The Wild Boy of Aveyron, Victor: One Of The Greatest Unsolved Mysteries Of All Times

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In the late eighteenth century, a child of eleven or twelve was captured, who some years before had been seen completely naked in the Caine Woods in France, seeking acorns and roots to eat. The boy was given the name Victor and is often referred to as the Wild Boy of Aveyron.

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In 1797, a child was captured in the woods of Aveyron, in the south of France.

Naked, filthy, unable to speak, the boy apparently lived his entire childhood alone in the woods before being found wandering the woods near Saint Sernin sur Rance, Aveyron.

However, he soon escaped and returned to the woods. He was then captured again and kept in the care of a local woman for about a week before he escaped once more.

He was periodically spotted by locals between 1798 and 1799.

However, on January 8, 1800, he emerged from the forests on his own, perhaps habituated to human kindness after his second experience.

His age was unknown but citizens of the village estimated that he was about twelve years old. His lack of speech, as well as his food preferences and the numerous scars on his body, indicated that he had been in the wild for the majority of his life.

Shortly after his discovery, a local abbot and biology professor, Pierre Joseph Bonnaterre, examined him.

He removed the boy’s clothing and led him outside into the snow, where, far from being upset, he began to frolic about in the nude. This indicated to some that human reaction to temperature is greatly a result of conditioning and experience.

When hearing of the capture, a minister of state with scientific interests, believing that this event would shed some light on the science of the mind, ordered that the child be brought to Paris.

In Paris, the boy was named Victor and became a nine days’ wonder. People of all classes thronged to see him, especially since it was an opportunity to see the romantic theories of the famous Jean-Jacques Rousseau in practice. Rousseau, a passionate critic of the society of his time, saw the possibility of reforming society through the education of children. In his Émile he posits a natural development of the child, which must be protected from the influences of society so that the child can grow up as Nature intended him to be. So, with Victor, the people of Paris had the opportunity to see a child who had grown up according to Rousseau’s ideals…

Expert opinion was, as usual, somewhat derisive of popular attitude and expectations.

The great French educator and psychologist, Philippe Pinel, examined the boy, declaring that his wildness was a fake and that he was an incurable idiot. He failed to explain how a mentally defective person could have been able to fend for himself in the wilds for any length of time.

Despite the fact that he could hear, Victor was taken to the National Institute of the Deaf for the purpose of study.

Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, a young medical student, took on the remarkable case as his own. He wanted to be the first person to fully civilize a wild child and attempted, primarily, to teach Victor to speak.

Dr. Itard described the behavior of the boy and his own efforts to teach him to do the things ordinary human beings do, including speaking and reading.

Victor’s tutor tells us that his senses were extraordinarily apathetic. His nostrils were filled with snuff without making him sneeze. He picked up potatoes from boiling water. A pistol fired near him provoked hardly any response, though the sounds of cracking a walnut caused him to turn around.

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 to 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 his 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.

Victor and Itard's Legacy.

Itard’s limited progress with Victor ignited interest 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 at 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.

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