Jean Marc Gaspard Itard
Biography of Jean Marc Gaspard Itard
Jean Marc Gaspard Itard entered his medical career in a somewhat unusual way. He was educated to be a tradesman and got a position at a bank. However, during the French Revolution he had to leave this comfortable position to join the army and presented himself as a physician. He was thus employed as an assistant physician to a military hospital in Soliers. Thanks to his brilliance, hard work and his quickly aroused enthusiasm he was able to acquire the knowledge necessary to make him a skilled operator.
Back in Paris Itard remained faithful to his new profession and held positions at various hospitals. He was 1796 he was appointed Chirurgien aide-major at Val de Grâce in Paris and from 1799 physician at the National Institution for Deaf Mutes. From this time on he concerned himself with the hearing organ and its diseases, investigations that was to spread his name all over Europe.
Otology owes to him the invention and improvement of several surgical instruments and techniques, as well as the design of hearing aids for people with impaired hearing. Among his pioneering achievements were the invention of the Eustachian catheter (Itard's catheter)
Into the wild
In 1799 three French sportsmen were exploring a wood in southern France when they came upon a young boy. They guessed that he was eleven or twelve years old, and he was filthy, naked, and covered with scars. The boy ran from them, but he was caught when he stopped to climb a tree. The sportsmen brought him to a nearby village and gave him over into the care of a widow. As the story of his capture spread, local residents began reporting that a young naked boy had been seen in the woods five years earlier. It was presumed that he had lived alone for many years, and that he had survived by eating whatever he could find or catch.
The boy escaped from the widow, and spent the next winter roaming the woods alone. He was eventually recaptured and placed in safe custodial care. An official in the French government heard about him, and suggested that he be taken to Paris where he could be studied as an example of the human mind in its primitive state. However, the prominent Parisian physicians who examined him declared that he was not "wild" at all; their collective opinion was that the boy was mentally deficient, and that he had been recently abandoned by his parents. The famous psychiatrist Philippe Pinel (1745-1826) put it succinctly when he said that the boy was in fact "an incurable idiot".
Itard disagreed. He believed that the boy had survived alone in the woods for at least seven years, citing as evidence his "profound aversion to society, its customs, and its artifacts" (Itard, 1801/1962). He asserted that his apparent mental deficiency was entirely due to a lack of human interaction. Moreover, he believed that this could be overcome. He brought the boy-whom he eventually named "Victor"--to The National Institution for Deaf-Mutes, and devoted the next five years to an intensive, individualized educational program. This was the beginning of modern special education
Under Itard’s tutoring Victor improved, but he never approached normalcy. After five years he could read and speak a few words, demonstrated affection for his caretakers, and could carry out simple commands. However, Itard was disappointed in this lack of progress.
Besides otology he also took an interest in other medical problems; we thus have works on stuttering, dropsy, etc. Itard also proved his literary talent as editor of several medical journals. His most important work on otology appeared in Paris in 1821. It contains the results of his scientific research based on more than 172 detailed case stories.
His reputation suffered somewhat, however, because he was not able to teach a retarded boy, whom he had taken on, to speech. This boy, called Victor of Aveyron, literary known as the «Sauvage de l’Aveyron», he picked up naked from the street, but was unable to give him the ability to speak.
In his will he left the Paris institute for the deaf and mute a substantial fortune - 160.000 francs, and instituted a prize which was to be awarded every three years at the Academy of Medicine for the best work in practical medicine or therapy.
Itard was from 1816 co-editor of the Journal universel des sciences médicales, Paris, from 1822 of the Revue médical and from 1832 of the Dictionnaire de médecine ou répertoire générale des sciences médicales sous le rapport théorique et pratique