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