The roots of special education

Edouard Seguin and educating the “feeble-minded” in the 19th century

Note: Many medical terms used in the past – even through the first half of the 20th century – are words that we find insensitive or cruel today. Like any field of history, it is important to keep in mind the time period in which the texts were written and to not pin our 21st-century beliefs on those of the past.  As historians, it is up to us to observe, not to judge.

Students at the Elm Hill Private School and Home for the Education of Feeble-Minded Youth, circa 1893.
Students at the Elm Hill Private School and Home for the Education of Feeble-Minded Youth, circa 1893. From Records of the Elm Hill Private School and Home for the Education of Feeble-Minded Youth (MSS 6/013-01), Series 8.6, number 22 (box 61).

What is feeble-minded and what or who classifies an “idiot”? The word “idiot” was originally used as a medical term to describe people with intellectual disabilities, although it is used differently today. Other words that were used to describe people with intellectual disabilities were “imbecile” and “moron.” Doctors used these terms to describe the degrees of idiocy with “idiot” as the most disabled, followed by imbecile, and then moron as least disabled.

How was idiocy classified? Idiocy was classified in many different ways, and there were different types of idiocy. The different types of idiocies included Genetous idiocy, Microcephalic idiocy, Eclampsic idiocy, and more. Many people classified as “idiots” lacked certain brain functions, which could cause loss of hearing, smell, taste, sight, perception, and imitation. Some diseases could also change the size of a person’s head, such as Microcephalus, which causes shrinkage of the head, and Hydrocephalus, which causes the enlargement of the head.

Edouard Seguin was a doctor who stepped out of the box and did something others thought was hopeless: educating the intellectually disabled. Seguin was a 19th-century French-born American neurologist, and the first who founded a school for “idiots” called Seguin Physiological School. His schools were seen in many cities all over the United States, but his first school was founded in 1840 in Paris. He did this because he saw potential in the intellectually disabled and he had a great interest in mental diseases. Seguin’s work taught his students how to feel, smell, and hear different things, and taught them to talk or sign. Seguin founding the first physiological school inspired many doctors in the United States and Britain in the 19th-century to create schools for the “feeble-minded,” too.

Another school for the “feeble-minded” was Elm Hill Private School and Home for the Education of Feeble-Minded Youth, founded by physician Hervey Backus Wilbur in 1848 in Barre, Massachusetts. This school provided many things for the patients, including treatments and company. Different and interesting prescriptions were given to the patients, such as Fluid Extract of fucus vesiculosus, which was used for many things from weight loss to treatments for diabetes. This school didn’t only treat the patients, but also taught creativity in arts and crafts or dancing. Educational schooling was also provided, in the subjects of literature, geography, and arithmetic.

In the 19th century, one could be diagnosed as intellectually disabled as early as birth or due to gradual loss of intelligence. It was believed idiocy could be inherited, and although “idiotic” men and women rarely got married or had children, nearly 20 to 50 percent of “idiots” during the 19th-century were were thought to have inherited their disabilities. Marriages between relatives could create a defected baby even if both parents were healthy. Doctors believed some causes of intellectual disability included the mother going through trauma during delivery, and the mother drinking during the pregnancy. Doctors felt for a mother to prevent an “idiot” child, she needed to be at her best health and relax. The “feeble-minded” could be helped by seeking help from professionals, who would perform a variety of tests or surgeries to diagnose the disability and provide treatment.

The Historical Medical Library holds a variety of resources on the education of the “feeble-minded,” such as the Daniel Joseph McCarthy Papers (MSS 2/348). McCarthy was a doctor who believed that with proper exercise and diet that all “mental deficiency” would eventually go away. Another resource on the education of the “feeble-minded” is the book Leading and Select Cases on the Disabilities Incident to Infancy, Coverture, Idiocy by Marshall Davis Ewell. This book contains many different patient’s medical papers and their diagnoses when they were in school. More resources include other types of discoveries of the mind and mental diseases with pictures and personal diaries.

The links below will direct you to the catalog record or finding aid of the resource listed.  Remember to check our library catalog and finding aids – these are only some of the great sources we have about the education of the “feeble-minded”!


Primary sources

docbox-croppedRecords of Elm Hill Private School and Home for the Education of Feeble-Minded Youth
View the full finding aid: Records of Elm Hill Private School and Home for the Education of Feeble-Minded Youth
Call number: MSS 6/013-01


docbox-croppedDaniel Joseph McCarthy papers
View the full finding aid: Daniel Joseph McCarthy papers
Call number: MSS 2/348


docbox-croppedFred B. Rogers papers
View the full finding aid: Fred B. Rogers papers
Call number: MSS 2/354


Secondary sources

book-croppedLeading and select cases on the disabilities incident to infancy, coverture, idiocy, &c.: with notes
by Marshall Davis Ewell, 1876
Call number: Sadoff WA 308 E94L 1876


book-croppedThe mental affections of children, idiocy, imbecility and insanity
by William W. Ireland, 1900
Call number: Ni 143a


book-croppedIdiocy: and its treatment by the physiological method
by Edouard Seguin, 1876
Call number: Ni 50


book-croppedThe backward baby; a treatise on idiocy and the allied mental deficiencies in infancy and early childhood
by Herman Bernard Sheffield, 1915
Call number: Ni 359


Internet sources

PC-Computer“The Moral Treatment, Hygiene, and Education of Idiots”
by Elizabeth Picciuto
From the Ordinary Times blog, 8 April 2012


PC-Computer“The Classifications of Idiocy”
by H. B. Wilbur, 1877
Access provided by the Disability History Museum Library


*Content written by Tina To, Karabots Junior Fellows intern