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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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We think our readers will perceive that this was not a case of confirmed intellectual degradation, but only of retarded mental development, the result of diseased bodily condition. These cases are distressing to parents and friends, and he who succeeds in restoring them to health, intelligence, and the enjoyment of life, accomplishes a great and good work; but it does not necessarily follow that the cases where the mental degeneration is as complete as the physical would as readily yield to treatment; and we are driven to the conviction that the enthusiasm and zeal of Dr. Guggenbuhl have led him to exaggerate the measure of success attained in these cases of low grade, and thus to excite hopes which could never be fulfilled.*


* Dr. F. Kern, Superintendent of the Idiot School at Goblis, near Leipzig, in an article in the Allgemeine Zeuschrift für Psychiatric, published the present year, (1857,) states that he examined a boy in the Abendberg Hospital in 1853, of whom Dr. Guggenbuhl had said, in his work Upon the Cure of Cretinism, published a few months previously, that, "after the painstaking examination of Dr. Naville, he was held to be capable of entering a training school for teachers, in order to qualify himself for a teacher": Dr. Kern found that he knew neither the day of the week or the month, nor his birthday, nor his age.


There are four other institutions in Germany devoted wholly or in part to the treatment of cretins; they are located at Bendorf, Mariaberg, Winterbach, and Hubertsburg. There are also two in Sardinia. All together they may contain three hundred children. The success of these institutions has not been equal to that of the Abendberg, although the teachers seem to have been faithful and patient. The statistics of the latest census of the countries of Central and Southern Europe render it certain that those countries contain from seventy-five to eighty thousand cretins, and as the cretin seldom passes his thirtieth year, the number under ten years of age must exceed thirty thousand. The provision for their training is, of course, entirely inadequate to their needs.


The limited experience of the few institutions already established warrants, we think, the conclusion, that too high expectations have been raised in regard to the complete cure of cretinism that only a small proportion (cases in which the bodily disease is the principal difficulty, and the mental deterioration slight) can be perfectly cured; but that these institutions, regarded as hospitals for the treatment and training of cretins, are in the highest degree important and beneficial and that, under proper care and medication, the physical symptoms of the disease may be greatly diminished and in many cases entirely eradicated, and the mental condition so far improved, that the patient shall be able, under proper direction, to support himself wholly or in part by his own labor. The hideous and repulsive condition of the body can be cured; the mental deformity will yield less readily yet in some instances this, too, may disappear, and the cretin take his place with his fellow-men.


Let us now turn our attention to another class, in whom, as a people, we have a deeper interest; for though cretinisin does undoubtedly exist in the United States, yet the cases are but few while idiocy is fearfully prevalent throughout the country.


The possibility of improving the condition of the idiot is one of those discoveries which will make the nineteenth century remarkable in the annals of the future for its philanthropic spirit. Idiots have existed in all ages, and have commonly vegetated through life in utter wretchedness and degrading filth, concealed from public view.


During the early part of the present century, a few attempts were made to instruct them; the earliest known being at the American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb, in Hartford, in 1818. In 1824, Dr. Belhomme, of Paris, published an essay on the possibility of improving the condition of idiots; and in 1828, a few were instructed for a short time at the Bicêtre, one of the large insane hospitals of Paris. In 1831, M. Falret attempted the same work at the Salpêtrière, another of the hospitals for the insane in the same city. Neither of these efforts was continued long in existence. In 1833, Dr. Voisin, a distinguished French physiologist and phrenologist, attempted the organization of a school for idiots in Paris. In 1839, aided by Dr. Leuret, he revived the School for Idiots in the Bicêtre, subsequently under the charge of M. Vallée. The "Apostle to the Idiots," however, to use a French expression, was Dr. Edward Seguin. The friend and pupil of Itard, the celebrated surgeon and philanthropist, he had in early youth entered into the views of his master respecting the practicability of their instruction; and when, during his last illness, Itard, with a philanthropy which triumphed over the terrible pangs of disease, reminded him of the work which he had himself longed to undertake, and urged him to devote his abilities to it, the young physician accepted the sacred trust, and thenceforth consecrated his life to the work of endeavoring to elevate the helpless idiot in the scale of humanity.

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