Down Syndrome in the 1800s




As I work on my latest Jane Austen variation, which is about one main character being born with Down syndrome, I wanted to share some of the things I learned about Down Syndrome during the 1800s.

Down syndrome, also known as Trisomy 21, is a genetic condition that affects approximately 1 in 700 babies born worldwide. The condition was not identified and named until the 19th century, and the medical understanding of the condition was limited during this time.

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In the 1800s, people with Down syndrome were often misunderstood and mistreated due to the lack of knowledge and understanding of the condition. The prevailing belief was that people with Down syndrome were “idiots,” a term that was used to describe individuals with intellectual disabilities at the time.

In 1838, Des Maladies Mentales Considérées Sous les Rapports Médica, Hygiènique et Médico-Légal, was written by Jean-Étienne Dominique Esquirol. It 0was the first document describing people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, at the time referred to as “idiots,” as being separate from insanity.

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Many people with Down syndrome were institutionalized in asylums or workhouses where they were subjected to harsh living conditions and often treated inhumanely. They were often segregated from the rest of society and denied access to education, healthcare, and employment opportunities.

This further perpetuated the stigma surrounding the condition and perpetuated negative stereotypes of people with intellectual disabilities.

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In addition to the institutionalization, people with Down syndrome were also subjected to harmful medical treatments. One of the most common treatments for intellectual disabilities at the time was to perform a lobotomy, which involved the removal of brain tissue. This procedure was often performed without anesthesia or informed consent and was extremely dangerous and often resulted in severe neurological damage.

It was not until the late 1800s that some doctors began to challenge the prevailing beliefs about Down syndrome and intellectual disabilities. In 1866, Dr. John Langdon Down, after whom the condition is named, published an influential paper in which he described the characteristics of people with Down syndrome and proposed a more humane approach to their care. At the time, the term he used was “Mongolism.” He recognized that people with Down syndrome had unique abilities and personalities, and argued that they deserved to be treated with respect and dignity.

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However, it wasn’t until the 20th century that significant advancements were made in the medical understanding and treatment of Down syndrome. In the 1950s, French pediatrician Dr. Jerome Lejeune identified the genetic cause of the condition and developed a diagnostic test to identify it. This paved the way for early intervention and specialized care for people with Down syndrome.

Today, people with Down syndrome have greater access to education, healthcare, and employment opportunities than ever before. The stigma and mistreatment of the past are slowly being overcome, and there is a growing movement to promote acceptance and inclusion of people with Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities in society.

In conclusion, the history of Down syndrome in the 1800s is a tragic reminder of the dangers of ignorance and prejudice. The mistreatment of people with Down syndrome was a result of the prevailing attitudes and beliefs of the time, which saw them as lesser human beings.

However, as our understanding of the condition has grown, so too has our appreciation for the unique abilities and potential of people with Down syndrome. It is up to all of us to continue to advocate for their rights and work towards a more inclusive and accepting society.

10 responses to “Down Syndrome in the 1800s”

  1. Glory Avatar

    I am looking forward to when you have the story completed. The little you have shared already is exciting to see how people will love the characters in the story but I know that unfortunately there are people that are so rude and disrespectful to anyone different that just bring an awareness to this is a good thing.

    1. Tiffany Thomas Avatar
      Tiffany Thomas

      Thank you! It’s been a slow process since I had my 4th kid in January, but I’m making some progress!

  2. Regina Jeffers Avatar

    I believe I have shared this with you previously, but I have several stories with Down Syndrome “young adults” in them. They are in my Regencies and one of my contemporary tales. My best friend since second grade had a Down syndrome sister. We lost her about 5 years ago, but she lived into her early sixties and had a fulfilling life. All my characters are based on Vickie and on those with whom I worked for my specialization in special education as part of my masters program, and later, my doctorate program, as a reading specialist.

    1. Tiffany Thomas Avatar
      Tiffany Thomas

      That’s so sweet <3

  3. Alice McVeigh Avatar

    Downs people are so special. Your article was well-written and interesting but also horrifying, at least to someone who didn’t know about the early treatment of people with Downs syndrome (me).

    1. Tiffany Thomas Avatar
      Tiffany Thomas

      Many were taken well of, but so many weren’t. Not unlike today, tragically.

  4. cindie snyder Avatar
    cindie snyder

    I am curious about your book it sounds like a great idea! Some people can be so judgmental and nasty. I had a friend who’s daughter had Downs and she was very nice and very bright.

    1. Tiffany Thomas Avatar
      Tiffany Thomas

      Thank you!

  5. Leah Avatar

    My late brother in law had down syndrome. He was a very special boy. Thank you for the enlightening article!

    1. Tiffany Thomas Avatar
      Tiffany Thomas

      You’re welcome <3 I’m sorry for your loss.

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