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Idiocy: And Its Treatment By The Physiological Method

Creator: Edward Seguin (author)
Date: 1907
Publisher: Teachers' College, Columbia University
Source: Available at selected libraries

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The establishments founded for idiots have been called by various names - Schools, Institutions, Asylums, etc. The term school expresses well the place in which these children are educated, and that of institutions leaves more room for the understanding that therein they are boarded, nursed, and especially treated also. Nevertheless, it does not seem proper to employ one of these two terms to the exclusion of the other without having taken the advice, duly debated and matured, of the persons most engaged in the work. This seems one of the questions relating to the subject which requires the earliest solution.


We are aware that the appellation of asylum has been attached to several of the most important schools. But this term conveys conclusively the idea of a custodian, life-long place of retreat, whereas the institution or school is only temporarily open for educational and physiological treatment. In it idiots and their congeners are expected to remain during the period assigned by nature for progress in young persons, unless it sooner becomes manifest that they cannot be improved at all or any more, in which case their parents should take them out to make room for new pupils. In all respects this is an institution similar to those for the deaf mute and the blind. Besides, the term asylum is wanted for a necessary appendix to the school, in which idiots and other victims of incurable affections of the nervous system shall be received for their lifetime, when, after having followed, with only a partial success, the curriculum of the school, they are found destitute of means or of kind parents. The asylum would be the place where they would be cared and provided for, in the same spirit of charity in which they were taught, if it be connected with the institution, organized like a farming family, and managed by retired teachers and attendants, understanding the peculiarities of idiots and accustomed to treat them like their own children.


The report of Orfila to the Administration of the hospitals of Paris (October 12, 1842) and that of Serres, Flourens, and Pariset, to the French Institute (December 11, 1843), are the twin corner-stones of all the institutions since founded for the education of idiots.


In Switzerland, Guggenb├╝hl, and in Prussia, Saegert, soon worked on the data furnished by our numerous pamphlets, issued from 1838. On this side of the Atlantic, Dr. Frederick Backus, of Rochester, worded a report to the Senate of the State of New York, for the foundation of the first State Institution for Idiots. It was voted by that body in the winter of 1845-6, but subsequently defeated by the Assembly. Our first private school was opened by Dr. H. B. Wilbur, at Barre, Mass., in July, 1848; and in October of the same year, Dr. Samuel G. Howe opened in South Boston the first State Institution, due to his persevering action on the Legislature of Massachusetts. The State of New York had the plans of Dr. Backus realized in 1851. Pennsylvania owes to Mr. J. B. Richards the beginning of her State School in 1852; Ohio, Kentucky, Connecticut, Illinois, following. England founded the institution of Highgate in 1847, and that of Earlswood in 1853; Scotland had hers later; all civilized countries have now one at least; but none has so many in fact, and in proportion to its population, as the United States.


It took ten years to found the method of training idiots, and it required fifteen more to found the institutions on the most solid basis of the budget of nations. After having exposed the method, it would be a great pleasure to describe and compare the various institutions, but the means of doing it are not within our reach; and after reflection, we are now inclined to think that this deprivation may be turned to good account, by permitting us to say with more independence what the typical institution must be, rather than what each of the existing ones is.


Supposing the seat of the establishment selected according to the Hippocratic rules in respect to air, water, elevation, and genial exposure, we advise only to locate it in the mean and most equable temperature of the geographical circumscription in which its future inmates have been born and raised. Any great change in this respect would be followed by unpleasant consequences; though we are inclined to think that in extreme latitudes a slight deviation from this rule would be rather favorable, if it carried the institutions of the North a little to the South, and those of the South a little to the North. By this artifice, the climate of the former shall not be more intensely, but longer warm, whilst the climate of the latter shall be favorable to labor and exercise for several weeks.


The buildings of the institution must have a special character, unlike those of any other educational establishment, to correspond with certain idiosyncracies of the children and with numerous exigencies of their treatment. Idiots vitiate the air very rapidly; hence the necessity of supplying them with more than an ordinary share of it, by making their rooms very high and large, very airy and easily ventilated, accessible equally to natural and artificial heat. Their training, unlike that of ordinary children, requiring movement, noise, and show, demands a special distribution of the building, which, in this wise, becomes one of the most effective means of physiological education: upon this we must dwell at some length.

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