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John Langdon Haydon Down, English Doctor in the field of Mental health. 1828 - 1896

"...you take your aim; be sure you aim high enough. That’s the thing — aim high enough"

John Down is best known as the man who first gave a detailed description of the condition Down's Syndrome ('mongolism'). He was also a man greatly interested in general medical and social welfare, especially of the mentally ill.

He was born on 18th November 1828 at Tor Point in Cornwall, into an Irish-Cornish family (his father descended from the Down family from Ireland, his mother's family (the Langdons) being from Cornwall). His early education at local schools ended at about age 14, when he was apprenticed to his father, who was an apothecary. Encouraged by the local vicar, he began reading a number of scientific texts, and at 18, went to London to become a surgeon's assistant in the Whitechapel Road.

After only a few months, he began to work at the laboratory of The Pharmaceutical Society in Bloomsbury Square, where he continued his studies, and began to focus on organic chemistry. In 1949 he became an assistant to Professor Redwood at the Society, and also became a research assistant to Michael Faraday, helping him with his experiments on gases. Following this, he became ill and returned to Dartmoor to recover, spending some three years there, during which time he also continued to help his father.

He had wanted to continue his interests in the field of Chemistry, but was hampered by the lack of prospects for a career, so he decided to continue in his second choice, of medicine. After his father's death in 1853 he began studying at the London Hospital, and excelled as a student. In 1856 he qualified at the Apothecaries Hall and at the Royal College of Surgeons, having received many accolades along the way.

Work in Mental Health

This outstanding student then surprised everyone, by taking up a position as the Medical Superintendent of the Earlswood Asylum for Idiots in Surrey. The field of mental health was then despised by the majority of people both in and oustide of the medical professions, and many considered this to be career suicide for him. Many tried to convince him that this was folly; nonetheless he continued to pursue this course of action, driven by his concern for the mentally ill, especially children and young adults. He believed that many were capable of leading more productive lives, given better understanding and support. He was encouraged by reports of an experimental school in Switzerland, but was disturbed to discover that patients were neglected and that the Patron of the school was living the high life in London.

Having seen the negative side of the treatment offered, he determined to transform Earlswood. Although working at The London Hospital, winning a gold medal for physiology, and being elected to the Royal College of Surgeons, he continued to live at Earlswood, always looking at ways of bettering conditions for the inmates. Among other things, he defended and positively supported higher education for women, a radical move in those conservative Victorian days. (It was supposed at the time that such study would result in women giving birth to idiots.) He also used the results of his research into ethnic classification to refute the arguments of those supporting slavery in America.

He also continued to work and lecture at the London Hospital's Medical College, and published many works, especially on the subject of mental health and the classification of mental disease. His Mental Affections of Childhood and Youth, (1887), contained the description of the 'mongolism', the condition which now bears his name¹. He also studied and commented on adrenogenital dystrophy (now known as Fröhlich’s syndrome).

In 1868 he set up his own private home for the 'mentally subnormal', known as Normansfield, near Teddington (where Brian Rix' daughter was treated a century later), and encouraged his two sons Reginald and Percival in their studies. After they qualified in medicine, they also joined their father at Normansfield. In particular, Reginald took up the mantle of his father's studies of mongolism, for which he had become famous.

He was stricken with influenza in 1890, and was ill for a long time, having never properly recovered. On 7th October 1896 he died after collapsing at the breakfast table at Normansfield, and was rushed to his home in Hampton Wick, where he died later the same day.

¹ extracts may be seen in mblase's writeup in Down's Syndrome


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