Poole ‘Imbecility’ (1825)


Dr. Richard Poole

This version based on edition published as

Section V

An Essay on Education,

Applicable to Children in General; the Defective; the Criminal; the Poor; the Adult and Aged


Edinburgh; Waugh and Innes

Originally published in Encyclopœdia Edinensis, 1819

The term [education], taken in a large sense, may denote any system of instruction, intended or calculated to fit our species for the duties and employments of life. (p. 1)

Under these terms [defective and imbecile], may be comprehended all those cases of departure from the common or ordinary conformation of man, which consists in the absence or organic debility of the members, senses, and faculties of body and mind, whether natural or the result of disease or accident. (p. 141)


The defects of mind, or, more properly speaking, of that instrument by which the faculties of the mind are manifested, are probably as [241] numerous, and of as frequent occurrence, as those of the animal part of our constitution. It might be possible also to subdivide them. But, hitherto, philosophers, with few exceptions, have contented themselves with general conclusions on the subject. It seems to have been thought enough, when any mental deficiency presented itself, of a nature and magnitude which rendered ordinary education unavailing, to apply to it such epithets as that which is placed at the head of this section; and the discovery of an incapacity for customary instruction was judged quite conclusive against the necessity of inquiry into specific differences among the unfortunate individuals who exhibited it. It is not to be wondered, therefore, that cases, as dissimilar as those of the blind and the deaf, have been promiscuously comprehended under one sweeping sentence of disregard; or, that any vague ideas, which philanthropy, rather than science, had suggested in their behalf, should prove abortive. The consequences, as might be expected, wherever the nature of a calamity, whether moral or physical, which is of frequent or extensive occurrence, is allowed to pass without suitable investigation, have devolved on our police, and that in a manner and a magnitude [242] which positively disgrace civilized society. What, but the most culpable indifference, can account for those appalling and truly heart-rending spectacles, so often witnessed in almost every village, and, still more marvellously, in the streets of our largest cities ? Is it as a foil, one might ask, or in compliment, to the usually enjoyed proportion of intellect, that the poor idiot is permitted, if not encouraged, by the carelessness of his nominal keepers and the dole of sickening humanity, in his objectless and staring perambulations among us? If this be the motive, why is so important a personage, as he must necessarily be esteemed, allowed to become the recipient of every abuse and cruelty, which wantonness or fiend-like perversity thinks proper to heap upon him? Is he not entitled, if his visitations be either profitable or tolerable, to, at least, the humane treatment which our laws award to the brute creation? May not even his exterior resemblance to our species be somewhat enhanced, by his being furnished with a decent garb, to cover his nakedness, and protect him from the inclemencies of the weather, or the harsher inclemencies of an insulting and a prostituted superiority? Finally, is there not a possibility if he must go at large, of guarding [243] him against brutality and outrage, with as much care, at least, as is manifested in the preservation of property.

In whatever manner these questions, or any similar ones, may be disposed of, it is certain the evil is a reproach and nuisance to society; and the proper remedy for it demands more profound examination, more ample command of means, and more extensive co-operation, than may at first sight be imagined necessary. Nothing could be easier, it is true, than the alleviation, if not the entire removal, of its most obnoxious symptoms. The fiat of authority might compel, under severe penalties, to be inflicted on near relatives, or, failing them, the official guardians of our municipal comforts, as in another case of deplorable misfortune, the entire disappearance and confinement of those helpless creatures, whose history has hitherto belied the splendid dream of human perfectibility. But, admitting the efficacy and the expediency of legislative interference, is it fitting for an age of improvement and benevolence, to allow the success of such interference to be the ultimatum of what is desirable and practicable on the subject? Would it be, ought it to be, enough for us, that these unfortunates were removed from our sight? We answer, no. It [244] is with some anxiety, and a commendable regard to decency and to feeling, that we dispose of the dead bodies of our fellow men. We protect, too, the last and common receptacle of mortality, by an opinion of sacredness and a rigour of law, even against the demands of an important science, which can never be duly cultivated, so as to yield its full amount of benefits to mankind, without violating a sanctuary so respected. Shall we be less concerned about the disposal of those living beings, whose weakness ought to call forth our compassion in the very proportion that it renders them burdensome to society? That there prevails a great degree of negligence, as to their condition and comfort, will appear very obvious, when we compare the little attention which has as yet been shewn them collectively, with the extensive plans almost generally devised in this country, in favour of every other class of unfortunates. Let us confine ourselves to a single city. In Edinburgh, then, we have a Magdalen Asylum, a Lunatic Asylum, a Blind Asylum, an Institution for the Deaf And Dumb, a House of Industry, and a great variety of establishments for sundry benevolent purposes. But, what is done in it,—what has even been attempted to be done in it, in behalf of that by no means [245] small class of helpless creatures whom the hand of nature appears to have cast around us, as if to humble our pride, and to demonstrate our dependence, for much of what we deem our excellence, on the laws of the material world?—The poor-houses, it is true, usually contain some of these unfortunate beings. But, many of them are allowed to wander at large; and those, again, who are lodged there, are, with few exceptions, precluded, by the very circumstances of the establishments, and by the influence of a very general opinion as to their total incapacity for education, from all chance or possibility of being ever useful to society. We are not certain, indeed, that there is a single institution in Great Britain, exclusively, professedly, and systematically appropriated to this class of defectives.

The reason of this neglect seems to be exactly what has been already mentioned, a persuasion that there is only one species of the disease or evil under which they labour, and that this is entirely and for ever incurable. Some inquiry, at least, ought to be made, before allowing such a conclusion; and, even were this conclusion better founded than it is, there would, nevertheless, exist some ground for charging the practical consequences, as they are now displayed, [246] with untenderness and impolicy. But it is contended, that the conclusion, in place of being warranted by facts, is disproved by them; that the mental defects of the individuals in question, so far from being all alike, are immensely dissimilar that, in many cases, there is reason for imagining the principle of substitution, by which one faculty or sense is made to answer in some degree for another, might serve as the basis of successful education; and, that it is possible, the very worst cases ever met with would so far yield to science and industry, as to vindicate and reward the patience and ingenuity bestowed on them. All that is meant to be given on the subject in this place are a few observations, which, it is thought, if extended and modified by farther inquiry, might lead some benevolent minds to the adoption of a plan calculated to lessen the evil complained of.

Mental deficiency appears to be of two kinds; one, in which there is an imbecility or weak state of all the faculties ; the other, in which there is an imperfection or want of one faculty, or of several faculties.

In the first case, that in which all the faculties common to man exist, but in a degree inferior to that which is commonly enjoyed, there is little difficulty to be encountered in rearing [247] the individuals to some useful occupation. Such persons are readily enough taught to a certain amount, after which they make no progress, or, at least, no progress proportioned to the labour of instruction expended on them. An approach to this species of debility is more frequent than is generally imagined. But, it is only where the case is well marked, that any departure from the established treatment is required. The chief things to be attended to here, are the state of the bodily health, and the kind of mental exercise suitable to the individuals. Where there are very manifest indications of this imbecility, it is recommended to have recourse to medical skill, for the purpose of putting in practice every means calculated to invigorate the constitution. Few persons, perhaps, are aware of the different effects produced on the state of both the intellectual and moral powers by peculiarities in diet and regimen. This is a subject on which some curious information might be obtained from those persons who are in the habit of training for sundry athletic purposes. One person, for example, who has had much experience in this way, Mr. Jackson, has positively, and, we think, most justly asserted, that the faculties of the mind are as distinctly improved as the condition of the bodily health, by the process now [248] alluded to. Literary men, and others, who, in consequence of leading sedentary lives, are much subject to indigestion and disorders of the alimentary canal, will have often had occasion to notice the variations in the acuteness and energy of their minds, as they happen to be more or less indisposed. And, there seems reason to conclude, that many of these instances of mental deficiency, what is called second childhood, which occur in such persons, are the result of enfeebled bodily constitution. It is surely obvious, then, there is ground for employing medical advice in cases of general imbecility presenting in early life; and there cannot be a doubt, that cases of this kind, which are allowed by despair to become confirmed and deteriorated, might have been relieved by professional interference. Who has not witnessed the expressionless inane countenance, perfectly indicative of the internal state, in a person just recovering from a fever, or reduced by poverty and hunger? Is it not quite conceivable, that a condition of the system somewhat analogous to this, but dependent on causes which have operated before birth, and continued to operate even for years afterwards, might admit of an alteration and improvement, similar to what occurs in these cases, on the restoration of wonted [249] health? It would not be difficult to demonstrate the truth of these remarks, and to confirm the hopes they are intended to excite, by an appeal to examples of infantine weakness followed by manly vigour. Instances are not wanting of great ability succeeding to long continued feebleness of constitution, which did not seem to promise even mediocrity. Gibbon and Sheridan are among the latest of this kind.

In these cases, in addition to the employment of medical aid, it is of the utmost consequence to proportion the mental exercises to the mental strength. This may be so little as to render every sort of study absolutely improper, and the very employment of the senses, beyond a certain degree, injurious. In short, the individual must be treated at first much as a plant, and that also a sickly one, with simple nourishment and exposure to good air. The next step is that of merely animal life, as characterised by sensations and perceptions, which will require suitable exertion. The manifestation of any of the intellectual or moral powers is an advancement of a still more promising nature, and may be hailed as the basis of some moderate endeavours towards ordinary education. But, throughout the whole process, great caution is necessary to guard against any overstretch of power [250] in any direction, which would be sure to occasion a relapse, and, perhaps, entirely to prevent recovery.

The cases in which there occurs a defect in one or more of the faculties, are, on the whole, probably, not so frequent. But, generally speaking, they are more to be lamented. Here, however, as already hinted, there are great varieties, as the faculties themselves are numerous; and, again, the faculty or faculties which are imperfect, or altogether wanting, may not be of great importance. It would be of no very material consequence, for example, that a person was defective in the faculty which is concerned in music or painting. All the concerns of life may be very well carried on without them. And the same thing may be said of several other faculties. They are not essential to human happiness, or the common business of the world.—There are instances, accordingly, of persons being destitute of them who have attained to eminence in various professions. A defect in verbal memory would be a more serious difficulty, inasmuch as it might render the individual incapable of acquiring the proper command of his mother-tongue. This is actually the chief peculiarity discernible in some idiots. The whole language does not, perhaps, extend beyond [251] a dozen or two of words, and these may be often erroneously used. But the same creatures may be remarkable for some other faculty,—as, for example, that on which the knowledge of places is founded, so that they may become highly useful in the capacity of guides through an intricate country which they have inhabited. On the other hand, there are instances of extraordinary verbal memory existing in individuals, who were incompetent to manage the simplest affairs in life. It is quite conceivable that these also might be found subservient to some useful purpose. In many idiotical persons there is chiefly observable a total inattention to bodily wants and appearance.—They have, therefore, to be reminded of the necessity of taking food, and to be forced to put on decent apparel. It is not unusual, in some of these cases, to meet with singular fidelity and strength of attachment towards those who show them kindness. In others, the main peculiarity seems an entire surrender to the appetites. But, even in them, unfavourable as their case is, it may be practicable to operate with some profit,

as their bodily strength may often be engaged by the hope of the only reward which they covet. Some idiots are noted for their timidity and apprehension; others are equally [252] so for hardihood and indifference to danger.—Examples are to be met amongst them of an unconquerable propensity to pilfer and to conceal; and, occasionally, one may be found possessed of an extremely ferocious disposition and the love of mischief. It is not easy to decide, either to what good end some of these cases may be made to contribute, or in what manner they may be best restrained from doing injury. But, enough, perhaps, has been said, to point out the possibility of distinguishing differences in the class of defectives now treated of; and to confirm the idea, that something more might be done for many, if not all of them, than has usually been attempted. The philosopher, for such he would require to be, who should undertake to investigate the whole subject, and to suggest a suitable plan of remedy or alleviation, would perform an acceptable service to science, and merit the gratitude of mankind.

© Murray K. Simpson, 1999.

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