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Our Idiots And Imbeciles
Attention has of late been freshly drawn to this unfortunate class. We
propose in this chapter to give some particulars respecting their past
history, their numbers, their location, and the claims, not yet
sufficiently recognized, which they have upon the public and the State,
with a few suggestions in regard to the legislation required to meet
The terms "idiots" and "imbeciles" are popularly employed with great
vagueness, and the latter by even medical men in more senses than one.
Among the Greeks an idiot was a private, as opposed to a public or a
professional person. He was unskilled, unlearned; and early English
writers use it in this sense. Thus Wiclif translates 1 Cor. xiv. 16,
"For if thou blessist in speyrit; who filleth the place of an idiot,
hou schal he sae amen on thi blessyng." Chaucer similarly employs the
word. It is easy to understand its gradual transition to the exclusive
sense in which it has for long been employed.
It is not necessary to distinguish between idiocy and imbecility (Lat.,
weakness, feebleness) further than this, that an idiot is at the very
bottom of the scale of beings born with defective mental powers, while
he who labours under imbecility or feeble mindedness is understood to be
one much less completely deprived of power. Strictly speaking, these
terms ought to be rigidly restricted to states of mind at birth, but
this has been found to be practically inconvenient, if not impossible,
because changes occurring in the brain in very early life impair the
functions of that organ so completely as to induce the same helpless
condition which is found in congenital cases. We dismiss now one
distinction which has been drawn between idiocy and imbecility--that the
former is, and that the latter is not, necessarily congenital; one
arising from the supposition that infantile mental deficiency is less
likely to be so grave an affection than that which has been present from
the moment of existence. Besides, the term is constantly being applied
in common parlance to those who, originally of sound mind, have in adult
life lost their faculties.
It is most important that a clear distinction should be preserved
between these adult cases and those which date from birth or childhood.
The former are labouring under dementia, not amentia. They are
demented persons, or, as they are called in our asylums, dements. They
are not always, but they are for the most part, harmless lunatics. It is
confusing to call them imbeciles, now that this term has become
restricted by medical writers to those who are, or once were,
feeble-minded children. There are, of course, all degrees of mental
defect possible at birth or in childhood, between that of the most
degraded idiot and of a child who is said to be not very bright. With a
large majority, however, something can be done to improve the mental
condition, whereas with demented persons there is no ground for
expecting improvement. The past history of the condition and treatment
of idiots differs in some respects widely from that of the insane.
Happily in many countries, especially in the East, they have been
regarded as objects of special affection and care--as sacred beings
possessing a certain weird, if not divine, element in their nature.
Though helpless and involving much trouble, they do not exasperate or
terrify their relations in the same way as the furious maniac. As a
rule, they do not suggest the same exercise of force and use of fetters
as the ordinary lunatic. Still, in many instances, no doubt, weak-minded
and wayward children have been harshly treated and beaten.
But whether regarded as specially favoured by Heaven, or treated as
stupid children, they were never subjected to any special training for
education until recent times.
St. Vincent de Paul is regarded as the first who made any effort to
train idiots. This was in the Priory of St. Lazarus. He failed, however,
as was to be expected, to make much progress in the work. Itard
followed, also a Frenchman. He strove to educate the celebrated idi