The Wild Boy of Aveyron
“[The Savage] looks with compassion on poor civilized man -- no courage, no strength, incapable of providing himself with food and shelter: a degenerate, a moral cretin, a figure of fun in his blue coat, his red hose, his black hat, his white plume and his green ribands. He never really lives because he is always torturing the life out of himself to clutch at wealth and honors which, even if he wins them, will prove to be but glittering illusions. . . . For science and the arts are but the parents of corruption. The Savage obeys the will of Nature, his kindly mother, therefore he is happy” -- Louis Armand
Such was the prevailing ideology in the late eighteenth century, forming the entire enlightened Western world’s opinion on mankind itself. Humanity, popular thought opined, is corrupted and made evil by the presence of society, and without the influence of civilization would be a kind, selfless and enlightened race. However, one child would prove this entire philosophy wrong—a feral child found in January 1800, known in his homeland as l’enfant sauvage.
Victor, as the child later became known, was likely born circa 1788-1790 near Lacaune, France, and either abandoned or lost in the nearby woods sometime between 1795 to 1797. He was spotted in these woods in 1798 and captured briefly, escaping for a year before being captured again for a week in 1799. On January 9, 1800, he was captured once more in Aveyron, France, and cared for there by the locals until August, when he was sent to the Institute for Deaf-Mutes in Paris. There he was evaluated by many of the most prominent Frenchmen of the day, such as Philippe Pinel and Roch-Ambroise Cucurron Sicard.
Victor of Aveyron
The individuals there appraised him to be a horrifically savage creature incapable of using almost any sense. Aside from having basically no discernable cognitive ability, Victor was initially assumed to be deaf. He responded to absolutely nothing—not even loud, sudden noises—except for sounds of interest to him, such as the cracking of his favored nuts. Unsurprisingly then, he possessed no capability of speech, uttering only guttural noises. His senses of touch and temperature were no better developed. Victor had no qualms about picking hot potatoes out of a fire and eating them before letting them cool, and running outside naked in the middle of winter seemed to be a source of pleasure rather than pain. Cleanliness was a concept beyond him, as demonstrated by his willingness to eat raw, dirty or otherwise foul food with an unbridled voracity and tendency to urinate and defecate on himself without a care. Given all these disgusting, underdeveloped features about him, it came as little surprise that Victor had no socialization skills. Indeed, Victor cared nothing for people and was happiest left alone. People were mere objects to him existing solely for help in obtaining things he wanted, and, should they not serve any real purpose to him, almost always ignored. In all respects, Victor was a huge disappointment to all of whom examined him. Far from the noble savage they had imagined from their readings of Rousseau, he was more akin to a beast.
Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard
Itard and His Work with Victor
Given this, Pinel, a well-known physician specializing in the mentally ill and retarded, deemed the boy retarded. Clinging onto the idea of the “noble savage,” he asserted that the child was, in fact, not feral at all, but just another “incurable idiot” like the many he saw at the asylum he ran in Paris. Sicard, the headmaster of the Parisian Institute for Deaf-Mutes, briefly attempted to teach the boy and enroll him the Institute, but soon found him un-teachable and left him to wander the campus of the Institute with no instruction. However, the young twenty-five-year-old physician Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard took issue with Victor’s diagnosis and vowed to civilize the boy the experts had deemed a hopeless case. A strong believer in Locke’s popular tabula rasa theory, Itard felt that the effects of Victor’s unfortunate childhood could be reversed and his mental faculties restored if Victor were only taught in an effective manner.
With this philosophy in mind, Itard took Victor into his home and set up an education program focused on expanding his senses, increasing his dependence on other people, teaching him to speak, enhancing his cognitive abilities, and giving him the ability to interact with other people. With the help of Mme. Guerin, a local Frenchwoman who served as Victor’s caretaker, Itard would work with Victor for six years. The supposedly unteachable, bestial Victor would eventually make great strides and surmount many obstacles in his social and cognitive development under his tutelage. However, to his immense and obvious disappointment, Itard would never able to return Victor to any degree of normalcy.
The first task Itard tackled with Victor was that of sensation and perception. Victor was wholly unable to appreciate or even discern the difference between sensations, reacting in the same way to differing temperature and sounds and apparently having no threshold for pain. To remedy this, Itard and Guerin would subject Victor to long, hot baths for several hours a day, every day, and massaged him while cleaning him. Over the course of three months, Victor began to finally differentiate hot and cold, and with this discovery came a literal explosion of other developments of the senses. He began to insist on his bath being the appropriate temperature, ceased wetting himself at night in favor of being dry, began to finally wear clothes, sought and enjoyed physical affection, and, most momentously, began to sneeze and cry for the first time.
Following the enhancement of Victor’s sensations, Itard began work on his speech. As Victor seemed almost deaf to the human voice, Itard first began with training Victor to discern individual phonemes. Victor took to this instruction quite quickly, though his recognition of these phonemes did not translate into his ability to form them himself. Indeed, Victor could only ever articulate the sounds “o,” “li,” “la,” and “dieu,” leaving his actual vocabulary at a pitiful three words: “eau” [water], “Oh, Dieu” [Oh, God!], and “lait” [milk]. Itard was delighted in particular at Victor’s ability to say “lait,” as he initially believed that Victor, who tended to first say the word when being presented with milk, was attaching significance to the word. However, it soon became apparent that “lait” was in fact a sound Victor made in response to the milk, and hence would not ask for milk using the word or recognize that it even meant milk. Victor would later begin saying “lait” in response to many things that made him happy or even simply saying it at random. Itard, who had placed such emphasis on speech in Victor’s development, finally reluctantly gave up teaching speech to Victor after several years, as it eventually became readily evident that Victor could neither make most sounds nor attach any semantic meaning to the sounds he could produce.
Following this defeat, Itard turned his focus onto the written word. This attempt was initially met with frustration, as Victor could not tell the difference between the letters’ shapes and therefore could obviously not attach semantic meaning to them. Itard thus introduced physical reproductions of the most elementary shapes and worked with Victor until he could discern these shapes, and then more complicated shapes such as letters. Victor quickly grasped the concept of spelling together letters as given by Itard, and was able to attach semantic meaning to at least the written form of lait. However, again, Victor’s abilities were limited, and Itard supplemented with visual signs and pictures of things to get ideas across to the boy.
Despite all of Victor’s intellectual limitations, Victor made great strides in socialization. Contrary to the aloof, egoistic manner Victor had initially presented when he first came to the Institute of Deaf-Mutes, the Victor that emerged under Itard’s care was empathetic and interested in people. The same boy who had sat by himself and only interacted with people when hungry or tired was undeniably attached to both Itard and his caretaker Guerin, showing shame and guilt when punished by either and expressing happiness at their return. When Victor once ran away for two weeks, he burst into tears at being reunited with Guerin, and, after cautiously trying to ascertain the sterner Itard’s reaction, cried and hugged Itard upon reunification as well. He also developed an ability to feel empathy, which was most poignantly shown following his caretaker Guerin’s husband’s death. Accustomed to setting a certain number of plates on the table for dinner every day, Victor set out a plate for Guerin’s husband as usual, but following Guerin bursting into tears, wordlessly took away the plate and never placed the plate on the table again. For a child so hopelessly retarded in all other aspects, Victor’s ability to sense that something was wrong was truly momentous.
Unfortunately, after six years of working with Victor, the once-hopeful Itard finally had to concede that he had achieved the most he ever would with Victor. Despite tens of thousands of hours of work with Victor, Victor seemed to have reached a plateau in development and as incapable as ever of being able to speak or at least reach some degree of normalcy. Nonetheless, Itard still hung onto his environmentalist ideology, feeling that if he had only begun work with Victor a few years earlier, he might have been able to reverse Victor’s poor upbringing. He left Victor in Guerin’s care and continued with his research of deafness. Victor never made any further progress, instead quietly living with Guerin until his death at age 40 in 1828. In his later years, Itard would change his mind about Victor and call himself a fool for ever thinking he could have cured Victor of his retardation.
Itard was not alone in criticizing his work with Victor. Many reading his work since have questioned why Itard never tried teaching sign language—which Itard obviously knew fluently as an educator and researcher of the deaf—to the mute Victor. Several modern psychologists have also opined that Victor was not in fact feral but mentally retarded, psychotic or autistic, and was abandoned in the woods because of this. As Roger Shattuck notes, it was not uncommon for French families to abandon their mentally handicapped children in the woods, and there was a persistent rumor going around in Lacaune, France, that a local family had abandoned their child in the nearby forest because he was mute (R. Shattuck, 1980). Victor’s thin scar across his neck is testament to some human contact, undeniably the result of a murder attempt. In any case, critics agree that Victor had been in the woods in complete solitude for several years.
Victor and Itard's Legacy
Regardless of the reason for Victor’s retardation, Victor of Aveyron would have merely faded from memory had Itard’s work with him had as little significance as Itard later attached to it. Itard’s work, in fact, had great ramifications for psychology, philosophy, linguistics, and special education. Most obviously, the idea of the “noble savage” died along with hopes of curing Victor. If anything, Victor proved Hobbes’ opposing theory that man is disgusting, selfish and crude without society correct. Less obviously, Itard’s limited progress with Victor ignited interested in the teaching of the mentally retarded. Previously, the mentally retarded were seen as hopeless, and no one bothered to teach them anything. Victor made it clear that although faculties might be limited, a person of deficient intelligence can still be taught rudimentary concepts. The techniques Itard devised to teach Victor are still used today in both special education and in Montessori schools worldwide. Finally, Victor served as one of the many testaments to the future “critical period” theory of linguistics, which asserts that children who are not exposed to language after a certain point in development will never develop any language ability. The education of Victor may not have been a success, but his legacy continues to affect thought today.
Itard, J-M. G. (1962). The wild boy of Aveyron (L’enfant sauvage): First developments of the young savage. (G. Humphrey & M. Humphrey, Trans.). New York, NY: Prentice-Hall Inc. (Original work published 1801).
Itard, J-M. G. (1962). The wild boy of Aveyron (L’enfant sauvage): A report made to his Excellency the Minister of the Interior. (G. Humphrey & M. Humphrey, Trans.). New York, NY: Prentice-Hall Inc. (Original work published 1806).
Shattuck, R. (1980). The forbidden experiment: the story of the wild boy of Aveyron. New York City, NY: Kodansha International.
Rohit Amalan on March 14, 2017:
I believe Victor would have gotten alright had Itard not lost his hope.
wanda on July 27, 2013:
Very informative, thank you!
Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on April 26, 2013:
Thank you for publishing this. It was very interesting and helpful.
Hdud on November 26, 2012:
I like it helped me a lot
haberdasher (author) from New York City on December 11, 2010:
I'm not sure what you mean by meaningful professionals, but there was actually very little interest in the Boy of Aveyron case back in the day. Most people passed him off as retarded and a hopeless case. Itard was the only person who was even slightly interested in taking the boy under his wing.
FRANCIS MENSAH on December 11, 2010:
Very interesting and facinating history which i think had had tremendous impart on the lives of individuals who perhaps one way or the other abondoned their children generally to suffer for conditions they nerver have hands in them.In fact, iam very enthused,however,the question is couldn't meaningful professionals come together to help?
haberdasher (author) from New York City on May 23, 2010:
It's hard to say without knowing the exact circumstances of his abandonment. I am inclined to disbelieve the theory that he was autistic, as he was affectionate and did not seem to have any of the obsessions and compulsions that so characterize classic autism. But on the other hand, I think that given the time period and his limitations, it is very well possibly that he was abandoned because he was mentally retarded.
However, it is also possible that he did miss the critical period, or simply regressed while in the wilderness for so long. Genie, another child you might recall from the 70s (not feral, but raised under similar deprived conditions), lived in a normal environment until age 2, at which age she would have possessed a somewhat significant vocabulary. At the time of her discovery 11 years later, she could only say "stop it" and "no more," which is clearly testament to regression. She also suffers from severe mental retardation after the fact, though researchers seem to attest this to her severe psychosocial deprivation.
In a nutshell, it's pretty difficult to say. It's very much a chicken-or-the-egg scenario. Are feral children abandoned because they are mentally retarded, or are they mentally retarded because they are feral?
barranca on May 23, 2010:
Interesting history and a well written hub. Many thanks, Haberdasher. What is your best guess as to his problem. Did he miss crucial language development years, was he autistic or mentally challenged?