As I mentioned in yesterday's post, this weekend is so-called Open House weekend in London when lots of buildings of architectural interest are open to the public free of charge. Today I visited a building that is not generally open to the public - the Langdon Down Centre Trust on the borders of Teddington and Hampton Wick to the south-west of London.
The centre was formerly known as Normansfield, and was a private hospital for people with learning difficulties from the 1860s till just after the Second World War, when the hospital became part of the National Health Service. It was founded by Dr John Langdon Down, and it is from his name that we get the term Down's syndrome.
Langdon Down was born in 1828 in Torpoint, Cornwall. He went to work at what was then called the Royal Earlswood Asylum for Idiots in Redhill, Surrey and while there took photographs of all the patients in order to study their facial features (over 200 photos survive). He identified a group of patients with similar features and called them Mongols or Mongolian idiots. The term 'idiot' was in common use at the time, and Langdon Down referred to the Greek origin of the word and its sense 'private or lonely person'. He was attracted to this professional field because he wanted to help those people who were often condemned to a life of loneliness, having been shunned by their families.
In 1868 Langdon Down opened Normansfield with about 20 patients and by 1891 there were 150 residents. His wife Mary was an intelligent and talented manager and she was greatly involved in running the home. The Langdon Downs were an enlightened pair; they only employed staff who could play a musical instrument, help teach the boys cricket, act or who had other skills which the patients could benefit from. The main reason the building featured in the Open House weekend was because it contains a rare example of a private Victorian theatre complete with the original scenery. Plays and musicals were put on by outside companies, but the patients acted in shows too.
In 1961 a group of eminent specialists working in the field of disability wrote a letter to the Lancet objecting to the name Mongolism. They advocated dropping the term and made several suggestions for an alternative - Langdon Down anomaly, Down's syndrome anomaly, congenital acromicria or trisomy 21 anomaly. It was the editor of the Lancet who decided that the term Down's syndrome should replace the old name. In 1965 the World Health Organisation officially designated the condition Down's syndrome and that has been the position since.