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"Cretins And Idiots"

Creator: Linus P. Brockett (author)
Date: February 1858
Publication: The Atlantic Monthly
Source: Available at selected libraries

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There are few spots, even among the Alps, which can compare with the Abendberg in beauty and grandeur of scenery. Doctor Guggenbuhl was led to select it as much for this reason as for its salubrity, in the belief which his subsequent experience has fully justified, that the striking nobleness of the landscape would awaken, even in the torpid mind of the cretin, that sense of the beautiful in Nature which would materially aid in his intellectual culture.


On the southern slope of the Abendberg he erected his hospital buildings, plain, wooden structures, without ornament, but comfortable, and well adapted to his purpose. Here he gathered about thirty cretin children, mostly under ten years of age, and began his work.


To understand fully what was to be accomplished, in order to transform the young cretin into an active, healthy child, it is necessary that we should glance at his physical and mental condition, when placed under treatment.


Cretinism seems to be a combination of two diseases, the one physical, the other mental. The physical disorder is akin to Rachitis, or rickets, while the mental is substantially idiocy. The osseous structure, deficient in the phosphate of lime, is unable to sustain the weight of the body, and the cretin is thus incapacitated for active motion; the muscles are soft and wasted; the skin dingy, cold, and unhealthy; the appetite voracious; spasmodic and convulsed action frequent and the digestion imperfect and greatly disordered. The mind seems to exist only in a germinal state; observation, memory, thought, the power of combination, are all wanting. The external senses are so torpid, that, for months perhaps, it is in vain to address either eye or ear; nor is the sense of touch much more active. The cretin is insensible to pain or annoyance, and seems to have as little sensation as an oyster.


It was to the work of restoring these diseased and enfeebled bodies to health, and of developing these germs of intellect, that Doctor Guggenbuhl addressed himself. For this purpose, pure air, enforced exercise, the use of cold, warm, and vapor baths, of spirituous lotions and frictions, a simple yet eminently nutritive diet, regular habits, and the administration of those medicinal alteratives which would give tone to the system, activity to the absorbents and vigor to the muscles, were the remedial measures adopted. As their strength increased, they were led to practice the simpler gymnastic exercises, -- running, jumping, climbing, marching, the use of the dumb-bells, etc.


The body thus partially invigorated, the culture of the mind was next to be attempted, -- a far more difficult task. The first step was, to teach the child to speak and as this implied the ability to hear, the ear, hitherto dead to all sounds, must be impressed. For this purpose, sound was communicated by speaking-trumpets or other instruments, which should force and fix the attention. The lips and vocal organs were then moulded to imitate these sounds. The process was long and wearisome, often occupying months, and even years; but in the end it was successful. The eye was trained by the attraction of bright and varied colors, and little by little simple ideas were communicated to the feeble intellect, -- great care being necessary, however, to proceed very slowly, as the cretin is easily discouraged, and when once overtasked, will make no further attempts to learn.


It was only by gaining the love of these poor creatures that they could be led to make any progress; and at an early stage of their training, Doctor Guggenbuhl deemed it wise to infuse into their dawning minds the knowledge and the love of a higher Being, to teach them something of the power and goodness of God. The result, he assures us, has been highly satisfactory; the mind, too feeble for earthly lore, too weak to grasp the simplest facts of science, has yet comprehended something of the love of the All-father, and lifted up to him its imperfect but plaintive supplication. That the enthusiasm of this good man may have led him to exaggerate somewhat the extent of the religious attainments of his pupils is possible; but the experience of every teacher of the cretin or the idiot has satisfactorily demonstrated that simple religious truths are acquired by those who seem incapable of understanding the plainest problems in arithmetic or the most elementary facts of science. God has so willed it, that the mightiest intellect which strives unavailingly to comprehend the wisdom and glory of his creation, and the feeblest intelligence which knows only and instinctively his love, shall alike find in that love their highest solace and delight.


The phenomena of Nature were next made the objects of instruction; and to this the well-chosen position of the establishment largely contributed. Sunshine and storm, the light clouds which mottled the sky and the black heaps which foreboded the tempest, the lightning and the rainbow, all in turn served to awaken the slumbering faculties, and to rouse the torpid intellect to greater activity.

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