Jean Marc Gaspard Itard (April 24, 1774 – July 5, 1838) was a French physician, regarded as being the founder of oto-rhyno-laryngology, also known as Otolaryngology. He is also credited with describing the first case of Tourette's syndrome and inventing the Eustachian catheter (also known the "Itard's catheter"). Itard is noted for his work with deaf-mutes, and was one of the first to attempt the education of mentally retarded children in a systematic fashion. He is especially famous for his work with Victor, the “Wild boy of Aveyron,” a feral child. Itard developed a special program, the first attempt at special education, to try to teach him language and empathy, which he considered the key attributes that separated human beings from animals. Although his work with Victor was not entirely successful, it was useful in advancing our knowledge of the importance of early exposure to language as a form of communication in the development of spoken linguistic skills. While language itself, nor even emotion and empathy, may not be what separates us from animals, Itard's work also contributed to that debate and to the conviction that there are essentially human qualities that are possessed even by those raised without contact with other human beings during their childhood.
Jean Marc Gaspard Itard was born on April 24, 1774, in Oraison, France, and grew up with his uncle, a canon at the cathedral of Riez. He received his education in Riez and Marseilles. Due to the requests of his father, he started work in banking, but the job turned out to be too boring for Itard, and he returned to Riez.
When the French Revolution began, Itard was called to join the army. To avoid being sent to the front lines he presented himself as a physician, whereupon he became employed as an assistant physician at a military hospital in Soliers. His brilliance and personality helped him to quickly acquire basic knowledge of the medical profession. He ultimately became a military surgeon, attached to Napoleon's famous surgeon Baron Larrey.
After returning to Paris in 1796, Itard started a formal surgical internship. In 1800 he was appointed Chief Physician at the National Institution for Deaf-Mutes in Paris. There he became interested in the process of hearing and study of the ear and its diseases.
In the early 1800s Itard became involved with a feral child, known as "The Wild Boy of Aveyron," work which would bring him international fame. This work was subsidized by the French government. Itard spent five years trying to teach the boy, later named "Victor," to read, write, and talk. Itard published two works on this case, in 1802 and 1806. Victor slightly improved, but never reached normal human functioning. Finally, Itard returned to his work in otology.
In 1816, Itard served as co-editor of the Journal Universel des Sciences Médicales in Paris, and in 1822 as the editor of the Revue Médical. From 1832 he served as editor of the Dictionnaire de médecine ou répertoire générale des sciences médicales sous le rapport théorique et pratique. In 1821 he published his seminal work, Traité des maladies d'oreille et de l'audition.
Itard died on July 5, 1838, in Paris. In his will he left the Paris institute for the deaf and mute 160.000 francs, which was a substantial amount of money. He instituted a prize to be awarded every three years at the Academy of Medicine for the best work in practical medicine or therapy.
Itard was a prominent otologist. In his career he invented and improved several surgical instruments and techniques. He designed the Eustachian catheter, which is often referred to as "Itard’s catheter." He also constructed hearing aids for people with impaired hearing. In 1821 he published his seminal work Traité des maladies d'oreille et de l'audition, which became one of the greatest books on the diseases of the ear. He also designed several methods for educating and treating the deaf. He was also the first who described the condition known as the Syndrome of Tourette, observed in a French noble woman of 86 years of age.
Itard however remains most famous for his work on the case of the "Wild Boy of Aveyron," which brought him international fame.
Victor of Aveyron (also known as the "Wild Boy of Aveyron") was a boy who had apparently lived his entire childhood alone in the woods before being found wandering near Saint Sernin sur Rance, (near Toulouse) France in 1797. He was captured, but soon escaped. He was then captured again and kept in the care of a local woman for about a week before he escaped once more.
However, on January 8, 1800, he emerged from the forests on his own, perhaps habituated to human kindness after his second experience. His age was unknown but citizens of the village estimated that he was about twelve years old. His lack of speech, as well as his food preferences and the numerous scars on his body, indicated that he had been in the wild for the majority of his life. This remarkable situation came about at the end of the Enlightenment, when many were debating what exactly distinguished the human being from the animal. One of the prevailing opinions involved the ability to learn language; it was hoped that by studying the wild boy, they would learn the answer.
Despite the fact that he could hear, Victor was taken to the National Institute of the Deaf for the purpose of study. There, Itard took on the remarkable case as his own. Itard believed that two things separated humans from animals: empathy and language. He wanted to be the first person to fully civilize a wild child and attempted, primarily, to teach Victor to speak and show human emotion. He designed an educational plan for Victor:
This program can be regarded as the first Individual Educational Plan (IEP) in special education.
Though initially successful—Victor showed significant progress, at least, in understanding language and reading simple words—he eventually slowed down to the point that Itard abandoned the experiment. The only words that Victor ever actually learned to speak were lait (milk) and Oh Dieu (oh God). Modern scholars now believe, partly by studying such feral children, that language acquisition must take place in a critical period of early childhood if it is to be successful.
Though Itard failed at teaching Victor language, he had a breakthrough in the realm of the emotions. Victor lived with Itard and his housekeeper Madame Garhar. One night while setting the table, Victor noticed Madame Gerhar crying over the loss of her husband. He stopped what he was doing and consoled her, thus showing empathy. Itard took this as a major breakthrough in the case, proving that the wild child was capable of human emotions. Itard concluded:
If we consider human intelligence at the period of earliest childhood man does not yet appear to rise above the level of the other animals. All his intellectual faculties are strictly confined to the narrow circle of his physical needs. It is upon himself alone that the operations of his mind are exercised. Education must then seize them and apply them to his instruction, that is to say to a new order of things which has no connection with his first needs. Such is the source of all knowledge, all mental progress, and the creations of the most sublime genius. Whatever degree of probability there may be in this idea, I only repeat it here as the point of departure on the path towards realization of this last aim (Itard 1801).
Itard’s medical research on the ear and the diseases of the ear made him one of the founders of otolaryngology. Related to this was his work on the education of deaf mutes, for the continuation of which he bequeathed a sizable amount of money.
Even though Itard’s work with Victor, the feral child, had limited success, he proved that children with mental disabilities could make some degree of improvement. Itard is thus regarded as the founder of special education. A student of Itard’s, Edouard Seguin, immigrated to the United States in 1848, and became known as the teacher of "idiotic" children. Seguin’s student was Maria Montessori, who became one of the greatest educators of the twentieth century.
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