Edouard Seguin (January 20, 1812 - October 28, 1880) was a French physician who worked with mentally handicapped children in France and the United States. He was a student of French physician Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, the educator of Victor, the "The Wild Child of Aveyron." Seguin pioneered modern educational methods for teaching the severely retarded.
Seguin's approach was influenced by utopian ideas, such as those of Saint Simon, and he regarded efforts to help the mentally challenged as a step toward a more perfect society. His work can be considered the forerunner of special education. Seguin's belief that all people, despite serious handicaps due to congenital defects, are nonetheless capable of learning. His work showed that through training, including exercises to strengthen the physical body and develop sensori-motor coordination, even the most severely challenged improved significantly, with many becoming capable of full participation in society.
Edouard Seguin was born on January 20, 1812, in Clamecy, France, into a family of prominent physicians. He was educated at the Collège d'Auxerre and at the Lycée St. Louis in Paris, before embarking to the studies of medicine and surgery. He studied under Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, father of otorhinolaryngology and pioneer of precursors of special education.
It was Jean Itard who persuaded Seguin to dedicate himself to study the causes and training of the mentally retarded. At the time, mentally retarded people were regarded as non-treatable and were held isolated from the rest of the society. Jean Itard thought otherwise. He himself was involved with teaching a feral child, known as "The Wild Boy of Aveyron," who grew up in the woods of the southern France. Itard believed that the boy’s mental deficiency was entirely due to a lack of human interaction, so he dedicated several years of his life in trying to teach him to communicate. Itard’s work inspired Seguin to start to teach mentally retarded children on his own.
Seguin was additionally influenced by Count de Saint-Simon, a utopian socialist who believed that all people deserved freedom and happiness, and that with the development of science and technology, the whole society would reach the stage when all its citizens would be treated equally. Seguin held that educating mentally challenged was a step closer to creating a more perfect society.
By 1837, Seguin began to treat his first mentally challenged child at the Salpetriere asylum in Paris. His class gradually grew bigger, and in 1839, he created the first school dedicated to the education of the mentally challenged.
While working in the Salpetriere asylum, Seguin noticed certain benefits of a physiological method in treating mental retardation. This led him to believe that mental deficiency was caused not by abnormal brains, but by a weakness of the nervous system and that it could be cured through motor and sensory training. He focused on exercises that developed the muscles and senses, through which, Seguin believed, his pupils would strengthen their bodies and gradually gain control over their central nervous systems. He held that, regardless of their level of intellectual handicap, people would be able to learn to control their bodies through the power of will. Seguin called his method a “physiological education,” and its main goal was to help the patients function as well as possible in society.
In 1844, the commission from the Paris Academy of Science recognized Seguin's methods, praising them for their effectiveness. The commission's report concluded that Seguin had finally solved the problem of "idiot education."
In 1846, he published The Moral Treatment, Hygiene, and Education of Idiots and Other Backward Children. It is the earliest known treatise dealing with the special needs of children with mental disabilities.
After the European revolutions of 1848, Seguin moved to the United States where he continued his work by establishing other schools for the mentally handicapped. He visited numerous schools that had been modeled on his own, advising them on his method. He finally settled down in Portsmouth, Ohio.
In 1860, he moved to Mount Vernon, New York, and received an M. D. degree from the medical department of the University of the City of New York in 1861. At the same time, he set up his own medical practice in Mt. Vernon.
In 1863, Seguin moved to New York City, and started to work with handicapped children at Randall's Island School for Mental Defectives. In 1866, he published Idiocy and its Treatment by the Physiological Method, which described the methods he used at the Seguin Physiological School in New York City. These programs stressed the importance of developing self-reliance and independence in the mentally disabled by giving them a combination of physical and intellectual tasks.
Eduoard Seguin became the first president of the Association of Medical Officers of American Institutions for Idiotic and Feebleminded Persons, which would later be known as the American Association on Mental Retardation.
Seguin also did significant research in the area of animal heat and thermometry. He published three works on this topic during the 1870s: Thermometres physiologiques (Paris, 1873); Tableaux de thermometrie mathematique (1873); and Medical Thermometry and Human Temperature (New York, 1876). He also devised a special "physiological thermometer" in which zero was the standard temperature of health. The thermometer was largely used in clinical practice.
In 1873, he served as a commissioner from the United States to the World's Fair in Vienna.
Edouard Seguin died in New York City, on October 28, 1880.
Through his work Seguin proved that mentally challenged people, who were once labeled as "idiots" and thought of as “un-trainable,” could be taught and learn to function effectively. His schools in France and United States have inspired dozens of others in Britain and North America to set up their own schools. Seguin showed that the failures of nature can be redeemed; in his words:
Not one idiot in a thousand has been entirely refractory to treatment, not one in a hundred has not been made more happy and healthy; more than thirty per cent have been taught to conform to social and moral law, and rendered capable of order', of good feeling, and of working like the third of a man; more than forty per cent have become capable of the ordinary transactions of life under friendly control, of understanding moral and social abstractions, of working like two-thirds of a man" and twenty-five to thirty per cent come nearer and nearer to the standard of manhood, till some of them will defy the scrutiny of good judges when compared with ordinary young men and women (Seguin 1866).
Among the educators who were influenced by his teaching methods was Maria Montessori, who became one of the greatest educators of modern time. Many of physical exercises that Sequin established as part of his program are still used in modern special education.
Recognizing his work in the area of medicine, a symptom known as "Seguin's signal" (involuntary muscle contractions prior to an epileptic attack) is named after him.
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