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The Ethnic Classification of Idiots" Mental Affections of Childhood and Youth

Page history last edited by PBworks 12 years, 8 months ago


Down, John Langdon. “The Ethnic Classification of Idiots”. Mental Affections of Childhood and Youth. First published in 1866 for London Hospital Reports.











               Notes on the Text


           As unseemly as the term is, especially when in the context of the slang of the modern world we know today, the title of “idiot”, “feeble-minded” or “imbecile” were all used to mark an individual as different from someone who suffered curable bouts of poor psychical/mental health as well as from those who were called “Lunatics”. Someone who was labeled as a lunatic could possibly be rehabilitated to resume the position of their “normal life” before they were stricken. But the label of “idiot” indicated someone who was mentally not fully developed since birth and had no true chance at recovering their mental faculties as well as being loaded with recognition of their often short life expectancy. The distinguishing between these two groups who both populated the growing number of Asylums in England was used in even legal matters. Cases concerning property rights and inheritance depended on such terms to prove that one was permanently unfit to ever take on the responsible of owning any property. Returning to the word “Lunatics” or “Lunacy” it is important to note that the latter was considered a priority in the establishment of Asylums partly due to because the belief was that though these people had “lost their mind” (Wright 10) they had, at least, had one to begin with, whereas “idiots” were more or less a hopeless cause. This is important to keep in mind because with the erection of the Earlswood Asylum (made especially for the care and education of Idiots) we see Victorian England evolving their social and medical beliefs. This said, it is for the sake of this entry and context of the time period John Langdon Down’s lectures were given that the term “idiots” is not used cruelly but to show more vividly the mindset of Victorian England.





                Commentary on the Text


The Victorian Period concerning psychology, mental illness and asylums are, by the mid-nineteenth century, dealing with a broader spectrum of politics concerning the treatment of those they declared mentally unsound. For the sake of length, what will be approached specifically in this research paper will concern the more controversial attitudes (though at the time were often considered to be the “liberal” stance on mental handicaps) that, due to their popularity, lasted for the most part until near mid-twentieth century. Throughout the discussion, which will be mostly drawing from John Langdon Down’s lectures The Affectations of Childhood and Youth (both given in London in 1887), a background of the popular attitudes at the time will be given to allow one a quick insight into possibly why such practices and beliefs were in use.

            The attitudes in Victorian England, beginning to pick up with fervor by the 1840’s, circled around the hopes and beliefs that one could educate those they labeled as “idiots.” The “informal campaign for idiocy reform and the education of idiot children and cretins” (Wright 137) allowed people a certain kind of comforting thought which had to due with their feelings of the workings class. In truth, even the origin of “idiots”, to the members of the medical world such as John Langdon Down believed there was a strong correlation (though he would admit not having wholly flushed it out yet) between the professions of the parents who had afflicted offspring. In his lecture on the origin of idiocy Down’s is stated as saying “Merchants, clergymen, gentlemen of independent means and liberal education produced most of the idiots…” (Down 30-31). And in contrast, Down believed such professions as Lawyers had the least number of ‘imbecile children’ in their families due to the fact that their jobs asked them to possess “strong resolve, mental vigor and a goodness that was not the ‘good’ of clergymen…” (Down 36). Although this belief of Down’s pointed to a faulty idea of the benefits of mentally stimulating careers (versus less rigorous ones seen in those who had no “higher” education) he did stray away from the notion that had been popular concerning the higher education of women. Most felt that allowing women to be educated as a man might be educated would make them less fit to be “mothers of men” due to their loss of femininity. However, Down believed that having women be mere vessels of emotions and nerves (subscribing to the notion that women were their own suppliers of self-inflicted anxieties) was detrimental to her children. Her emotional health, Down believed, could either be the catalyst for “developmental idiocy” or even the deterrent for it. Down’s lectures and contribution to the concern over idiocy helped to feed the publics ideas about what could be done to curb the condition.

            Reiterating the mention of the soothed nerves of the middle and upper classes when it came to the idea of educating idiots helps to grasp an even broader sense of what was going on behind the gradual popularity of asylums: “If even idiots could be incorporated and educated into civilized society, then there were no barriers to the education of the working class and the civilizations of ‘underdeveloped’ cultures of the emerging British Empire” (Wright 137). In fact Earlswood Asylum, one of the first asylums whose main intent was the education of the mentally disabled, went so far as to elect, by ballot, “idiot children who would most likely…profit by the course of treatment in a five year residency” (Wright). Ironically, most of the children were pulled out of the workhouses where their numbers were growing rapidly and then when set down in Earlswood would undergo an education that was more like vocational training. The girls often underwent instruction which allowed them “useful training for future housemaids” (Wright 147). The purpose of this vocational type of education not only gives clarity on the intentions of the medical community but also gives one the feeling that the constant lessons on manual labor (which many of them were assigned to do in the workhouses to begin with) was a way to reduce the maintenance costs of the institution itself.

            The most unfortunate side of the arena of care for the mentally disabled came from Down’s own lecture titled “The Ethnic Classification of Idiots.” In Down’s defense, his attitude was more of a reflex to the extremely recent publication of Charles Darwin’s Origins of Species as well as Down’s own research that finally allowed for the idea of hereditary being a great cause of all anomalies in offspring.  Despite his seemingly racists belief that anything varying from Caucasian features could be seen as degenerative, Down was attempting to make sense of what he saw as a link between races. However, where this lead Down (and future medical minds until the twentieth century) was the unfortunate idea that one could define the physical disabilities of children by “arranging them by various ethnic standards” (Down 128-129). His belief that the formation of physical traits resembling, in his opinion, other races fed his idea that mingling of men and women of different backgrounds (and stepping away from marriages of consanguinity or first cousin marriages) would be “…in favor of the unity of the human species” (Down) since he saw us all having a tie to begin with.

The most infamous and impacting classification was the class of “Mongols” whom Down referred to as making up “the large population of congenital idiots” (Down 129-130). In his lecture, Down listed the features that are characteristic of the “Mongolian variety” which were: straight brown hair, flat broad face, extended roundish cheeks, far apart eyes, long thick tongue and skin with a dirty yellowish tinge (to name just a few). “These ethnic features are the result of degeneration” (Down). Down and his colleagues kept on with this method of classification and was one of the methods popularly referred to at Earlswood Asylum when John Langdon Down took the superintendent position in that very hospital from 1855 to 1868.

            This brief discussion on the intent of the “Idiot Asylums” paired with Down’s lectures shows that for the mid nineteenth century Victorian England public there was a great want for a reform of treatment towards the mentally disable. This also was combined with the want of an educational reform concerning the mentally disabled whereas the early nineteenth century was “…emphasized the ineducability of idiots” (Wright 137). Though the hope of giving the afflicted individuals an education was often misguided and sprung from a hope that such handicaps could either be ‘cured’ or put to ‘use’ there was still a strong desire for public awareness to be made about the disabled as well as a commission to insist that every county construct an asylum for those very individuals. And even though attitudes about race classification flourished, and that shutting these children away (before releasing them as fit) fed the sense of the “other” and “otherness” of asylum patients, Victorian England was on a path of attempting to reform the older views which would have kept all the unfortunate to be treated as nothing more than prisoners within the workhouses.




John Langdon Down’s lectures and position of superintendent at the Earlswood Asylum yields some of the most influential, and at times controversial, beliefs concerning the origin of “Idiocy” (now more appropriately called “mentally disabled”) and the call for an education reform for those stricken individuals during the Victorian era in Britain. The following entry which briefly discusses two of his lectures given for the Medical Society of London in 1887 attempts to connect Langdon’s summary of his research on the “feeble-minded” while also putting it into context of the popular attitudes and concerns about the mentally unfit of those in the public. Down’s erroneous classification of the individuals he researched based on physical features he believed representative of other races may seem highly racist but it is important to note that this does not seem to be Langdon’s intent. Eventually, even the most infamous term he used “Mongol” (due in part because so many of the patients he oversaw seemed to be grouped into this category) was later replaced in early to mid twentieth century medical field as “Down’s syndrome.”


 Justin Schumacher, March 17, 2008

 Of utmost interest when reading Down's article are the psychological constructions of ethnicity and race that produced such skewed perceptions of mental illness. Cognitive studies repeatedly show that humans create maps of reality by grouping outward symbols and signs into associated thoughts that become generalized, labeled, and easily recalled. Any group that purports to convey an image of outward appearance as a signifier of inward reality seeks to create contextual generalizations that are conveniently packaged for easy use by others. The pertinence of this modern psychological understanding to Down's article is important. The ramifications of class, determined more by profession than material wealth by Down, were poorly thought out by the masses. They did, however, produce an interesting glimpse into common patterns of thinking. While lawyers produced the least numbers of "imbecile children" because of their "strong resolve, mental vigor, and a goodness", merchants, clergyman, and independent gentlemen were thought to have produced the highest numbers of incurable idiots. If intelligence and strength of character can be attributed to a man practicing law, it doesn't make sense that such positive traits couldn't be associated with merchants and gentlemen of independent means. Are not the men of the latter occupations ingenious and resourceful in their own ways? Likewise, how can traits of goodness correspond with lawyers and not clergyman? The delineation of these professions seems arbitrary and not at all logical. An assumption would be that lawyers were looked upon more favorably because of their supposed benefit to society or prestigious status. Henceforth, the reader can see the subtle ways in which outward social status reflected an inherent internal sanity or goodness in the eyes of Down and others. The unreasonable correlation between class and mental illness is striking and prevalent in the article. This same irrational connection is haphazardly derived when looking at one's ethnicity. Regardless of the sociological lens that is used, it is apparent that the idea of 'difference' imbedded in ethnicity is used by those in power to purport further stereotypes that benefited those with influence. Another peculiar facet of the article is the types of treatment administered at Earlswood. The vocational training provided to boys and "useful training for future housemaids" given to girls reflects an early behavioralist model of psychological rehabilitation. A limited scope of psychological understanding at the time mirrored the belief that mental inconsistencies were the byproduct of inconsistent or immoral behavioral patterns. An absence of the recognition of hereditary or environmental factors in the onset of mental illness is a note of interest.

                Works Cited



        Down, John Langdon. “The Ethnic Classification of Idiots”. Mental Affections of Childhood and Youth. First published in 1866 for London Hospital Reports. London, England Mac Keith Press                 1990. 27-31



        Down, John Langdon. “Lecture II: Causes of Idiocy.” Mental Affections of Childhood and Youth. Delivered before the Medical Society of London in 1887. London, England Mac Keith Press 1990.         26-53



        Wright, David. Mental Disability in Victorian England: The Earlswood Asylum, 1847-1901. Oxford University press, NY 2001.



        “Idiot.” Oxford English Dictionary Online.






                For Additional Reading



        Conolly, John. The Construction and Government of Lunatic Asylums. First published in 1847.  Dawsons of Pall Mall, London 1968.



        “Lunatic.” Oxford English Dictionary Online.



        Rylance, Rick. Victorian Psychology and British Culture 1850-1880. Oxford University Press, NY. 2000.









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