Determining Affectations of the Intellect in the 19th Century

[ Boîte de chirurgien, c1860 ]

Surgeon's box, c1860, Caroline-Isabelle Caron, QEII Health Sciences Centre

While surgery and anesthesia in the mid-19th century had made great strides, psychiatry remained rudimentary. In a British medical text published in the mid-19th century “unsoundness of intellect” was divided into two categories, idiocy and insanity. An idiot was defined as having a deficiency of intellect, which would disqualify the individual from the common offices of life. An insane person was defined as having a wrong opinion or feeling whereas an idiot had no opinion. A person could be legally declared an idiot if:

1. They could not count to 20,

2. Could not tell how old they were, or

3. Answer a common question that would make it clear that the person could not tell what was to their advantage or disadvantage. The text mentions no examples of idiocy or insanity being brought on by traumatic events or major surgery.

Jerome could not write nor could he communicate effectively. He had a major physical handicap and it was accepted both in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia that he was not capable of caring for himself.

The only way to determine Jerome’s mental capacity prior to being found would be to find evidence that he was gainfully employed or that he was a seaman on a ship during the time period in question.

Ian A. Cameron MD FCFP, is a Professor in the Dalhousie University Department of Family Medicine and President Dalhousie Society for the History of Medicine.