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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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The next step was, to teach the cretin some knowledge of objects around him, animate and inanimate, and of his relations to them. The exercise of the senses followed, and gayly colored pictures were presented to the eye, charming music to the ear, fragrant odors to the smell, and the varieties of sweet, bitter, sour, and pungent substances to the taste.


When the perceptive faculties were thus trained, books were made to take the place of object lessons; reading and writing were taught by long and patient endeavor; the elements of arithmetic, of Scripture history, and of geography were communicated; and mechanical instruction was imparted at the same time.


Under this general routine of instruction, Dr. Guggenbuhl has conducted his establishment for seventeen years, often with limited means, and at times struggling with debt, from which, more than once, kind English friends, who have visited the Hospital, or become interested in the man, during his occasional hasty visits to Great Britain, have relieved him. His personal appearance is thus described by a friend who was on terms of intimacy with him; the place is at one of Lord Rosse's conversazioni. "Imagine in the crowd which swept through his Lordship's suite of rooms a small, foreign-looking man, with features of a Grecian cast, and long, shoulder-covering, black hair; look at that man's face; there is a gentleness, an amiability combined with intelligence, which wins you to him. His dress is peculiar in that crowd of white cravats and acres of cambric shirt-fronts; black, well-worn black, is his suit; but his waistcoat is of black satin, double-breasted, and buttoned closely up to the throat. It is Dr. Guggenbuhl, the mildest, the gentlest of men, but one of those calm, reflecting minds that push on after a worthy object, undismayed by difficulties, undeterred by ridicule or rebuff."


In his labors in behalf of the unfortunate class to whom he has devoted himself, Dr. Guggenbuhl has been assisted very greatly by the Protestant Sisters of Charity, who, like the Catholic sisterhood, dedicate their lives to offices of charity and love to the sick, the unfortunate, and the erring.


Dr. Guggenbuhl claims to have effected a perfect cure in about one third of the cases which have been under his charge, by a treatment of from three to six years duration. The attainment of so large a measure of success has been questioned by some who have visited the Hospital on the Abendberg; and while a part of these critics were undoubtedly actuated by a jealous and fault-finding disposition, it is not impossible that the enthusiasm of the philanthropist may have led him to regard the acquirements of his pupils as beyond what they really were.


A greater source of fallacy, however, is in the want of fixed standards for estimating the comparative capacity of children affected with cretinism, when placed under treatment, and the degree of intellectual and physical development which constitutes a "perfect cure," in the opinion of such men as Dr. Guggenbuhl. It is a fact, which all who have long had charge of either cretins or idiots well understand, that a great degree of physical deformity and disorder, a strongly marked rachitic condition of the body, complicated even with loss of hearing and speech, may exist, while the intellectual powers are but slightly affected; in other words, that a child may be in external appearance a cretin, and even one of low grade, yet with a higher degree of intellectual capacity than most cretins possess. On the other hand, the bodily weakness and deformity may be slight, while the mental condition is very low. In the former case, we might reasonably expect, on the successful treatment of the rachitic symptoms, a rapid intellectual development; the child would soon be able to pursue its studies in an ordinary school, and a "perfect cure" would be effected. In the latter case, though far more promising, apparently, at first, a longer course of training would be requisite, and the most strenuous efforts on the part of the teacher would not, in all probability, bring the pupil up to the level of a respectable mediocrity.


From a great number of cases, narrated in the different Reports of Dr. Guggenbuhl before us, we select one as the type of a large class, in which the development of the intellect seems to have been retarded by the physical disorder, but proceeded regularly on the return of health.


"C. was four years old when she entered, with every symptom of confirmed rachitic cretinism. Her nervous system was completely out of order, so that the strongest electric shocks produced scarcely any effect on her for some months. Aromatic baths, frictions, moderate exercise, a regimen of meat and milk, were the means of restoring her. Her bones and muscles grew so strong, that, in the course of a year, she could run and jump. Her mind appeared to advance in proportion to her body, for she learned to talk in French as well as in German. The life and spirits of her age at length burst forth, and she was as gay and happy as she had before been cross and disagreeable. She was particularly open-hearted, active, kind, and cleanly. She learned to read, write, and cipher, to sew and knit, and above all she loved to sing. It is now two years since she left, and she continues quite well, and goes to school."

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