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Instruction Of Idiots (1849)

    “Instruction Of Idiots”

by J.G.W. (author)

An article in Friends’ Review, 1849

Introduction: This article appeared in a Philadelphia Quaker periodical as efforts to educate children with cognitive disabilities first started in the United States. Samuel Gridley Howe, then principal of the Perkins Asylum for the Blind and famous as Laura Bridgman’s teacher, was beginning a new endeavor, the establishment of a school for idiots. His research mirrored that of Dorothea Dix, who had done numerous state surveys of indigent individuals with mental disabilities. Her efforts led to the construction of insane asylums. Howe’s work promoted new idiocy asylums. Like Dix, Howe succeeded in obtaining financial support from the Massachusetts state government. Howe used the money to open in 1848 an experimental school of ten students with cognitive disabilities at Perkins in South Boston. (A permanent school, the Massachusetts School for Idiotic and Feeble-minded Youth, later the Walter E. Fernald State School, opened in 1851.) The author concluded by stressing the religious roots of humanitarian reform.


Samuel Gridley Howe 1801-1876
Samuel Gridley Howe

Some five years ago the Legislature of Massachusetts, at the suggestion of several benevolent gentlemen, whose attention had been turned to the subject, appointed a Commission to inquire into the condition of the idiots of the Commonwealth — to ascertain their numbers, and whether anything could be done in their behalf.

The commissioners were Dr. Samuel G. Howe, so well and honourably known for his long and arduous labors in behalf of the blind, Judge Byington, and Gilman Kemball.

The burden of the labour fell upon the chairman, who entered upon it with the enthusiasm, perseverance and practical adaptation of means to ends, which have made him so efficient in his varied schemes of benevolence. On the 26th of the 2d month, 1848, a full report of the results of this labour was made to the Governor, accompanied by statistical tables and minute details. One hundred towns had been visited by the chairman or his reliable agent, in which five hundred and seventy five persons in a state of idiocy were discovered. There were examined carefully, in respect to their physical as well as mental condition; no inquiry being omitted which was calculated to throw light upon the remote or immediate causes of this mournful imperfection in the creation of God. The proximate causes Dr. Howe mentions are to be found in the state of the bodily organization — deranged and disproportioned by some violation of natural law on the part of the parents or remoter ancestors of the sufferers. Out of 420 cases of idiocy, he had obtained information respecting the condition of the progenitors of 359; and in all but four of these cases he found that one or the other, or both of their immediate progenitors had in some way departed widely from the condition of health; they were scrofulous, or predisposed to affections of the brain, and insanity, or had intermarried with blood relations, or had been intemperate, or guilty of sensual excesses.

Of the 575 cases, 420 were those of idiocy from birth, and 155 of idiocy afterwards. Of the born idiots, 187 were under 25 years of age, and all but 13 seemed capable of improvement. Of those above 25 years of age, 73 appeared incapable of improvement in their mental condition, being helpless as children at 7 years of age. Forty-three out of the 420 seemed helpless as children at two years of age, and 33 were in the condition of mere infants. Two hundred and twenty were supported at the public charge in alms-houses. A large proportion of them were found to be given over to filthy and loathsome habits, gluttony and lust, and constantly sinking lower towards the condition of absolute brutishness.

Those in private houses were found, if possible, in a more deplorable state. Their parents were generally poor, feeble in mind and body, and often of very intemperate habits. Many of them seemed scarcely able to take care of themselves, and totally unfit for the training of ordinary children. It is the blind leading the blind; imbecility teaching imbecility. Some instances of the experiments of parental ignorance upon idiotic offspring, which fell under the observation of Dr. Howe, are related in his report. Idiotic children were found with their heads covered over with cold poultices of oak bark, which the foolish parents supposed would tan the brain and harden it, as the tanner does his ox-hides, and so make it capable of retaining impressions and remembering lessons. In other cases, finding that the child could not be made to comprehend anything, the sagacious heads of the household, on the supposition that its brain was too hard, tortured it with hot poultices of bread and milk, to soften it. Others plastered over their children’s heads with tar. Some administered strong does of mercury, to “solder up the openings” in the head and make it tight and strong. Others encouraged the savage gluttony of their children, stimulating their unnatural and bestial appetites, on the ground that “the poor creatures had nothing else to enjoy but their food, and they should have enough of that!”

In consequence of this report, the Legislature, in the spring of 1848, made an annual appropriation of $2,500, for three years, for the purpose of training and teaching ten idiot children, to be selected by the Governor and Council. The trustees of the Asylum for the Blind, under the charge of Dr. Howe, made arrangements for receiving these pupils. The school was opened in the autumn of 1848; and its first annual report, addressed to the Governor, and printed by order of the Senate, is now before us.

Of the ten pupils, it appears that not one had the usual command of muscular motion — the languid body obeyed not the service of the imbecile will. Some could walk and use their limbs and hands in simple motions; others could only make slight use of their muscles, and two were without any power of locomotion.

One of these last, a boy of six years of age, who had been stupefied on the day of his birth by the application of hot rum to his head, could scarcely see or notice objects, and was almost destitute of the sense of touch. He could neither stand nor sit upright, nor even creep, but would lie on the floor in whatever position he was placed. He could not feed himself, nor chew solid food, and had no more sense of decency than an infant. His intellect was a blank; he had no knowledge, no desires, no affections. A more hopeless object for experiment could scarcely have been selected.

A year of patient endeavour has nevertheless wrought a wonderful change in the condition of this miserable being. Cold bathing, rubbing of the limbs, exercise of the muscles, exposure to the air, and other appliances, have enabled him to stand upright, to sit at table and feed himself, and chew his food, and to walk about with slight assistance. His habits are no longer those of a brute; he observes decency, his eye is brighter, his cheeks glow with health, his countenance is more expressive of thought. He has learned many words, and constructs simple sentences; his affections begin to develop; and there is every prospect that he will be so far renovated as to be able to provide for himself in manhood.

In the case of another boy, aged twelve years, the improvement has been equally remarkable. The gentleman who first called attention to him, in a recent note to Dr. Howe, published in the report, thus speaks of his present condition:

“When I remember his former wild and almost frantic demeanor when approached by any one, and the apparent impossibility of communicating with him, and now see him standing in his class, playing with his fellows, and willingly and familiarly approaching me, examining what I give, and when I see him already selecting articles named by his teacher, and even correctly pronouncing the words printed on cards — improvement does not convey the idea presented to my mind — it is creation — it is making him anew.”

All the pupils have, more or less, advanced. Their health and habits have improved, and there is no reason to doubt that the experiment, at the close of its three years will be found to have been quite as successful as its most sanguine projectors could have anticipated. Dr. Howe has been ably seconded by an accomplished teacher, James B. Richards, who has devoted his whole time to the pupils. Of the nature and magnitude of their task, an idea may be formed only by considering the utter listlessness of idiocy — the incapability of the poor pupil to fix his attention upon anything, and his general want of susceptibility to impressions. All his senses are dulled and perverted. Touch, hearing, sight, smell, are all more or less defective. His gluttony is unaccompanied with the gratification of taste — the most savory viands and the offal which he shares with the pigs equally satisfy him. His mental state is still worse than his physical. Thought is painful and irksome to him. His teacher can only engage his attention by strenuous efforts, loud earnest tones, gesticulations and signs, and a constant presentation of some visible object of bright colour and striking form. The eye wanders, and the spark of consciousness and intelligence, which has been formed into momentary brightness, darkens at the slightest relaxations of the teacher’s exertions. The names of the objects presented to him must be repeated hundreds of times before he can learn them. Yet the patience and enthusiasm of the teacher are rewarded by a progress, slow and unequal, but still, marked and manifest. Step by step, often compelled to turn back and go over the inch of ground he had gained, the idiot is still creeping forward; and by almost imperceptible degrees, his sick, cramped and prisoned spirit casts off the burden of its body of death — breath as from the Almighty is breathed into him, and he becomes a living soul.

After the senses of the idiot are trained to take note of their appropriate objects, the various perceptive faculties are next to be exercised. The greatest possible number of facts are to be gathered up through the medium of these faculties into the storehouse of memory, from whence eventually, the higher faculties of mind may draw the material of general ideas. It has been found difficult, if not impossible to teach the idiot to read, by the letters first, as in the ordinary method; but while the varied powers of the three letters, h, a, t, could not be understood by him, he could be made to comprehend the complex sign of the word hat, made by uniting the three.

The moral nature of the idiot needs training and development as well as his physical and mental. All that can be said of him, is, that he has the latent capacity for moral development and culture. Uninstructed, and left to himself, he has no ideas of regulated appetites and propensities, of decency and delicacy of affection, and social relations. The germs of these ideas, which constitute the glory and beauty of humanity, undoubtedly exist in him, but there can be no growth without patient and persevering culture. Where this is afforded, to use the language of the report, “the idiot may learn what love is, though he may not know the word which expresses it; he may feel kindly affections while unable to understand the simplest virtuous principle; and he may begin to live acceptably to God before he has learned the name by which men call Him.”

In the facts and statistics presented in the report, light is shed upon some of the dark pages of God’s providence, and it is seen that the suffering and shame of idiocy are the result of sin, of the violation of the merciful laws of God, and the harmonies of his benign order. The penalties which are ordained for the violators of natural laws are inexorable and certain. For the transgressor of the laws of life there is, as in the case of Esau, “no place for repentance, though he seek it earnestly and with tears.” The curse cleaves to him and his children. In this view, how important becomes the subject of the hereditary transmission of moral and physical disease and debility, and how necessary it is that there should be a clearer understanding of, and a willing obedience, at any cost, to the eternal law which makes the parent the blessing or the curse of the child, giving strength and beauty, and the capacity to know and do the will of God, or bequeathing loathsomeness and deformity and animal appetite, incapable of the restraints of moral faculties? Even if the labors of Dr. Howe and his benevolent associates do not materially lessen the amount of present actual evil and suffering in this respect, they will not be put forth in vain, if they have the effect of calling the public attention to the great laws of our being, the violation of which has made this goodly earth a great lazar-house of pain and sorrow.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): J.G.W. (1849). Instruction of idiots. Friends’ Review. Retrieved [date accessed] from

Source: Disability History Museum.