David WrightDowns: The History of a Disability

Oxford University Press, 2011

by Mikey McGovern on September 30, 2014

David Wright

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David Wright‘s 2011 book Downs: The History of a Disability (Oxford University Press, 2011), offers readers a history that stretches far beyond the strictly defined genetic disorder that is its namesake. Wright shows us how the condition that came to be known as Down’s syndrome has as much to do with the social history of what was called ‘idiocy’ in Early Modern times and reform movements to integrate the disabled beginning in the 1960s as it does with the rise of asylums or the disputed discovery of “trisomie vingt-et-un.” Even the legacy of the condition’s name is a telling narrative about the modernization of medicine, from the use of the term ‘mongoloid’ to justify the (progressive for the time) anthropological theory of racial reversion to debates over whether to rename the disease in honor of John Langdon Down or place it within a more rigid taxonomy of congenital mental disorders. On their own, all of these stories are compelling windows into different dimensions of medicine, and as a whole they comprise a book that shows readers just how contested the process of ‘medicalizing’ a condition has always been.

The book’s chapters progress both chronologically and thematically. We begin with the legal definition of idiocy in the English Common Law as a way for the state to regulate the inheritance of property, and a glance at different contemporary philosophical understandings of mental handicap. Then, Wright discusses John Langdon Down’s work at the Earlswood Asylum and the influence of both education reforms and genetic studies on the definition of mental handicap. Proceeding through Jérôme Lejeune’s disputed discovery of trisomy 21 and the role of genetic screening in abortion debates, the book concludes by discussing how social movements in the late twentieth century have profoundly affected the ethical and political dimensions of Down’s syndrome. Winner of the British Society for the History of Science’s 2013 Dingle Prize, awarded biennially to a book exemplifying critical focus and a novel perspective while remaining accessible to the public, Downs is a great read for specialists and non-specialists alike.

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