Jean Marc Gaspard Itard (April 24, 1774 – July 5, 1838) was a French physician , regarded as being the founder of oto-rhyno-laryngology, also known as Otolaryngology. He is also credited with describing the first case of Tourette’s syndrome and inventing the Eustachian catheter (also known the “Itard’s catheter”). Itard is noted for his work with deaf-mutes, and was one of the first to attempt the education of mentally retarded children in a systematic fashion. He is especially famous for his work with Victor, the “Wild boy of Aveyron,” a feral child. Itard developed a special program, the first attempt at special education, to try to teach him language and empathy, which he considered the key attributes that separated human beings from animals. Although his work with Victor was not entirely successful, it was useful in advancing our knowledge of the importance of early exposure to language as a form of communication in the development of spoken linguistic skills. While language itself, nor even emotion and empathy, may not be what separates us from animals, Itard’s work also contributed to that debate and to the conviction that there are essentially human qualities that are possessed even by those raised without contact with other human beings during their childhood.
Jean Marc Gaspard Itard went to Paris in 1796 to study medicine. After becoming an accomplished surgeon, Itard worked at the Paris insane asylum. He was interested in the study of training deaf-mutes, and took an interest in Victor, a boy at the asylum. Victor had been found in the woods around Saint-Sernin in southern France, an apparent “Wild Boy” with virtually no exposure to civilized society.
The Society of Observers of Man claimed the boy for observations. Phillipe Pinel, one of the five observers, delivered his report, saying that Victor was an incurable idiot with no chance for improvement or education. Itard disagreed with Pinel and went against the recommendations, keeping Victor in the asylum and personally training him.
Though never making the progress he had hoped, Itard’s techniques and willingness to stand up for the cause of “Victor the Wild Boy” were very influential to the training and education programs of the time.
In 1825 Itard described the case of Madame de Dampierre who had a habit of shouting out obscene words during conversation. Sixty years later this case was cited as an example of what would become known as Tourette’s syndrome.
Victor of Aveyron (also known as the “Wild Boy of Aveyron”) was a boy who had apparently lived his entire childhood alone in the woods before being found wandering near Saint Sernin sur Rance, (near Toulouse) France in 1797. He was captured, but soon escaped. He was then captured again and kept in the care of a local woman for about a week before he escaped once more.
However, on January 8, 1800, he emerged from the forests on his own, perhaps habituated to human kindness after his second experience. His age was unknown but citizens of the village estimated that he was about twelve years old. His lack of speech, as well as his food preferences and the numerous scars on his body, indicated that he had been in the wild for the majority of his life. This remarkable situation came about at the end of the Enlightenment, when many were debating what exactly distinguished the human being from the animal. One of the prevailing opinions involved the ability to learn language; it was hoped that by studying the wild boy, they would learn the answer.
Despite the fact that he could hear, Victor was taken to the National Institute of the Deaf for the purpose of study. There, Itard took on the remarkable case as his own. Itard believed that two things separated humans from animals: empathy and language. He wanted to be the first person to fully civilize a wild child and attempted, primarily, to teach Victor to speak and show human emotion. He designed an educational plan for Victor:
1. To interest him in social life
2. To improve his awareness of external stimuli
3. To extend the range of his ideas
4. To teach him to speak
5. To teach him to communicate by using symbol systems
This program can be regarded as the first Individual Educational Plan (IEP) in special education.
Though initially successful—Victor showed significant progress, at least, in understanding language and reading simple words—he eventually slowed down to the point that Itard abandoned the experiment. The only words that Victor ever actually learned to speak were lait (milk) and Oh Dieu (oh God). Modern scholars now believe, partly by studying such feral children, that language acquisition must take place in a critical period of early childhood if it is to be successful.
Though Itard failed at teaching Victor language, he had a breakthrough in the realm of the emotions. Victor lived with Itard and his housekeeper Madame Garhar. One night while setting the table, Victor noticed Madame Gerhar crying over the loss of her husband. He stopped what he was doing and consoled her, thus showing empathy. Itard took this as a major breakthrough in the case, proving that the wild child was capable of human emotions. Itard concluded:
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).
Itard’s medical research on the ear and the diseases of the ear made him one of the founders of otolaryngology. Related to this was his work on the education of deaf mutes, for the continuation of which he bequeathed a sizable amount of money.
Even though Itard’s work with Victor, the feral child, had limited success, he proved that children with mental disabilities could make some degree of improvement. Itard is thus regarded as the founder of special education. A student of Itard’s, Edouard Seguin, immigrated to the United States in 1848, and became known as the teacher of “idiotic” children. Seguin’s student was Maria Montessori, who became one of the greatest educators of the twentieth century.