Sunday, 17 November 2013

Challenging Disability :November John Langdon Down

I am in Surrey this year during November and unable to participate in any of the Challenging Disability events which are part of UK Disability History Month; see UKDHM website . As you may gather from earlier blog entries I became a genealogist before I was involved in caring for those with learning difficulty and mental health problems so my two disciplines were intertwined; both my knowledge of mental health legislation and genealogical and historical interest in attitudes to those within earlier centuries. I live not far from the Beckenham site of The Bethlem Royal Hospital and Bethlem Gallery and the Bethlem Heritage Museum and Archive.
So as a personal blog from Surrey my personal thoughts turned to Surrey and the life of John Langdon Haydon Down (18 November 1828-7 October 1896). He became the first medical Practitioner to describe the condition of what later became known as Down's Syndrome.
Originally he came to London to study and work as a scientist and began work as a surgeon since he was unable to develop his organic chemistry into work. In 1853 he studied medicine at the Royal London Hospital where with distinction he graduated in 1856 at the Apothecaries Hall and College of Surgeons. To the astonishment of colleagues in 1858 he was appointed Medical Superintendent at Earlswood Surrey at what was then termed the Earlswood Asylum for Idiots. Down entered one of the most neglected and despised areas of medical practice; turning away from confidently predicted election to the staff of the Royal London Hospital. He was to advance his medical qualification and retained his links with the Royal London Hospital whilst reforming Earlswood and developing understanding of those with severe learning difficulties.
He was through his work to identify different groups of learning difficulty able to refute the proponents of negro slavery in the Southern states during the American Civil War that racial difference was a cause of disability.
He was also for his time a strong advocate of higher education for women refuting by his work on diagnostic classification that to do so would produce off spring with learning difficulties.
He set up a private home at Normansfield,Surrey for the "mentally subnormal" and the impact of his work continued at Normansfield by his two sons after his death was hugely influential in reforms of legislation relating to people with both learning difficulties and mental health problems in the emergence of mental health Acts. Normansfield is now Langdon Down Museum and is a Grade II listed building. There is associated with the work of the museum Langdown Down Museum Oral History Project . The former Normansfield Hospital is now headquarters to the Down's Syndrome Association.
I can think of no better person to connect to UK Disability History Month than the life's work than John Langdon Haydon Down, one of the pioneers of Disability awareness.