Downs: the history of a disability

January 15, 2012

Author David Wright is a Canadian professor at McGill University in the field of medical history; he also happens to have a sister with Down syndrome.  From the prologue where Wright describes childhood in the 60s with his sister to the journey he takes us on through several hundred years of social change, Downs: the history of a disability is a fascinating read.

Wright commences in the era of Elizabeth I when the Crown was petitioned to assume some responsibility over individuals with mental disabilities.  He continues on through the 19th century and the time of John Langdon Down– for whom this syndrome was ultimately named.  Down was the superintendent of an asylum (as well as an amateur photographer) who began to recognize similar characteristics among individuals in his care.  This being the era of Darwin and emerging theories of evolution, Down’s findings are very much tied to this school of thought.

Following this period came the eugenics movement–occurring in many nations and culminating in the extermination of many individuals with disabilities during the Second World War in Nazi Germany. Ultimately devastating for those with Down syndrome, the eugenics movement began to fall out of favour after the atrocities committed during World War II came to light. 

Wright continues by describing the age of scientific discovery and genetics when real understanding of this syndrome emerged in 1959 as Jerôme Lejeune discovered the root cause of Down syndrome was an extra copy of the 21st chromosome.  The book concludes with the present day focus on prenatal screening and inclusion–concepts that are often ideologically at odds with each other.

Downs: the history of a disability is a meticulously researched and detailed account of how the history of Down syndrome has been tied to societal attitudes and social change.  It contains rarely seen photographs and images obtained from British and North American archives and libraries.  Despite all the changes that have happened over the years, we are still left wondering whether society is as far ahead today as it seems.  Highly recommended!

To listen to an interview with David Wright on CBC, please click here and scroll down. 

Suggested for: Individuals with an academic or personal interest in the history of intellectual or developmental disabilities, Down syndrome in particular; public and academic libraries

The particulars: Downs: the history of a disability.  Written by David Wright. Published by Oxford University Press, 2011.



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