Dr. W. R. Wells

Wrote for the Journal of Abnormal Psychology and Social Psychology. The article below appeared in "An Outline of Abnormal Psychology" (1929, A. S. Barnes & Co., Inc.) edited by Gardner Murphy.

Idiot Savants

 - A. F. Tredgold -

          Gottfried Mind was a cretin imbecile who was born at Berne in 1768, and died in the same city at the age of forty-six years. At an early age he showed considerable talent for drawing, and as it was obvious that he would never be able to earn his living in any ordinary occupation, his father's employer interested himself in providing young Gottfried with some training. He could neither read nor write, he had no idea of the value of money, his hands were remarkable for their large size and roughness, and his general appearance was so obviously indicative of mental defect that his walks through the city were usually to the accompaniment of a crowd of jeering children. In spite of all this his drawings and water-color sketches of not only cats, but of deer, rabbits, bears, and groups of children were so marvelously lifelike and so skillfully executed that he acquired a European fame. One of his pictures, indeed, of a cat and kittens was purchased by King George IV.

Under the heading of motor we may also describe those cases possessing, if not the gift of tongues, at all events an extraordinary capacity for reproducing spoken words. Dr. Martin W. Barr describes an epileptic idiot, aged twenty-two years, who, in spite of the most careful teaching, could learn neither to read nor to write, although he was able to perform small domestic duties. Spontaneously he hardly spoke at all, and then only short disconnected words or the simplest sentences; but he had an extraordinary capacity for repeating fluently and with proper intonation everything said to him whether in his mother-tongue or in such languages as Greek, Japanese, Danish, Spanish, etc. Probably those cases in which an imbecile will reel off cantos of poetry verbatim also belong in this category.

In a considerable proportion of these idiots savants the gift is one of memory in some form or other, and of this many interesting and remarkable examples have been described... Dr. Forbes Winslow mentions the case of a man who could remember "the day when every person had been buried in the parish for thirty-five years, and could repeat with unvarying accuracy the name and age of the deceased, and the mourners at the funeral. But he was a complete fool. Out of the line of burials he had not one idea, could not give an intelligible reply to a single question, nor be trusted to feed himself."

Other cases show the existence of this phenomenal memory in its simplest automatic form. Thus, there are many idiots who cannot speak a single word, and yet can hum a tune, which they have only heard once, with perfect accuracy. Other aments will reel off poetry almost ad infinitum, yet without any understanding of the sense of what they are saying, or even of the meaning of the words.

A still more interesting case is described by Dr. L. Lotte of Armentieres. It is that of a young man named Fleury, an inmate of the asylum, who was completely blind from ophthalmia neonatorum, but who developed the faculty of calculating to a degree little short of marvelous. For instance, he could give the square root of any number running into four figures in an average of four seconds, and the cube root of any number running into six figures in six seconds. When he was asked how many grains of corn there would be in any one of 64 boxes, with 1 in the first, 2 in the second, 4 in the third, 8 in the fourth, and so on, he gave the answers for the fourteenth (8,192), for the eighteenth (131,072) and the twenty-fourth (8,388,608) instantaneously, and he gave the figures of the forty-eighth box (140,737,488,355,328) in six seconds. He also gave the total in all the 64 boxes correctly (18,446,734,073,709,551,615) in forty-five seconds.

We may conclude this chapter on idiots savants with an account of the following extremely interesting case:

The Genius of Earlswood Asylum

From the year 1850 to 1916 there was resident in Earlswood Asylum a patient who justly earned this title, and whose skill in drawing, invention, and mechanical dexterity is certainly unequaled by an inmate of any similar institution in existence. When I saw him at the age of seventy eight years he still continued to be actively engaged in his workshop.

J. H. Pullen was admitted to Earlswood Asylum at the age of fifteen years. On admission he was found to be active and well grown ... but his speech was imperfect and he was very deaf. He was put to work in the carpenter's shop, and soon became an expert craftsman. It was clear, moreover, that he possessed a capacity for initiation, imagination, resource, and attention far above the other inmates, and in consequence he was allowed considerable liberty of action and freedom to follow his own bent. The result, after sixty years, is to be seen in the fifty to sixty crayon drawings, the carvings in ivory and wood, and the wonderful models of ships and the like, which to-day adorn the walls and fill the two large workrooms placed at his disposal in Earlswood Asylum...

Pullen designed and drew a pictorial history of his life which shows his chief occupations between the years 1841 and 1873.

One of the most wonderful of his works, and one of which he was the most proud, is the model of a steamship which he named the Great Eastern. This, I think, he rightly regarded as his magnum opus, and it attracted universal admiration at the Fisheries Exhibition, where it was shown in the year 1883. It took him three years and three months to complete, and every detail, including brass anchors, screw, pulley-blocks, and copper paddles, were actually made by the patient from careful drawings, which he prepared beforehand. The planks of this leviathan are fixed to the ribs by wooden pins to the number of nearly a million and a quarter. All of these were made by Pullen in a special instrument, which in turn he also planned and made. He also devised and executed a strong carriage on four wheels for the conveyance of the ship. The model is 10 feet long, 18 5/8 inches wide, and 13 5/8 inches in depth. It contains 5,585 copper rivets, and there are thirteen lifeboats hoisted on complete davits, each of which is a perfectly finished model. It is fitted with paddles, screw, and engines, and it contains state cabins, which are decorated and furnished with chairs, tables, beds, and bunks. In fact, the whole thing is complete to the most minute detail, and will bear the closest inspection. He also invented and attached an arrangement of pulleys by which the whole upper deck may be raised so as to show the parts below. I believe that when first put into water the huge model capsized, but that has since been remedied. It is perhaps hardly to be expected that a person with no knowledge of practical boat-building should succeed in making a vessel that would be really navigable, but as a highly finished model it is unmatched in its completeness.

One of his latest pieces of work was the representation of a monstrous human form about 13 feet high. This black-bearded, terrible-looking figure is armed with a gigantic sword, and can be made to perform a variety of movements, such as opening and shutting the mouth and eyes, protruding the tongue, rotating the head, raising the arms, etc., by means of a most elaborate internal mechanism. It is calculated to strike terror into the heart of any juvenile beholder. Of this, with the White Knight, he might truly have said, "It's my own invention."

Other productions include bookcases, chairs, tables work-benches, picture-frames, and the like; in fact, the list of his work during the sixty-six years he was in the asylum would alone fill several pages of this book.

In disposition Pullen was usually quiet, well-behaved and good-tempered, and he seemed to be perfectly happy so long as he was allowed to work out his own ideas when and how he pleased. He was intolerant of supervision, inclined to be suspicious of strangers, and easily affronted by injudicious busy-bodies. At times he got a little out of hand, and if denied requests which were quite unreasonable was apt to become sulky and passionate. On one occasion he threatened to blow up the place because a request had been refused, and it is quite likely that he would have attempted to do so had he not been mollified. On another occasion he did actually partially wreck his workshop in a fit of passion. Many years ago there was a steward of the asylum to whom Pullen took a violent dislike, and he spent many days planning his destruction. This culminated in the erection over the door of a most diabolical instrument, which was intended to guillotine the unfortunate officer and there is not the slightest doubt that it would have done so had it not gone off a fraction of a second too late.

He once became enamored of a female whom he had chanced to meet outside the asylum. Nothing would satisfy him but that he should have his discharge and be allowed to marry her. He moped about, utterly refused to do any work or to listen to argument or persuasion, and it became clear that the position was critical. A happy inspiration occurred to a member of the committee, and a gorgeous naval uniform, resplendent in blue and gold, was procured. Pullen was invited into the board-room and informed that his case had been carefully considered, and that it had been decided to accede to his request. At the same time it was pointed out to him that the committee would be exceedingly sorry to lose his valuable services, and that, if he would reconsider the matter, they would, as an alternative, grant him a commission as Admiral in the Navy. The uniform was then shown to him as an earnest of their intention. This was too much for Pullen; he took the uniform, and never afterwards alluded to the subject of marriage. This uniform he usually donned on ceremonial occasions.

A note in the case-book describes him as "the quintessence of self-conceit," and a consuming vanity and almost overwhelming sense of his own cleverness and importance are very marked characteristics. Whilst showing me his handiwork he frequently stopped to pat his head and say, "Very clever"; and when I produced a tape-measure and asked permission to ascertain the extent of his cranial capacity he was delighted, and evidently regarded me as a very sensible person. At the same time, in spite of his childish egotism, he was by no means deficient in some power of looking after himself, and on several occasions he was found selling privately and for his own advantage little articles he had made. Many of his works were carried out under the real or pretended idea that he had a commission for them at a contract price.


The article above first appeared in "Mental Deficiency" by Dr. A. F. Tredgold (William Wood and Co.)


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