Monday, April 09, 2012

The idiot savant story

In a commentary epublished in March, about savant syndrome in autism, Patricia Howlin wrote:
In 1887 Langdon Down was the first to coin the term ‘idiot savant’
Howlin and several co-authors, including Sir Michael Rutter, wrote in a 2009 paper:

Down (1887) was the first to coin the term ‘idiot savant’

Here are Pam Heaton and Gregory Wallace from a major 2004 review:
The term ‘idiot-savant’ was first used by Down (1887)
From 1999, Pam Heaton again, as well as Linda Pring, Beate Hermelin, and others:
The term "Idiot-Savants" was first used by Langdon Down in 1887
Darold Treffert, often described as the authority on savants, has written accounts along these lines:
However, the first specific description of savant syndrome took place in London in 1887 when Dr J. Langdon Down gave that year’s prestigious Lettsomian Lecture at the invitation of the Medical Society of London... In 1887, ‘idiot’ was an accepted classification for persons with an IQ below 25, and ‘savant’, or ‘knowledgeable person’, was derived from the French word savoir meaning ‘to know’. Down joined those words together and coined the term idiot savant by which the condition was generally known over the next century.
That's from a 2009 paper. There seems to be an impressive consensus in the literature that Down coined the term "idiot savant" in 1887 (here is the source cited in all of the above), a claim that Treffert has made since the late 1980s, and many others have followed suit.

So far as I can tell, this consensus is wrong. Edouard Seguin, who died in 1880, is well known for having written about savants. He wrote about the famous pianist Blind Tom Wiggins, for instance, in a book published in 1866. And in a short 1870 paper, he is quoted as using the term "idiot savant." Here it is (spelling from original):
Among the wealthier classes, idiocy is not only oftener aggravated by accessory diseases, but also complicated with abnormal semi-capacities or disordered instincts, which produce heterogeneous types to an almost unlimited extent. It is from this class, almost exclusively, that we have musical, mathematical, architectural, and other varieties of the idiot savant; the useless protrusion of a single faculty, accompanied by a woful general impotence.
Seguin's use of "idiot savant" did not pass unnoticed in the literature. For example, in the BMJ in 1875, George W. Grabham quotes and takes issue with Seguin's views (spelling from the original):
A curious class may be termed that of the idiot "savans", in whom one or more faculties are amazingly developed, perhaps to the detriment of the rest. One has a marvellous power of acquiring languages and musical knowledge; another, great mechanical skill and original constructive ability; a third, though very childish, is no mean mental arithmetician; a fourth remembers all he reads; a fifth delights in dates; while a sixth can tell the time when awakened from sleep. General improvement has taken place in all these cases.

Dr. Seguin, a well known authority on idiocy, has given the support of his pen to a theory "that idiocy is found in its simplest forms among the labouring classes, and that, among the wealthier classes, it is not only oftener aggravated by accessory diseases, but also complicated with abnormal semi-capacities or disordered instincts, which produce heterogeneous types to an almost unlimited extent. It is from this class almost exclusively that we have musical, mathematical, architectural, and other varieties of the idiot savant; useless protrusion of a single faculty, accompanied by a woeful general impotence". I am quite unable to agree with this view; my experience of many of these idiot "savans" proving them to have sprung from parents in humble circumstances, and leading me to believe them to have resulted in many instances from hereditary insanity.
It's possible Seguin was not the first to use "idiot savant" but he does get this honor in the online OED, which quotes Seguin's 1870 paper but does not mention or quote Langdon Down.

In a footnote, Spitz (1995) provides a small trace of dissent, noting that Down himself made no claim, in 1887, to having coined "idiot savant" and indeed he seems to be using an existing term. Spitz did not try to find who did coin "idiot savant," but you can't blame Down for the false consensus.

And it hardly matters, to current-day autistics, who exactly coined an obsolete term in the 1800s. Langdon Down and Edouard Seguin probably don't care about their h-indexes. There are many vastly more important issues related to the term "idiot savant" and the human beings who were characterized this way, and the still-dominant view that strong autistic abilities are useless protrusions (recent example here).

But it does matter when telling an inaccurate story becomes the standard in the autism literature, over the course of 20 years or more. This is far from the only instance. And this is an especially easy story to verify (or not)


HOWLIN, P. (2012). Understanding savant skills in autism Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-8749.2012.04244.x

Grabham, G. (1875). Remarks on the Orgin, Varieties, and Termination of Idiocy BMJ, 1 (733), 73-76 DOI: 10.1136/bmj.1.733.73-a

Seguin, E. (1870). Art. XXXIII.-New Facts and Remarks concerning Idiocy: being a Lecture delivered before the New York Medical Journal Association, October 15, 1869 American Journal of the Medical Sciences, 59 (129), 518-519


Barbara said...

enessiThis is gut instinct mostly, and I know you tend to discount that, so I'll add that the construction 'idiot savant' is not conventionally English.

For my first first degree, I studied English in the 60s, when the degree courses were particularly demanding, and we all studied the growth and structure of the English language (in adjunct to literature)for the entire 3 years, until we were fairly fluent in Anglo Saxon, and had smatterings of Old Norse,etc. In our finals we had to date pieces of poetry or prose, spanning 5 centuries, within 15 years, and explain what linguistic evidence we had used to arrive at our decision. I did French as my minor, and got a First in both disciplines.

So, gut instinct with some maybe experiential evidence is that placing an adjective after a noun is not a preferred or conventional English construction. English, where nouns generally precede their limiting adjectives would more naturally say 'savant idiot'.

Since both words are more or less the same in English and French, and both derive from French, I tend to believe that the expression is French, not English, and that it's unlikely that it originated with Down. It probably originated from France, or from a French speaker, to whom that 'inversion' of noun and adjective would come naturally.

I also, and this is where the unreliable notion of instinct, however well-tutored, takes over, believe that the cultural imperatives of the term would appear to place it in the late 18th or early 19th century. I have absolutely no evidence for claiming that.

I may be way off key. It may be that Down was just a Francophile. So I'll check this back as far as I can.

I have a hunch that it may have originated in the Diderot era. It sounds like Diderot and the encyclopédistes. Dunno though.

I'll get back to you.

Barbara said...

Mistake - I meant nouns follow their limiting adjectives.

Barbara said...

Am now on a mission.Can't believe that Down selected this (generally accepted) French expression out of the blue. There must be a precedent.

Does the OED have it?

Michelle Dawson said...

Edouard Seguin was French--see the original post, where I also link to the relevant OED entry (which is paywalled), which I describe.

Barbara said...

Yes, and you're probably right. It had to be a Francophone.

The first not quite identical reference I can find is Moliere who uses the expression 'un sot savant' in Les Femmes Savantes, late 17th century.

'Sot' and 'idiot' don't have exactly the same meaning, but are very close indeed. So whoever used idiot savant first in its currentish meaning would probably have had a French classical education, as there is a tendency for people to echo, often without realising it, phrases that they've taken on board implicitly.

So we're back to your 'implicit learning' theory! And I think I agree with you that Seguin is the likely originator of the term.

Unknown said...
Introducing Ruth, an Adult on the Autism Spectrum

Lili Marlene said...

Grabham does appear to have been quoting Seguin when he used the terms "idiot savant" and "savan", but I couldn't find these terms used in the Seguin references.