|HISTORY of how we treated people with disabilities . . .
7000 BC treatment for mental and physical ills:
empirical practitioner: massages, baths, extractions, blood-lettings, herbs, trephination (removal of small sections of cranial
bones, called rondelles, then worn as amulets to expel demons). Trephination was used maybe to allow evil spirits which caused
the illness to leave; maybe as a cure for convulsions, headaches, infections fractures.
shamans: used fetishes, amulets, talismans. Fetish items were things that the shaman made that were considered magic such as
spirit weapons, spirit traps, spirit links, spirit friends, spirit foes, spirit darts, arrows, needles, and more stuff like that. Talismans and amulets were religious or magical icons
thought to heal or provide comfort.
Sparta 800 BC Ancient Spartan society involved rule of the state in deciding whether weak children were to be reared or left to die. In Sparta, children were the property of
the state and not the property of the parents. The abandonment of babies who appeared disabled was a legal requirement. Each child was inspected by the community elders
straight after birth. The child was brought before a council of the elders and, through Apgar-style tests, the council determined whether the child would live or die. If the child
looked robust and healthy, it was allowed to live. If the child was "ill-born" or "ill-formed," the father was ordered to expose it. The law was aimed at developing a master race:
only the strongest and brightest were to have children.
500 BC Early Roman Republic The father's power is absolute to kill, mutilate, or sell his children. Roman society didn't have a word equivalent to "disabled" but used
"monstrum." The birth of a child with a disability was regarded as a great misfortune. A high percentage were abandoned outdoors immediately after birth and left to die.
Physical fitness and health were believed to be signs of the gods' favor, and disability was seen as a mark of the gods' displeasure; a divine punishment of the child's parents.
An abnormal birth was indication that catastrophe was just around the corner.
460 -- 370 BC Hippocrates Writings began to show concern for children and a separation of their illnesses from those of adults. According
to Hippocrates, a person's health involved the relationship of four humors: blood (heart), phlegm (liver), yellow bile (spleen) and black bile (brain). He
believed that epilepsy had a "natural cause." He believed that nature was the great healer: rest, good diet, fresh air, cleanliness. He was one of the
first physicians to believe that thoughts, ideas, and feelings come from the brain and not the heart. He moved medicine into humans' hands instead of
the gods. He rejected the view that illnesses and disabilities were caused by possession of evil spirits or disfavor of the gods. (See picture of
Hippocrates in blue.)
427 -- 347 BC Plato "The best of either sex should be united with the best as often, and the inferior with the inferior, as seldom as possible;
and that they should rear the offspring of the one sort of union but not of the other, if the flock is to be maintained in first rate condition ... The offspring
of the inferior, or of the better when they chance to be deformed, shall be put away."
"This is the kind of medical provision you should legislate in your state. You should provide treatment for those of your citizens whose physical
constitution is good. As for the others, it will be best to leave the unhealthy to die, and to put to death those whose psychological condition is
incurably corrupt. This is the best thing to do, both for the individual sufferer and for society."
(See picture of Aristotle and Plato.)
384 -- 322 BC Aristotle "Let there be a law that no deformed child shall live."
3rd Century BC Athens There is some controversy over the belief that the ancient Greeks (as well as ancient Spartans and
Romans) were really as horrible as we are told to believe. The Greeks nevertheless admired and desired the perfect physique, the body and
face beautiful. Greek law dictated that a newborn baby was not really a child until seven days after birth, so that an imperfect child could be
disposed of with a clear conscience. "Good" is equal to "beautiful" and deformed or disabled was "bad."
110 -- 130 Soranus was a Greek physician, who opened a hospital that provided humane treatment for people with mental illness, and
possibly intellectual disability. The treatment included rest, sympathy, reading, and participation in dramatic performances. (See picture and
1st Century CE Slavery and massive poverty resulted in children being viewed as liabilities instead of assets. Mutilation to
increase value as beggars.
138 -- 201 Claudius Galen The Father of Experimental Neurology. The brain is the seat of many intellectual functions;
accurately described cranial bones, ascertained that damage to one side of the brain manifests in disorders on the opposite side.
2nd Century CE Any kind of defective person became a popular source of household amusement: there was a special
market where one might purchase legless, armless, or 3-eyed men, giants, dwarfs, or hermaphrodites.
1135 -- 1204 CE Maimonides was a physician, rabbi, and philosopher in Morocco and Egypt. "The brain of the
phlegmatic man, which is too humid, produces mental retardation. However, phlegmatic persons, if properly instructed, can
make some intellectual progress, even though such learning would be very difficult. (See picture, in turban.)
1247 Bethlem (Bedlam) Sheriff of London gave land to the Order of the Star of Bethlehem, from which the hospital
took its name. In 1337, it became a hospital. By the early 16th century, a map shows Bethlem as a courtyard with a few
stone buildings, a church, and a garden. Care for the patients amounted to little more than restraint. There were 31 patients
and the noise was "so hideous, so great; that they are more able to drive a man that hath his wits rather out of them." Bethlem
was notorious for the brutal ill-treatment of patients who were mentally ill. Now believed to be the oldest hospital providing
continuous service in Europe, was converted to a mental asylum in 1377. The first patients (both
mentally ill and intellectually disabled) were transferred from an old storehouse located much too
close to the king's palace. Bethlem soon earned the title "Bedlum". 1398 inventory: 4 pairs of
manacles, 11 chains of iron, 6 locks and keys, 2 stocks, for 20 patients. Dark cells were common
and sexes mixed. Few staff and low quality.
Tuke: "Patients are ordered to be bled about the latter end of May, according to the weather, and
after they have been bled, they take vomits, once a week for a certain number of weeks, after that we
purge all the patients." Until 1770, Bethlem was one of London's favorite touring spots. In the 18th
century, for a penny, one could peer into the cells, view the freaks of the "show of Bethlem" and laugh
at their antics. Or come on the first Tuesday of the month, and get in for free!
Sir Thomas More: "For thou shalt in Bedlum see one laugh at the knocking of his own head against
a post, and yet there is little pleasure therein." (See picture of Bethlem.)
1493 -- 1541 Paracelsus "Feeble minded persons behave in the way of a healthy animal, but the
psychopathic in the manner of an irrational animal." (See picture in a red hat.)
1536 -- 1614 Felix Platter Voluptuous Felix Platter called mental illness and intellectual disability "mental
alienation." This terminology persisted into the early 20th century, when psychiatrists were called "alienists." Platter
was a body snatcher. He would go with colleagues late at night to graveyards and dig up (relatively fresh) bodies to
dissect and study. (See curvy picture.)
1573 Ambroise Pare -- "Monstres et Prodiges" (On Monsters and Marvels) On the causes of
Monsters: Monsters are things that appear outside the course of nature (and are usually signs of some forthcoming
misfortune), such as a child who is born with one arm, another will have two heads and additional members over and
above the ordinary. There are several things that cause monsters.
The first is the glory of God.
The second, his wrath.
The third, too great a quantity of seed.
The fourth, too little a quantity.
The fifth, the imagination.
The sixth, the narrowness or smallness of the womb.
The seventh, the indecent posture of the mother, who, while pregnant remains seated too long with her legs crossed or
pressed against her stomach.
The eighth, through a fall, or blows, struck against the womb of the mother, being with child.
The ninth, through heredity or accidental illness.
The tenth, through rotten or corrupt seed.
The eleventh, through a mixture or mingling of seed.
The twelfth, through the artifice of wicked spital beggars.
The thirteenth, through Demons and Devils.
(See picture of Ambroise Pare doing surgery.)
1497 Frankfurt-am-Main. Idiots were not only to be kept, but confined by their friends, and when means failed them,
then only did municipal authorities intervene, though they occasionally assisted the families with sums of money.
1500s Where did most people with mental retardation live? monasteries, hospitals, charitable facilities, prisons, almshouses,
pesthouses, workhouses, warehouses, and other buildings most of which had lost their original usefulness. ONE EXCEPTION: the
family-care approach used by the citizens of Gheel, Belgium. Gheel became a refuge and haven for "the mental afflicted" beginning in
the 7th century.
1606 The Hotel Dieu ordered by King to tend to all mentally ill and idiot people. The patients were herded together in rooms crowded
with miserable beds in which they were put without distinction of disease; there were two, four, six, even twelve people bedded together
in various positions.
1660 First Almshouse opened in Boston.
1727 First house of corrections -- all rogues, vagabonds, and idle persons going about town or country begging, or common pipers,
fiddlers, runaways, drunkards, wanton and lascivious persons, railers or brawlers, also persons under distraction and unfit to go at large,
whose friends do not take care for their safe confinement.
1751 First hospital in Philadelphia separated a section for people with mental retardation and people with mental illness. By 1756, it's
in the cellar. Patients were put on display and for a slight fee, you could come and gawk at them!
1771 First workhouse in Philadelphia.
1773 Virginia -- first hospital opened solely for "those miserable Objects who cannot help themselves." A 1769 law "to make
provision for the support and maintenance of idiots, lunatics, and other people of unsound mind." Next one is 50 years later, 1824 in
1787 Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, physician, said, "Here are both men and women, between twenty
and thirty in number. Some of them have beds, most of them clean straw. Some of them were extremely fierce and raving, nearly or
quite naked; some singing and dancing; some in despair; some were dumb and would not open their mouths, others incessantly talking
. . . Everything about them, notwithstanding the labor and trouble it must have required, was neat and clean." Benjamin Rush believed
that mental illnesses were caused by irritation of blood vessels in the brain. His treatments? Bleeding, purging, hot and cold baths,
mercury, tranquilizer chair, gyration.
1798 Thomas Robert Malthus published an article, "Essay on the Principle of Population." He believed that the population would always
increase faster than there are means to sustain. He felt that charities that fed the poor or other indigent classes were detrimental to the natural
order, and those who could not feed themselves should die.
1818 American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb opens in Hartford CT. Began to provide the first recognized residential service intended
specifically for people with intellectual disability in the US. After 1820, "all but the smallest of communities placed a greater reliance on the
almshouse and its derivatives, as well as the mental hospital."
1824 New York legislation policy was to establish almshouses in each county to provide "indoor care" for paupers. Among those in the
almshouse population were "lunatics, idiots, and epileptics." One such place was Blackwell's Island in New York City (East River). Several
buildings were built there, including a penitentiary (overcrowded, chaotic, inadequate facilities, grim, corrupted. There was a garden to the side of
the penitentiary which the inmates kept to feed themselves), a Smallpox Hospital (opened in 1856 and several thousands of people were seen
each year. Putting all of the sick people of NYC on an isolated island was good for the general population but deadly for the patients, especially
during times of epidemic), a Lunatic Asylum (called the Octagon -- overcrowded, only two wings were ever completed), a Workhouse (home to
prostitutes, drunks, protesters, labor reformers), and Male and Female Almshouses (for homeless, desperately poor, elderly; many
people came here from penitentiary or workhouse). Reporter Nellie Bly went undercover there in 1887 and exposed the wretched
1848, 1854 Dr. Hervey B. Wilbur in Barre, Massachusetts, opened his home as a private "institution for idiots." In 1854, the New
York Asylum for Idiots opened under Dr. Wilbur's direction in Syracuse, NY.
19th century commentator: The patients were treated as members of the families in whose homes they had lived. They had
their own bedrooms, ate meals with the family, and engaged in all family activities. Many were given responsibilities, such as
babysitting and other family chores. Many were employed in town and on farms. They could use all the community facilities. Painting,
drawing, and gardening were encouraged. A change of scene was viewed as beneficial, so picnics and other outings were organized.
This approach was not adopted by other European nations until the late 19th century, and in the US not until Charles Vaux during the
1866 Idiot Asylum at Randall's Island was constructed, with Idiot School opened shortly after.
1878 The New York State Asylum for Feeble-Minded Women of Child-Bearing Age opened in Newark, NY as an experimental branch
of the Syracuse Asylum. This was a facility for "inherently promiscuous women and their crime-prone offspring."
1886 John Langdon Down, a British doctor, superintendent of the Royal Asylum for Idiots in Earlswood. He noticed that
certain people at the asylum had similar features. He referred to them as "Mongols," which later gave way to "Mongoloid Idiots" and
then "Mongoloid." The disorder is Down Syndrome. Here is a quote by him:
"The hair is not black, as in the real Mongol, but of a brownish color, straight and scanty. The face is flat and broad and destitute of
prominence. The cheeks are rounded and extended laterally. Their eyes are obliquely placed and the internal canth [the angles where
the upper and lower eyelids meet] is more than normally distant from one another. The palpebral fissure [the longitudinal opening between the
eyelids] is very narrow ... The lips are large and thick with transverse fissures [side to side clefts or grooves]. The tongue is long and thick and
much roughened. The nose is small. The skin has a slight dirty yellowish tinge and is deficient in elasticity, giving the appearance of being too
large for the body ... The boy's aspect is such that it is difficult to realize that he is the child of Europeans, but so frequently are these characters
presented that there can be no doubt that these ethnic features are the result of degeneration ... They are usually able to speak; the speech is
thick and indistinct but may be improved very greatly by a well-directed scheme of tongue gymnastics. The coordinating facility is abnormal, but
not so defective that it cannot be greatly strengthened. By systematic training considerable manipulation power may be obtained."
1893 First hospital opens specifically for people with epilepsy: Ohio Hospital for Epileptics.
1893 State Asylum for Unteachable Idiots opened in Rome, NY.
1896 Craig Colony for Epileptics was opened. It was named after Oscar Craig of the New York State Board of Charities. Craig Colony
founders advocated for a more humane approach to the care of "society's dependent classes."
1912 The Kallikak Family. Henry Herbert Goddard published a book called "The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of
Feeblemindedness." It traced defectiveness from generation to generation. It was a book to stir up the Eugenics Movement. Although the book
was based almost entirely on fiction, it became a best-seller and was credited with the enactment of several sterilization laws. New York passed
a law that allowed the (coercive) sterilization of "defectives." A Board of Examiners was established to investigate the mental and physical
condition of those labeled "idiot, imbecile, feeble-minded" or who were criminals. If it was determined that they had the potential to pass on their
"defective" trait(s), they were sterilized. This law was repealed in 1920.
"Bidding out" -- the pauper and the person with mental retardation were sold to someone who would provide cheaply for their care and
"Warning out" -- informing a newcomer that the town would not be responsible for his misfortune.
"Passing on" -- loading people with mental retardation or mental illness into a cart, transporting them to another town,
and leaving them there.
Alms houses intended for the poor became general holding pens for all sorts of children, aged, and infirm adults, sick
An amazing place to visit for stuff such as this is the Virtual Museum of disABILITY. Go there!
|Choirokoitia, 7000 BC Over 150 graves, 47% of
children. Died of genetic disease of bone and
thalassaemia. www.charite.de/.../ chirokitia-sized.png
|"Slow thinking is due
to the brain's
heaviness. Its firmness
and stability produce
the faculty of memory.
Imbecility results from
the rarefaction and
diminution in quality of
the animal spirits and
from the coldness and
humidity of the brain."
|"Now we see many (foolish or
simple from the beginning) who
even in infancy showed signs of
simplicity in their movements and
laughter, who did not pay attention
easily, or who were docile and yet
they do not learn. If anyone asks
them to do any kind of task, they
laugh and joke, they cajole, and
they make mischief. They take
great delight and seem satisfied in
the habit of these simple actions,
and so they are taught in their
"We have known others who are
less foolish, who correctly attend
to many tasks of life, who are able
to perform certain skills, yet they
show their dullness, in that they
long to be praised and at the same
time they say and do foolish things.
"Some people have dullness from
before birth. Such persons have
deformed heads, or they spoke
with a large tongue and at the
same time with a humorous throat,
or they were deformed in their
general appearance." (Felix Platter)