field of mental retardation.

In 1943, Dybwad moved his family to Michigan, where he began work as the Director of Clinical Services at a Boys Training School. He eventually became the Supervisor of the Child Welfare Program of the Michigan State Department of Social Welfare, regularly hosting visitors from other parts of the country and foreign nations who were interested in seeing Michigan’s innovative programs in child welfare and child day care.

In 1949, Gunnar Dybwad returned to Germany briefly as a consultant with the United States Army, spending several months helping with social and child welfare issues in Occupied Germany. From there, he moved his family back east to the New York area while he served as the Executive Director of the Child Study Association of America.

Gunnar Dybwad and Niels Erik Bank-Mikkelsen
Gunnar Dybwad and Niels Erik Bank-Mikkelsen
Photo: The Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities

Later Career: Gunnar Dybwad’s shift to becoming the Executive Director of the National Association of Retarded Children (NARC) was rather serendipitous. The Board of NARC was meeting at the Gotham Hotel New York and had just finished interviewing 38 candidates for the position of Executive Director. All candidates had been unsatisfactory, and the secretary taking notes raised Gunnar’s name only because a fellow secretary already worked for him and thought highly of him. Elizabeth Boggs, a member of the Board already knew Gunnar, realized he was the perfect candidate and quickly approached him to apply for the position. Although new to the field of mental retardation, Dybwad had had extensive experience with families in stress parent groups, voluntary organizations and governmental programs. Perhaps most importantly, his background as a lawyer allowed him to frame issues in legal terms, a new and affective approach to policy and advocacy on behalf of mental retardation.

Dybwad assumed the Directorship in 1957. Some six months later, he asked Rosemary to come in to the office occasionally as a volunteer, for a large amount of foreign correspondence had accumulated, and there was no one with the time available to read and reply to inquiries and letters. Rosemary, whose children were getting old enough to take care of themselves at home, began to come in on a regular basis and to return correspondence. She was officially listed as the secretary of the International Activities Committee. Eventually she established a newsletter to keep many in touch. (By 1964, this Newsletter would reach readers in 70 countries). She and Gunnar were part of an ever growing network of parents and advocates brought together and kept in touch by the Dybwad’s.

At the same time, the European Association of Retarded Children had begun to solidify and the International League was beginning to come together. Rosemary’s correspondence and publications could not have been more timely, and in fact, often served as a bridge, tying together people, programs and associations worldwide. NARC early recognized the need for an international organization, and tried to maintain informal ties. In 1959, the first step to an informal international organization of voluntary agencies was taken when three professional leaders of the movement from Holland, England and Germany met to plan a European League of Societies for the Mentally Handicapped, which was formed in 1960. The first Congress of the European League in 1961 was attended by more than 400 people from 12 European countries and 8 non-European nations. Gunnar Dybwad would eventually serve as President of this International League.

In 1963, Gunnar Dybwad retired from the NARC. Although he enjoyed his work, he felt strongly that seven years was enough, and that a regular shift in Directorship was important for any organization if it was to stay vital and responsive to its members. He and Rosemary were hardly interested in retiring from the field, however. They soon found themselves in Geneva, Gunnar the Director and Rosemary the co-Director of the Mental Retardation Project through the Union of Child Welfare. The Union of Child Welfare funded the Dybwads for a three year project, their assignment being to travel from one country to another fostering parent involvement and advocacy in mental retardation issues. Between 1964 to 1967, the Dybwads traveled to 34 different countries — some several times — to encourage grassroots organizing among parents with mentally retarded children.

Professor of Human Development at the Florence Heller School of Brandeis University: In 1967, their time with the Union of Child Welfare almost finished, the Dybwads were invited to come to Brandeis University, where Gunnar became a Professor of Human Development in the Florence Heller Graduate School for Social Policy and Management. He was the first Director of the Mental Retardation Policy and Research Training Program at the Heller School, and founding Director of the Starr Center for Mental Retardation at the Heller School. According to Marty Cross who later served as Director of the Starr Center: “Professor Dybwad was one of the first to articulate the issues facing people with disabilities as civil rights issues and not only as medical and social issues.”  “He was a champion of the rights of people with disabilities to have full access to a normal life that everyone wants to enjoy.” He was, Krauss said, “way before his time. He was raising fundamental questions about how society treats people with disabilities in the ’50s and ’60s, and it didn’t really take off until the late ’60s.”

While at Brandeis, Gunnar Dybwad continued his extensive activities, serving as a consultant to a large number of organizations such as the U.S. Public Health Service, U.S. Office of Education, the Social and Rehabilitation Service Administration the President’s Committee on Mental Retardation and numerous state and governmental agencies.

Gunnar Dybwad was a Fellow of the American Orthopsychiatric Association, the American Sociological Association, the American Association on Mental Retardation, the American Public Health Association, and Honorary Associate Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. He held honorary doctorates from Temple University and the University of Maryland. With his wife Rosemary Gunnar Dybwad was the recipient of scores of awards from professional organizations, foundations, and international agencies. Dybwad was the author of numerous publications and had the honor of two books being published on his professional activities and influence on the field of disabilities as part of his 90th birthday celebration at Brandeis University.

Sources: courtesy Nora Groce and World Institute on Disability

New York Times Obit: Gunnar Dybwad, 92, Dies; Early Advocate for the Disabled. By Eric Pace: Published: September 20, 2001:…

Los Angeles Times Obit: September 22, 2001.  By Dennis McLellan:

“Nifty-at-Ninety”- A pamphlet produced by friends and colleagues celebrating Professor Dybwad’s 90th Birthday.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Social Welfare History Project (2015). Gunnar Dybwad (1909 – 2001): Early advocate for the intellectually disabled. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from








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