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Hardback 256 pp.
Approximately 15 b/w illustrations, 129 mm x 196 mm



Publication date:
August 2011

Imprint: OUP UK

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The history of a disability

Dr. David Wright

For 150 years, Down's Syndrome has constituted the archetypal mental disability, easily recognisable by distinct facial anomalies and physical stigmata. In a narrow medical sense, Down's syndrome is a common disorder caused by the presence of all or part of an extra 21st chromosome. It is named after John Langdon Down, the British asylum medical superintendent who described the syndrome as Mongolism in a series of lectures in 1866. In 1959, the disorder was identified as a chromosome 21 trisomy by the French paediatrician and geneticist Jérôme Lejeune and has since been known as Down's Syndrome (in the English-speaking world) or Trisomy 21 (in many European countries). But children and adults born with this chromosomal abnormality have an important collective history beyond their evident importance to the history of medical science.

David Wright, a Professor of History at the Institute for Health and Social Policy, McGill University, looks at the changing social responses to Down Syndrome from Medieval Europe to the present day in the first ever history of Down Syndrome.

Readership : Readers of popular science and those interested in the history of medicine and science.


  • "No one is likely to tell the story [of Downs syndrome] better than historian David Wright... David Wright's penetrating analysis has helped to inform numerous bioethical issues which stubbornly remain controversial in the twenty-first century."

    --Ian Dowbiggin, University of Prince Edward Island

  • "A fluently written account that offers an excellent historical introduction"


  • "Downs: The History of a Disability is an elegantly written history of intellectual disability in general, and an admirable treatment of Down's Syndrome in particular."

    --Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

Prologue: case study
1. The philosopher's idiot
2. Mongols in our midst
3. The Simian Crease
4. Trisomie vingt-et-un
5. Into the mainstream
Further reading

There are no Instructor/Student Resources available at this time.

Dr David Wright received his D.Phil. in Modern History from the University of Oxford and then specialised, as a Wellcome Trust post-doctoral fellow, in the history of medicine. He is currently a Professor of History at the Institute for Health and Social Policy, at McGill University. Dr Wright is the author and editor of six books on the history of mental health and psychiatry, including the first scholarly volume on the history of mental disability: (with Anne Digby, eds.) From Idiocy to Mental Deficiency: Historical Perspectives on People with Learning Disabilities (Routledge, 1996).

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Special Features

  • Looks at the social and medical history of Down's Syndrome, and its origin and development.
  • Examines the historical treatment of the disease as a mental disability before the modern era.
  • Written by a leading authority on the history of mental health and psychiatry.
  • Considers the discovery of the genetic basis of the condition.
  • Looks at the profound change in attitudes, care, and identification of Down's Syndrome over the past few years.