In Memoriam — Hervey B. Wilbur, M.D. (1820 – 1884)

by George Brown

An article in the Proceedings of the Association of Medical Officers of American Institutions for Idiotic and Feeble-minded Persons, 1886

Read at the Glenwood Meeting, 1884.

WHILST seeking a location for the practice of my profession in the spring of 1850, I providentially strayed to Barre, Mass., meeting there Dr. Hervey B. Wilbur, who gave me the cordial greeting so grateful to the young physician. Our acquaintance, thus begun, was cemented by mutual tastes and the close relations into which we afterwards entered, till from that day to this he has been to me as a brother, and with saddened heart I stand here to speak of him who has gone before. I need not repeat in detail the events of his earlier life, with which you all became familiar from reading the many newspaper accounts published at the time of his death, but I will quote a few paragraphs from the paper he read at the funeral of Dr. Seguin, which tells us how he came to choose his life-work : “In the year 1847 I saw in a number of ‘Chambers’s Journal’ an account of a visit by one of its correspondents to a school for training idiots in Paris, in charge of Edouard Seguin. It attracted attention, because up to a very recent time the class in question had been regarded as beyond the reach of any efforts for their improvement. But here was one who had overleaped the barriers of this outcast class, who had not only opened a new field of educational effort, but had been working it for a decade with both brain and hand, and with such success as to obtain a wide public recognition of his labors. From the very start it was an experiment in psychology as well as philanthropy, and was marked by the enthusiasm and persistence that such a combination would naturally beget.

“Not long after, as I now remember, I met in one or more numbers of a British medical journal a very glowing account of a professional visit to the same class written by an appreciative hand. It was the work of Dr. Connolly, one of the princes of British philanthropy. These papers were my first inspiration in what has proved to be with me a life occupation.”

At the time I first met Dr. Wilbur, the resultant of this inspiration was a little school, in his own house, of some dozen pupils, to which all visitors from abroad were invited, and no stranger left it unimpressed with wonder at what he had seen, or without catching some of the good doctor’s enthusiasm for his undertaking. In this little school he gained the experience which enabled him a few years later to stand at the head of the first public institution for idiots established in this country at Syracuse, making that asylum a model for all kindred schools which have sprung up since, some of which are here represented. Seeking, patient and oft-repeated experimentation, to discover the pathway to the occluded intellect, he solved the problem how most wisely to draw out the mental powers of the normal child, exposing the scientific errors of Pestalozzi and other noted educators, just then coming into popularity in the State of New York. His able papers, entitled “Some Suggestions on the Principles and Methods of Elementary Instruction,” and the “Object System of Instruction as Pursued in the Schools of Oswego N. Y.,” read before the National Teachers’ Convention at Ogdensburg, and the New York State Teachers’ Association, were widely circulated and discussed in the State, influencing its whole educational system.

In 1871, at the meeting of the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane, Dr. Wilbur read a paper entitled “Materialism in its Relations to the Causes, Conditions, and Treatment of Insanity,” reviewing an article written by Dr. Gray which had been published in the Journal of Insanity. It advocated the theory that moral causes were often productive of insanity, and that moral treatment should be largely used for remedial purposes, as opposed to the theories and practice enjoined by materialists. The ultimate effect of this incisive article was the long controversy between its author and some members of that Association who differed radically from him upon points both scientific and practical.

When Dr. Wilbur made his second trip to Europe in the summer of 1875, to visit institutions for idiots and insane, he was invited by the Governor of New York and some members of the State Board of Charities to report his observations upon the latter class. This comprehensive summary, entitled “Report Relating to the Management of the Insane in Great Britain,” expresses his strong convictions that the English methods were more advanced, and in many respects superior to the American.

Especially did he recommend the appointment in the different States of officials similar to the British Commissioners of Lunacy, who, giving more time to thorough acquaintance with all the insane hospitals within the borders of any one State, would be fitted to advise more broadly upon general matters of construction and care than local boards of trustees.

At the same time, by their higher official position, personally unbiased by local influences, they could inspire the public with more confidence in asylum management, often most injudiciously and untruthfully assailed.

This report and suggestion were most ungraciously received by the majority of asylum superintendents, who contended that no improvement upon old methods was needed. To their criticism Dr. Wilbur responded, presenting his convictions and arguments in several articles, each new presentation of his cause more intense than the preceding, till the discussion became somewhat personal. Yet I am sure that no unprejudiced person could read his able productions upon the construction of insane hospitals and their management without appreciating the wide views, sound logic, clear statement, and whole souled enthusiasm of the writer.

So manifest were the improvements suggested, and so cogent the reasonings which proved their feasibility, his readers were convinced, and through them, indirectly, every asylum in the country has felt, and will continue to feel, his influence.

Because of the continued opposition of the Association of Medical Superintendents of this specialty, there grew up a society outside, called The National Association for the Protection of the Insane and the Prevention of Insanity, of which Dr. Wilbur was at one time president, and always an active member. Some members of this society were also connected with the older Association. One of this number, Dr. Godding, in his memorial article published in the Alienist and Neurologist, acknowledges, with both candor and justice, the purity of the motives that prompted Dr. Wilbur’s course of action, and condemning the treatment he received from those “who would none of his reproof.” This same writer quotes from a letter, written only a week before his death, in which Dr. Wilbur, alluding to the Association of Asylum Superintendents, says, “I have never had the slightest ill-will towards one of my old associates.” We who were privileged to be most intimate with him can testify to the truthfulness of this assertion, whilst we also recognize the correctness of the added fact, “I am a zealous advocate of anything in the line of my convictions.” To this persistency, which Cicero styled genius, he owed his success in life, and, because of it, the education of the feeble-minded in this country stands upon so broad a basis to-day.

Dr. Wilbur wrote the article upon Idiocy in “Johnson’s Encyclopaedia,” and at one time planned editing an extended work upon the subject. But the appearance of Dr. Ireland’s excellent book, and the numerous cares devolving upon him, prevented its completion. Some of the chapters written with this intent were read at different meetings of our own Association, such as “The Classifications of Idiocy,” “The Relation of Speech or Language to Idiocy,” etc.

All these papers attest the high ability of their author as a writer, and are characterized by his usual breadth of thought. The subtle reasonings, clear deductions, keen metaphysical insight, and wealth of illustration drawn from the treasury of his personal experience lead us all to long for the book which he alone could have written.

His reports, embracing as they do the whole period from the inception of this work in America to the present time, are most valuable for historical reference, and also for instruction of whoever engages in like undertaking. Written in a plain, clear style, they are wholly free from the rhetorical flourish of scientific cant, or the opaqueness of modern metaphysics. Rereading these pages, we study the evolution, step by step, of a great charity, as illustrated by the personal experience of the writer. His early hopeful struggles and hard work, followed by great joy when the experimental school at Albany became the permanent Institution at Syracuse. His graphic delineation of the educational methods pursued, representing by individual cases the difficulties to be encountered, and the best means for overcoming the same. His care to arouse no extravagant expectations as to results, and the candid admission that the proportion of educable cases diminishes somewhat from his earliest estimates. The constant iteration (lest the people and the changing Legislature forget) of the one aim underlying the whole system of teaching from books, physical training, occupations and recreations, even, — i.e., the ultimate practical helpfulness of each pupil. The close economy, making the State burden light as consistent with the greatest good of its beneficiaries. The quiet summing up of what has been absolutely accomplished by himself and others.

As the years pass on we note the inevitable growth of the custodial institution supplementing the educational, and utilizing for self-support the ability previously gained.

Through this whole period of more than thirty years we find no trace of ignoble ambitions, no seeking for self-aggrandizement or conspicuous surroundings, no lack of faith in ultimate success, no loss of interest, no faltering in the steady purpose of lifting to the utmost height those unfortunate little ones whom he found so low down in the social scale physically, mentally, and morally.

Wide as the institutional field is, it did not engross all his powers. Everything of a scientific nature, social or practical, was of interest to him, and the excellent library he gathered shows the breadth of his intellectual tastes. His sympathies embraced the wide field of humanity, and no human being was too lowly or degraded for his notice. To him the humblest of his neighbors came for advice and aid in their petty troubles, sure that he would accord them both.

His thoughtful care for others, and forgetfulness of his own comfort, alone saved him from being an autocrat in his own family, who gave him so large homage of loving reverence.

In this reverence, as to a beloved leader, we all share as in these annual gatherings we shall miss one voice always so welcome. May a portion of his mantle descend upon each of us, so that, as one after another of our number passes on, we who are left may do wiser and better work.

The time for the regular meeting of our Association came so soon after the sudden death of Dr. Wilbur, we had no heart to come together then, and as this is the first meeting since that sad event, it is proper even at this late hour to offer our united sympathies to the widow and children of our lamented friend.

Source: In Memoriam — Hervey B. Wilbur, M.D. (1820 – 1884), by George Brown, An Article in the Proceedings of the Association of Medical Officers of American Institutions for Idiotic and Feeble-minded Persons, 1886, Disability History Museum,



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