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Origin Of The Treatment And Training Of Idiots

Creator: Edward Seguin (author)
Date: 1856
Publication: American Journal of Education
Source: Available at selected libraries


Edouard Seguin was a Frenchman who worked with Jean Marc Gaspar Itard, who had discovered and educated Victor, the Wild Boy of Averyon. In France, Seguin learned about moral treatment for the insane and opened a school for mentally disabled children in 1839. He moved to the United States in 1849. In 1876, he became the first president of the Association of Medical Officers of American Institutions for Idiotic and Feeble-Minded Persons, later the American Association on Mental Retardation.

Seguin taught Hervey Wilbur, the superintendent of the New York State Asylum for Idiots, about how to combine moral treatment, curing mentally disabled people in nurturing home-like settings, with physiological treatment, the exercising of the will to overcome the lassitude and passivity which seemed to define people deemed idiots. Seguin introduced gymnastics and other physical exercises. He advocated stimulating the senses to awaken the mind. He promoted the manipulation of objects as a path to fostering curiosity. Ultimately, Seguin defined idiocy as a defect of will, not of brain function.

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NONE but God can do anything of himself alone. Hence, the question of priority in human discovery is always contested. If the truthful history of any invention were written, we should find con-cerned in it the thinker, who dreams, without reaching the means of putting his imaginings in practice; the mathematician, who estimates justly the forces at command, in their relation to each other, but who forgets to proportion them to the resistance to be encountered; and, so on, through the thousand intermediates between the dream and the perfect idea, till one comes who combines the result of the labors of all his predecessors, and gives to the invention new life, and with it his name.


But, in good faith, this man is but the expression, -- honorable and often honored, -- of human fraternity. And, it is only from this point of view that the full benefit of the discovery is seen: being the com-mon property of mankind, it gives us wider and deeper feelings of mutual dependence or solidarity. A short notice of the origin of the treatment and training of the unfortunate idiots will be an illustration of this law of mutual dependence.


In the year 1801, the citizen M. Bonnaterre discovered, in the forest of Aveyron, France, a wild boy. This naked boy was marked with numer-ous scars; he was nimble as a deer, subsisting on roots and nuts, which he cracked like a monkey, laughing at the falling snow, and rolling himself with delight in this white blanket. He seemed to be about 17 years of age. Bonnaterre permitted this wild boy to escape, but afterwards retook him and sent him, at his own expense, to the abbé Sicard, director of the Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb, at Paris.


Sicard had just succeeded the illustrious abbé L'Epée; and, Bon-naterre thought him to be the most suitable man to perform the miracle of which he dreamed, -- the education of this creature, the most inferior that had ever been seen under the form of humanity; but he was mistaken. Sicard exhibited, for some days, to the learned and curious, the being, who was constantly throwing away his clothes and endeavoring to escape, even by the windows, and then left him to wan-erd -sic-, neglected, under the immense roofs of the school for deaf mutes.


But, the wild boy of Aveyron had been seen by all Paris. If the crowd of visitors had found him a subject of disgust, he excited in the mind of the thinkers and philosophers a livelier interest. Some of those who had held conversation with Franklin on the liberty of the world, were still living, and by them the subject was brought before the Academy of Sciences, where it produced interesting and fruitful discussions.


Two men were particularly conspicuous for their interest in the wild boy of Aveyron, viz.: Pinel, physician-in-chief for the insane, author of the Nosographie Philosophique, who declared the child idiotic, -- the sequel proved him correct; and Itard, physician-in-chief of the deaf and dumb, who asserted that the subject was simply entirely untaught. Itard did more; he named him VICTOR, doubt-less as a sign of the victory which education should achieve in him over brute nature. But, he did more yet; he received him into his own house, employed a governess for him, and devoted to him a por-tion of his time, otherwise so fully occupied, for six years.


This devotion of Itard to this child and to science, is the more worthy of praise as, based upon a metaphysical error, his efforts were constantly met by disappointment; and yet, he never yielded to the feelings of discouragement. His errors were these: He obstinately saw in the idiot the savage; and, resting in his studies, as well as in his faith, on the materialistic doctrines of Locke and Condillac, his teachings sometimes reached the senses of his pupil, but never pene-trated to his mind and soul. He gave to his senses certain notions of things, he even excited in him a physical sensibility to the caresses bestowed upon him; but, he left him destitute of ideas and of social or moral feelings, incapable of labor, and, consequently, of inde-pendence. He was, in the end of that painful and fruitless trial, immured in a hospital, where he passed the remainder of his life.


But, if these six years were almost lost to the wild boy of Avevron, they bore their fruit in the mind of Itard. Although closely occupied in his investigations of the diseases of the ear, he often thought of the experiment of his youth, and sometimes he regretted the renown which attached itself to his name as a surgeon, -- a renown that sent him patients from all parts of Europe, but left him no leisure for his philanthropic study and experiment.


It was in this state of mind that Itard, in 1837, was consulted by the celebrated Guersant, principal of the children's hospital of Paris, in the case of a young idiot. "If I was younger," cried Itard, "I would charge myself with his care; but, send me a suitable man, and I will direct his efforts." Guersant spoke to him of myself. Itard was a fellow student in medicine of my father. "If Seguin will accept," Itard did me the honor of saying, "I will answer for the result." From this sketch, it will be seen that three men took the lead in the grand enterprise of the amelioration of the condition of idiots: Bonnaterre, the generous and enthusiastic protector of the boy of Aveyron; Pinel, whose discriminating diagnosis has so much illumined the subject of idiocy; and, Itard, whose devotion, patience, and sagacity opened up the method of amelioration.

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