CEL­E­BRAT­ING YOUR PROJECTS

Alan Crosby looks at the life of the pi­o­neer­ing Dr John Lang­don Down

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS -

When look­ing at cen­sus re­turns from 1861 on­wards, not many of us pay at­ten­tion to the col­umn on the right headed ‘Whether deaf and dumb, blind, im­be­cile or id­iot, lu­natic’. Un­less we hap­pen to see a tick or ‘yes’ in that col­umn, it ap­par­ently doesn’t con­cern us. ‘Deaf and dumb’ and ‘blind’ are self-ex­plana­tory terms, but the oth­ers are more com­plex – and we have for­tu­nately stopped us­ing them.

Es­sen­tially, ‘im­be­cile or id­iot’ meant peo­ple with learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties, while ‘lu­natic’ re­ferred to the men­tally ill, cat­e­gories of­ten lumped to­gether in the early-19th cen­tury but by the 1860s in­creas­ingly recog­nised as quite dif­fer­ent in char­ac­ter and ori­gin.

Th­ese con­di­tions were lit­tle re­ported or un­der­stood in the mid-Vic­to­rian pe­riod, but pi­o­neer­ing med­i­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tors be­gan to study their causes and tackle the chal­lenges of treat­ment and care, re­plac­ing incarceration with more sym­pa­thetic and sen­si­tive regimes.

As peo­ple with sim­i­lar con­di­tions were brought to­gether it be­came much eas­ier to un­der­take re­search. Among the most prom­i­nent in­ves­ti­ga­tors was Dr John Lang­don Down (1828-1896) whose rev­o­lu­tion­ary en­light­ened ap­proach to so-called “im­be­ciles and id­iots” was recog­nised in the 1960s, when a spe­cific con­di­tion which he had iden­ti­fied (un­til then gen­er­ally called “Mon­golism”, was termed “Down’s syn­drome”).

Lang­don Down founded an in­sti­tu­tion for the care of peo­ple with learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties, based at his home at Nor­mans­field, Ted­ding­ton, in south-west Lon­don. This, and the ear­lier Royal Earlswood Asy­lum where he had been a med­i­cal su­per­in­ten­dent, were known for their ad­vanced poli­cies.

Nor­mans­field opened in 1868 and op­er­ated for more than a cen­tury, man­aged by the fam­ily un­til 1970 and within the NHS from 1951 un­til fi­nal clo­sure in 1997, when chang­ing poli­cies and ap­proaches to learn­ing dis­abil­ity made it re­dun­dant.

Now the Down’s Syn­drome As­so­ci­a­tion owns and man­ages some of the build­ings, with their na­tional of­fice, a re­mark­able Vic­to­rian theatre, and the Lang­don Down Mu­seum of Learn­ing Dis­abil­ity. The lat­ter helps in re­search­ing, record­ing and ex­plain­ing the his­tory of th­ese con­di­tions (not just Down’s syn­drome but all those which were brack­eted to­gether in the past) and to tell us about the lives and cir­cum­stances of the res­i­dents.

In 2013, mem­bers of the Uni­ver­sity of the Third Age (U3A) com­pleted a re­search project un­der the aus­pices of the Mu­seum, look­ing through orig­i­nal records held there and at the Lon­don Metropoli­tan Ar­chives. Cov­er­ing the pe­riod 1868-1913 (con­fi­den­tial­ity rules meant that records less than 100 years old could not read­ily be used), the project in­cludes a wealth of in­for­ma­tion about the build­ings and the 40-acre es­tate with its own farm; the treat­ment and regime for pa­tient care; statis­tics and anal­y­sis of ad­mis­sions; the staff and the ed­u­ca­tion of res­i­dents; and case stud­ies of some in­di­vid­ual pa­tients. The sto­ries are very mov­ing, partly be­cause of the in­sights into the lives of the res­i­dents them­selves but also when we re­alise that those less for­tu­nate were ac­com­mo­dated in in­ap­pro­pri­ate in­sti­tu­tions with harsh regimes. How much more un­pleas­ant was it for them?

The Mu­seum web­site ( lang­don­down­mu­seum.org.uk) makes it clear Lang­don Down was a re­mark­able man. Now the U3A team is fin­ish­ing a sec­ond stage of the project, look­ing at long-stay in­sti­tu­tions and asy­lums for peo­ple with learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties in the 19th and 20th cen­turies in Lon­don and the Home Coun­ties, and ask­ing how they were founded, how they com­pared with each other, and what the living con­di­tions and qual­ity of care were like. Mu­seum Ar­chiv­ist Ian Jones-Healey told me: “John Lang­don Down de­serves to be more widely known as a great Vic­to­rian doc­tor who de­vel­oped new meth­ods to care for and ed­u­cate peo­ple with learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties. The Down’s Syn­drome As­so­ci­a­tion’s Lang­don Down Mu­seum and Nor­mans­field Theatre are a tes­ta­ment to his pi­o­neer­ing work and to those who fol­lowed him.”

Lang­don Down de­vel­oped new meth­ods to care and ed­u­cate peo­ple with learn­ing dif­fi­cul­ties

Down’s syn­drome is named af­ter Dr John Lang­don Down in recog­ni­tion of his pi­o­neer­ing work in car­ing and ed­u­cat­ing

those with the con­di­tion

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