Library Collections: Document: Full Text


Creator: Catharine W. Brown (author)
Date: June 1897
Publication: Journal of Psycho-Asthenics
Source: Available at selected libraries
Figures From This Artifact: Figure 1  Figure 2

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In November, 1850, I came to Barre, Massachusetts, the newly wedded wife of Dr. George Brown, a country physician.


Among the number to welcome us were Dr. and Mrs. Hervey B. Wilbur, who had chosen for their life work the teaching of idiots, and were then residing in the house designated Number Two.


The cottage marked Number One was too small for a school, and Dr. Wilbur moved to the larger one before receiving his second pupil. Both houses stood on the same site then, as now, and are exteriorly unaltered save the loss of the quaint railing then over the porch of the front door, and removal of the school department.


The early friends of Dr. Wilbur were annoyed and chagrined that he should give up his promising position in the medical profession for labors they considered of no value pecuniarily, and positively foolish. During the winter of 1851, however, he was beginning to receive the consideration he had earned, and his small number of anomalous pupils were the lions of the day, visited by all comers to the town. The Dictionnaire de Medecine, published in 1837, had described idiocy as "An absence of mental and effective faculties, and as almost complete nullity of the cerebral functions;" adding "It is useless to attempt to combat idiotism. In order that the intellectual exercise might be established, it would be necessary to change the conformation of organs which are beyond the reach of modification." Physicians, scientists and educators were eager to investigate the process by which such an authority had been opposed on this hemisphere. I was myself very faithless and delayed following the crowd till common courtesy demanded it. But when I came and saw I had to confess myself conquered. I was intensely interested in everything. A boy with fine head and face, large beseeching eyes, clung to my hand, as if seeking my help. Dr. Wilbur assured me he was very low in the scale of ability, but I was unconvinced till I had tried for an hour with all my will power and perseverance to teach him to pick up a pin. Since that fruitless effort I have never lost my interest in the abnormal-born.


July 10th, 1851, an act passed the Legislature of New York entitled "An act to establish an asylum for idiots and making an appropriation therefor." To illustrate the almost universal lack of faith among business men in the work of teaching idiots at that period, I will quote from remarks made at the laying of the corner stone of a new edifice for the Pennsylvania Training School, at Media, Pa., in December, 1857. The Hon. J. H. Titus, of New York City, speaking of the early efforts in that state, in behalf of this defective class, said: "When Dr. Backus made his first movement in the Senate he called on me, then a member of the assembly, to be ready to support his bill when it might reach our branch of the Legislature. I said there was already too much demand for practical efforts in the work of relieving suffering humanity, to allow of any romantic attempts, and I must in frankness say, I considered his proposition, to teach and train idiots a piece of romance." Two other prominent officials, appointed with Mr. Titus on the Board of Trustees, were equally faithless and frank. One said: "Do not take it as personal, but I must say I think none but fools would think of teaching fools." The third Honorable gentleman, when told of his appointment, remarked: "This is a strange business the Legislature has set us at. I don't know what peculiar qualification it may have discovered in us for the work of teaching and training the fools of our State; nor do I think we shall do them much good or ourselves much credit." Suffice it to say both of these gentlemen were appointed a special committee to select a Superintendent. In prosecution of this special charge they started to visit Dr. Howe, of Massachusetts, and obtain his advice. On their route they stopped at Barre, in that State, to inspect the private school belonging to Dr. Wilbur. With him they spent parts of two days, and had a full opportunity of examining his pupils -- of investigating his system, and of estimating his ability. Immediately on leaving, each avowed his conversion from skepticism, and his conviction that the undertaking was feasible. As both had been impressed with Dr. Wilbur's fitness for the work they returned forthwith to Albany and recommended his appointment as Superintendent. One of these gentlemen continued to act as Chairman of the Executive Committee till his death, and both were enthusiastic friends of the cause.


When Dr. Wilbur had decided to accept the proposals from Albany he immediately came to us urging that Dr. Brown and myself should assume charge of the small class of pupils to be left in Barre. We accepted the charge after due consideration and commenced our duties September 1st, 1851. To the rear of the mansion, Number Two, which lodged these pupils, was then attached an unfinished portion of another edifice. This addition provided a large high room open to the ridge pole, serving all educational and gymnastic purposes. Three ladders wore erected at one end and a rope swing dangled from the apex near by. A machine resembling a small horse power, in one corner, was very useful as a sedative treadmill for nervous boys, or an educator for imperfectly trained muscles of locomotion. Parallel bars stood by one window; a black-board and letter-board were on movable frames; outline maps, charts and pictures hung from the walls. Plain settees and a high old-fashioned desk completed the inventory of furniture. On the table were school readers side by side with color cups and balls, a globe, blocks, counters and boxes of beads, accompanied by primitive form and peg boards, designed by Dr. Wilbur and manufactured by the village carpenter. Balls, dumb-bells and bolcheers were piled together on the floor. There were many advantages in this mingling of the literary and manual, considering the limited number of officials. Here then was the workshop where we endeavored to continue the ways and methods of our predecessor, remaining eighteen months before moving to more spacious and better arranged quarters. We were teachers, supervisors and attendants by turn, with a single domestic in the kitchen. The children sat with us at table that we might seek to cultivate good habits of eating, or in the sitting room that we might direct their ways and continually prune their uncouth habits of body. Our boys were marked types of this defective class, each one an object lesson for our instruction. A young lady once remarked to me that the Feeble-Minded resembled jars with the covers off, giving to all outsiders the privilege of examining the contentsad libitum. Such intimate association gave us practical insight of the characteristics, needs and ways of reaching such darkened minds. When our helpless ones were safe in bed we sat down to read M. S├ęguin's Traitinent Moral, Hygiene et Education Des Idiots.

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