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Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard
(April 24, 1775 - July 5, 1838)
- Educated from youth to be a tradesman
- "On the job" medical training during the French Revolution
- Surgical Internship (1796)
- Hospital Surgeon, Toulon, France (1796)
- Chief Physician, National Institution for Deaf-Mutes, Paris (1800-?)
- His work with "The wild boy of Aveyron" lead to his being
honored by the French Academy of Science
Definition of Intelligence
"If we consider human intelligence at the period of earliest childhood
man does not yet appear to rise above the level of the other animals.
All his intellectual faculties are strictly confined to the narrow circle
of his physical needs. It is upon himself alone that the operations of
his mind are exercised. Education must then seize them and apply them
to his instruction, that is to say to a new order of things which has
no connection with his first needs. Such is the source of all knowledge,
all mental progress, and the creations of the most sublime genius. Whatever
degree of probability there may be in this idea, I only repeat it here
as the point of departure on the path towards realization of this last
aim" (Itard, 1801/1962).
- Founder of oto-rhyno-laryngology
- Teacher of the child known as "The Wild Boy of Aveyron"
- Patriarch of special education
- Influenced the work of his pupil, Dr. Eduard Séguin, who in
turn influenced his pupil, Maria Montessori
Ideas and Interests
Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard was educated to be a tradesman, but during the
French Revolution he joined the army and became an assistant surgeon at
a military hospital in Toulon. He had no scientific training and received
his medical education "on the job" (Gaynor, 1973; Pinchot, 1948).
He demonstrated considerable talent for medicine, and in 1796 he began
a formal surgical internship Paris. In 1800 he was appointed Chief Physician
at the National Institution for Deaf-Mutes in Paris. His accomplishments
in this capacity were numerous: He wrote a seminal book on diseases of
the ear, invented a eustachian catheter (now known as "Itard's Catheter")
and devised several new methods for educating and treating the deaf. His
work with the child known as "The Wild Boy of Aveyron" earned
him an international reputation, and he is recognized today as one of
the founding fathers of special education (Gaynor, 1973; Humphrey, 1962).
In 1799 three French sportsmen were exploring a wood in southern France
when they came upon a young boy. They guessed that he was eleven or twelve
years old, and he was filthy, naked, and covered with scars. The boy ran
from them, but he was caught when he stopped to climb a tree. The sportsmen
brought him to a nearby village and gave him over into the care of a widow.
As the story of his capture spread, local residents began reporting that
a young naked boy had been seen in the woods five years earlier. It was
presumed that he had lived alone for many years, and that he had survived
by eating whatever he could find or catch (Itard, 1801/1962).
The boy escaped from the widow, and spent the next winter roaming the
woods alone. He was eventually recaptured and placed in safe custodial
care. An official in the French government heard about him, and suggested
that he be taken to Paris where he could be studied as an example of the
human mind in its primitive state (Itard, 1801/1962). However, the prominent
Parisian physicians who examined him declared that he was not "wild"
at all; their collective opinion was that the boy was mentally deficient,
and that he had been recently abandoned by his parents. The famous psychiatrist
Philippe Pinel put it succinctly when he said that the boy was in fact
"an incurable idiot" (Gaynor, 1973).
Itard disagreed. He believed that the boy had survived alone in the woods
for at least seven years, citing as evidence his "profound aversion
to society, its customs, and its artifacts" (Itard, 1801/1962). He
asserted that his apparent mental deficiency was entirely due to a lack
of human interaction. Moreover, he believed that this could be overcome.
He brought the boy-whom he eventually named "Victor"--to The
National Institution for Deaf-Mutes, and devoted the next five years to
an intensive, individualized educational program (Humphrey, 1962; French,
2000). This was the first example of an IEP, and the beginning of modern
special education (Gaynor, 1973; Humphrey, 1963; Pinchot, 1948).
Itard identified five primary goals for his pupil:
1. To interest him in social life
2. To improve his awareness of environmental stimuli
3. To extend the range of his ideas (e.g. introduce him to games, culture,
4. To teach him to speak
5. To teach him to communicate by using symbol systems, such as pictures
and written words
Itard had been influenced by the empiricist philosophers John
Locke and Etienne Condillac, both of whom advanced the idea that all
knowledge comes through the senses. Victor's eyesight and hearing were
normal, but his responses to sensory input were often sluggish or nonexistent.
For example, he would perk up at the slightest sound of a nutshell cracking,
but would not startle at the sound of a gunshot. Itard reasoned that Victor
could not learn effectively until he became more attuned to his environment.
Therefore, his educational approach relied heavily on sensory-training
and stimulation. (Humphrey, 1962; Itard, 1801/1962).
Victor improved, but he never approached normalcy. After five years he
could read and speak a few words, demonstrated affection for his caretakers,
and could carry out simple commands. Itard was disappointed in this lack
of progress, but he maintained his environmentalist position, stating
that would have been successful if Victor had been a few years younger.
(Pinchot, 1948). As it turns out, Philippe Pinel and the other physicians
were probably right; modern readers of Itard's personal account usually
come to the conclusion that Victor was indeed mentally retarded or autistic
(French, 2000; Humphrey, 1962; Pinchot, 1948).
The fact that Itard failed to make Victor "normal" is relatively
unimportant to this story. The important thing is that he tried.
He was the first physician to declare that an enriched environment could
compensate for developmental delays caused by heredity or previous deprivation
(French, 2000). Up to this time, it had been assumed that mentally retarded
people were uneducable (Humphrey, 1962). As one writer put it, Itard's
work with Victor "did away with the paralyzing sense of hopelessness
and inertia that had kept the medical profession and everybody else from
trying to do anything constructive for mental defectives" (Kanner,
Itard's influence was further extended through the work of his pupil,
Eduard Séguin. Séguin improved and expanded his teacher's
sensory-training approach, and put it into practice in special schools
for retarded students. He earned fame both in Europe and abroad for his
nonverbal intelligence test, which also had its roots in Itard's work
(French, 2000; Humphrey, 1962; Kanner, 1967). Maria Montessori developed
her methods in large part by modifying Séguin's educational approach.
Through her, Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard has had an impact on thousands of
normally developing schoolchildren all over the world (Frankel, et al.,
1975; French, 2000; Humphrey, 1962)
Itard, J.M.G. (1962). The wild boy of Aveyron. (G. Humphrey &
M. Humphrey, Trans.). New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts. (Original works
published 1801 and 1806).
Frankel, M.G., Happ, F.W. & Smith, M.P. (1975). The relation of historical
and contemporary theories to functional Teaching. In Functional teaching
of the mentally retarded. Springfield, Ill: Charles C Thomas.
French, J.E. (2000). Itard, Jean-Marie-Gaspard. In A.E. Kazdin, (Ed.)
Encyclopedia of psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gaynor, J.F. (1973). The "failure" of J.M.G. Itard. Journal
of Special Education, 7(4), 439-445.
Humphrey, G. (1962). Introduction. In J.M.G. Itard (Au.). The wild
boy of Aveyron. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Kanner, L. (1967). Medicine in the history of mental retardation. American
Journal of Mental Deficiency, 72(2), 165-170.
Pinchot, P. (1948). French pioneers in the field of mental deficiency.
American Journal of Mental Deficiency, 3(1), 128-137.
Photo Courtesy of The National Library of Medicine
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16 May 2013