John Langdon Down 1828-1896


John Langdon Haydon Down was born at Tor Point in Cornwall on November 18th,1828. he was descended on his father’s side from an Irish family , his great-great grandfather having been Protestant bishop of Derry .His sister’s daughters eventually married into the Adrian, Darwin and Keynes families.. John Down went to local schools including the Devonport Classical and Mathematical School. At 14 he was apprenticed to his father the village apothecary at Anthony St Jacob’s. The vicar gave him a present of Arnott’s Physics which made him determined to take up a scientific career. At the age of 18 he went to London where he got a post working for a surgeon in the Whitechapel Road where he had to bleed patients, extract teeth ‘wash bottles and dispense drugs. Later he entered the pharmaceutical laboratory in Bloomsbury Square and won the prize for organic chemistry. He also met Michael Faraday and helped him with his work on gases. More than once he was called back to Tor Point to help his father in the business until he died in 1853.John would have liked a career in Science but in those days there were few prospects for a career in Chemistry


Instead he decided to take up medicine entering the London Hospital as a student in 1853. There he had a career distinguished by honours and gold medals , and qualified in 1856 at the Apothecaries Hall and the Royal College of Surgeons. In 1858 he was appointed Medical Superintendent of the Earlswood Asylum for Idiots in Surrey. and people were astonished that he should wish to pursue a career , in fact jeopardise his career working in the neglected and despised field of idiocy. He had been one of the outstanding students of his time with every prospect of election to the staff of the London Hospital .He was concerned that all children who were afflicted by mental alienation or incapacity of any kind were placed in the category of idiots and regarded as beyond the pale of help. He had been enthusiastic about hearing of an experimental school in Switzerland but on visiting it found the inmates neglected and the Patron of the school living it up in the West End of London.

He decided to transform Earlswood which was a large institution which had its origins in two pioneering institutions set up in Highgate and Colchester. Meanwhile he took his MB in London, won the Gold Medal in physiology and took his MRCP and MD degrees. He was elected Assistant Physician to the London Hospital and continued to live at Earlswood and practice there and in London’ John Langdon Down was quite liberal and advanced for a Victorian gentleman. He vigorously defended the higher education of women and denied that it made them more liable to produce feebleminded offspring. His ethnic classification of idiots led him to maintain that if a mentally defective member of a white race could show the racial features of a non white race , it proved that racial differences were non specific.He used this argument to refute the apologists for Negro slavery in the Southern States at the time of the American Civil War and to support the concept of the unity of mankind.

In 1866 he wrote a paper entitled "Observations on the Ethnic Classification of Idiots in which he put forward the theory that it was possible to classify different types of conditions by ethnic characteristics. He listed several types including the Ethiopian type. He is most famous for his classification of what we now know as Trisomy 21 and have named Down’s Syndrome after him but which he classified as the Mongolian type of Idiot. Modern readers will find it insulting and unflattering and politically very incorrect. The hair is not black, as in the real Mongol but of a brownish colour, straight and scanty The face is flat and broad and destitute of prominence.The cheeks are rounded and extended laterally. They eyes are obliquely placed and the internal canth more than normally distant from one another. The parpebral fissure is very narrow…..The lips are large and thick with transverse fissures. The tongue is long thick and much roughened .The nose is small. The skin has a slight dirty yellowish tinge and is deficient in elasticity, giving the appearance of being too large for the body….The boy’s aspect is such that it is difficult to realise that he is the child of Europeans, but so frequently are these characters presented that there can be no doubt that these ethnic features are the result of degeneration. …They are usually able to speak ;the speech is thick and indistinct but may be improved very greatly by a well directed scheme of tongue gymnastics.The co-ordinating facility is abnormal, but not so defective that it cannot be greatly strengthened .By systematic training considerable manipulation power may be obtained.


In 1868 John Down set up his own private home for the "mentally subnormal" at Normansfield, Teddington( For any English people reading this is where 100 years later Brian Rix sent his daughter) His sons Reginald and Percival both qualified in medicine at the London hospital, joined their father and became responsible for it after his death in 1897. Reginald was particularly interested in "Mongolian defectives " and noticed characteristics of their palmar lines. He also questioned whether the characteristics were too superficial for them to be seen as Mongolian and suggested thast it might be an instance of "variation". It is not know whether he was aware of the pioneering work on chromosomes being done by his contemporary, Weisman

If you want to read further on John Langdon Downs writing you would find them in the London Hospital Reports of 1866. Mental Afflictions of Childhood and Youth, 1887 publ. Churchill.

with acknowledgements to the book "Mongolism" published 1967 by J and A Churchill

More about John Langdon Down by his official biographer.The site has some fascinating 19th century photographs of people with Downs Syndrome.

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