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Idiocy, As The Effect Of Social Evils, And As The Creative Cause of Physiological Education

Creator: Edward Seguin (author)
Date: January 1870
Publication: The Journal of Psychological Medicine and Diseases of the Nervous System
Source: Available at selected libraries

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-1- See their list completed up to the "Savage Boy of the Aveyron," and above seventy more recent observations, page 17, passim, and appendix, in "Idiocy," etc., by E. Seguin. William Wood & Co., publishers, 61 Walker Street, New York, 1866.


The oldest of these documents, preserved by Linnaeus, belonged to that class whose main object was -- irrespective of their solid foundation on facts -- to be wondered at. The later were of the sentimental cast, whose characters and incidents affect the physiognomy of arguments in the great lawsuit of Nature versus Priesthood. From Itard to this day the monographs of idiots were either psychical, anatomical, or physiological, but none of them bore the marks of general observation pertaining to the labor of a true anthropologist. To be ourselves one of the delinquents may give us the right -- at least it gives us the pluck -- of declaring that we for one, and possibly we as a whole (Itard less than any of us), have been sadly deficient in the catholicity of our biological knowledge; and that if we stood by the idiot with a human desire to help him, and did him justice in the main, we handled idiocy with awkward and incomplete grasp, and did not do justice to the whole of the problems it includes.


Some years ago this avowal would have made an unfavorable impression in reference to the whole matter upon a numerous class, holding an influential position between the friends and the inmates of the new institutions. But now the schools have done too much good to their pupils to be shaken by the disclosure of an imperfection which does not affect their direct object, the training of idiots. On the contrary, the taking the problems to be mastered bravely by the horns, will strengthen those engaged in the fight, consolidate their social position, and. elevate their scientific character.




It must be studied by itself in its generality, as if it were an abstract being, an entity. This view includes all historical and statistical documents on its proportion to population and sexes; on its gravity; on the number of functions modified by it; on its concurrence with or apparent relation of cause and effect to other affections. It includes, besides, the study of isolated idiots, in view of following through their life, treatment, and beyond death, the elucidation of certain questions of correlation of organ to function, which are the desiderata of the present hour, and whose success depends, in a great measure, upon the selection of typical cases.


It is not every idiot that is endowed with the wretched conditions necessary to lay the foundations of a complete monograph: some would offer excellent traits, but there is an hiatus in their history; or others conic with an uninterrupted record, running back, as it is desirable it should, unto uterine life, but their case presents no general interest, nor special points worthy of attention; or is associated -- we might almost say polluted -- with other diseases, epilepsy, for instance, whose deleterious effects upon activity and feeling confuse the symptoms, and whose future organic alterations, on the cadaver, may be mistaken for pathological evidences of idiocy.


On the other hand, if few idiots are fit subjects for general monographs, more are precious for the interpretation of isolated points of diagnosis, pathology, therapeutics, and even normal physiology. But these limited observations are limited only in regard to the point to be enlightened. In every other respect, to be valuable, they must he as thorough as the most extensive monographs; otherwise some important elements of judgment would escape. For instance, if one has prosecuted for months the development of a missing function, as if he had given years of attention to a general training, it is equally important, in either case, that he keeps notes complete of the general disabilities, of subsequent general progress, and eventually of the anatomical and histological condition of the different nerve-tissues at least.


For these and other reasons, the typical cases destined to serve as sample-material for the philosophical history of idiocy have to be chosen as early as possible, and worked eventually through several generations of observers. Otherwise there is treatment, but no observation, and, therefore, no experience. Idiots are improved, the knowledge of idiocy is not; and, for fear that constant familiarity with the sight of idiots, in all their modalities, or modes of being, would blunt the sense of the standard man in the mind of the observer, we consider paramount that any investigation made on idiocy upon idiots be conducted pari passu upon normal subjects with the strictest similarity; at play, at school, on the sick-list, or on the cold slab, when possible; everywhere, near the abnormal, the normal; next to the shadow, the light.


This study and parallelism lead us to new inquiries:


1. What Causes Produce Idiocy and Collateral Affections? -- Though no general question is so identified with the former researches relating to individual idiots, yet it has not received, so far as we know, that authoritative solution that would prevent much evil and produce much more good. It is evidently one of those questions that could not be answered by indirect prospecting, and must be inquired into with the direct object in view of eradicating idiocy itself from our midst, if possible. But is not every thing good possible to men? and why did they conglomerate in families, tribes, and nations, and why do they try to unify now in one humanity, but to extend to larger tribes these once reputed impossible benefits? Have they not already eradicated anthropophagy and leprosy? -1- Are we not now rapidly suppressing slavery, small-pox, cretinism? And what retards the. disappearance of idiocy, and an elevation of the moral type of mankind comparable to the physical beauty which has retaken its seat on the human face by the atoxic effect of vaccine? Nothing so much as the insufficiency of its etiology; show us its cause, and. we will stamp it out.

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