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John Langdon Down

By Paul Michael
5th March, 2016

Born in 1828 in Torpoint, Cornwall, John Langdon Haydon Down was the son of the village apothecary (today known as a pharmacist).

He is famous for being the first to recognise and classify a genetic disorder in humans that we now know as Down’s Syndrome.

Having qualified in medicine at London’s Apothecaries Hall and the Royal College of Surgeons , he chose to the unusual post of Medical Superintendent at Earlswood Asylum for Idiots. An ‘idiot’ in them days was the word used to describe a person of low intelligence. It was a hardly the most lucrative job for a newly qualified medical doctor.

Aside from his famous observation, he also supported the higher education of women and refuted the notion that their offspring would be feeble-minded. He also argued a view that race alone is not specific to the characteristics of humans. Where he studied that a white person with a mental disorder could act as the then non-white races were described, he upheld this argument against those that determined Negros as lesser beings in support of their slavery.

In his paper, Observations on an Ethnic Classification of Idiots, he described what we know as Down’s Syndrome as the Mongolian type of Idiot. This was later referred to as Mongolism and those suffering from it were often called Mongols or Mongoloids.

John had two sons, Reginald and Percival, who qualified in the same profession and worked alongside John. Reginald continued in his father’s footsteps to the point where he recognised that the characteristics of Mongolian defectives were unlikely to be Mongolian and more likely related to a variation in their being.   

John died in 1896 at the age of 67. There is a street in Torpoint that is named after him – Langdon Down Way

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