Jean Mark Gaspard Itard


Portrait of Jean Itard

Jean Itard was a French physician and educator. He was best known for his teaching of Victor, a young boy who was found in the woods. His book: Victor: the Wild Boy of Aveyron (1801, 1806) became a classic that has survived the ages. Itard made other contributions the history of speech pathology:

Itard was born in Oraiston, Provence, France on April 24, 1775. To avoid conscription in the French army, when it was at war with the countries of Europe, Itard enlisted as an assistant surgeon in a military hospital. He decided to study medicine and became a physician. He took a position at the Institution for Deaf mutes in Paris, where he began studying the anatomical bases of speech and hearing.

In 1817, Itard published a treatise on stuttering. In it he treated stuttering as a physiological symptom and saw it as being caused by a problem with the nerves associated with the movements of the larynx and tongue. His therapy consisted of gymnastics of the organs of speech. He used a golden or ivory fork, placed in the cavity of the alveolar arch of the lower jaw, for the purpose of supporting the tongue.

Shortly after he started his job, Itard was asked to work with a young 10 year boy, who was found in the wild. There was, at the beginning of the 18th century, considerable interest in “unsocialized children,” because they were seen as a natural experiment showing the relative impact of environment on learning. Rousseau considered the infant to be an “uncivilized child” and as inherently good. Civilization and the desire for property was what created avarice and was what corrupted the morals of this “noble savage.” The issue raised by Rousseau offered Itard the intellectual context to accept the challenge of civilizing Victor, the “wild boy of Aveyron.”

Itard presumed any child could be taught anything, following the radical empiricist philosophical position of the philosopher Condillac. His goals for Victor were the following (in his own words):

1st aim: To interest him in social life by rendering it more pleasant for him than the one he was then leading, and above all more like the life he had just left.

2nd aim: To awaken his nervous sensibility by the most energetic stimulation, and occasionally by intense emotion.

3rd aim: To extend the range of his ideas by giving him new needs and by increasing his social contacts.

4th aim: To lead him to the use of speech by subjecting him to the necessity of imitation.

5th aim: To make him exercise the simplest mental operations, first concerning objects of his physical needs and later the objects of instruction.

Itard’s methods included the following:

1 - interest in social life: “Treat him kindly and to exercise great consideration for his tastes and inclinations” (Itard, 1962 p. 11). He had knowledge of four things: sleeping, eating, doing nothing and running about the fields. Itard allowed him his pleasures, but gradually lessened the time spent in them. At first he and Victor’s caregiver Madame Guerin, took Victor on rural excursions. Then they did so less frequently. They allowed him eating pleasures, but meals were made less often and less plentiful. They gave him less sleep time, and more instructional time decreasing the time given to his favorite activities of sleeping and doing nothing.

2 - awaken sensibility: Victor was impervious to severe weather, the effects of fire (picked up coals or potatoes and held them, ate burning hot potatoes), was impervious to strong smells, never cried, didn’t respond to loud sound. Itard’s approach was to “prepare the mind for attention by preparing the senses to receive keener impressions” (p. 16).

Itard clothed Victor, provided warm housing, gave him hot baths lasting 2-3 hours/day, used dry frictions (rubs) after bath, administered shock and elicited joy and anger from him.

3 - eliciting new needs and increasing social contacts: Victor wasn’t interested in the toys that Itard introduced to him, but he did increase his interest in “amusements which had connection with his appetite for food.”

He took Victor to a restaurant and ordered Victor’s favorite foods there.

4 - speech through imitation: Itard held a glass of water in front of Victor saying “eau, eau” (this was a sound that Victor has shown an interest in previously). When Victor did not respond by saying the sound, Itard gave the glass to someone else who had imitated the sound.

5 - development and use of mental operations: Itard first used a picture-object matching method developed by Sicard for children who were deaf. Itard pointed to a picture and asked Victor to either bring him the associated object or hang the associated object on a nail below its picture. After this, Itard associated the written word with the picture, asking Victor to bring him the object, followed by a task in which the drawing is omitted and the match is between word and object.

Itard used games to to increase Victor’s memory, intention and interests. For example, he hid a chestnut under one of three cups and signaled to Victor to find the nut.

Another task that Itard used with Victor, one he borrowed from Sicard, was a shape-matching task in which papers of a particular color and shape were first matched with based on both color and shape and then just based on shape. Then Itard proceeded to a task involving matching letters of the alphabet. This was followed by a task involving a spelled word (milk) that was required when requesting the desired object (Itard, p. 47).

Writings of Jean Itard, arranged chronologically

Itard, Jean (1801). De l’education d’un home sauvage. Paris, Goujon.

Itard, J. (1806/1932). The wild boy of Aveyron (G. Humphrey & M. Humphrey, Trans.). NY: Appleton Century Crofts.

Itard, Jean (1980) A Memoir on stuttering. In psychology of language and thought: (Translated by Michael Clark). In R. Rieber (Ed.) Essays on the theory and history of psycholinguistics (pp.153-184). New York: Plenum Publishing Co., 1980.

Writings about Jean Itard, arranged alphabetically

Chalat, N. I. (1982). Jean Mark Gaspard Itard, 1774-1838. Laryngoscope, 92, 627-629.

Clark, Michael J. (1980). Jean Itard: A Memoir on Stuttering. In R. W. Rieber (Ed) Psychology of language and thought: Essays on the theory and history of psycholinguistics (pp.153-184). New York: Plenum Publishing Co., 1980.

Frankel, M.G., Happ, F.W. & Smith, M.P. (1975). The relation of historical and contemporary theories to functional Teaching. In Functional teaching of the mentally retarded. Springfield, Ill: Charles C Thomas.

French, J.E. (2000). Itard, Jean-Marie-Gaspard. In A.E. Kazdin, (Ed.) Encyclopedia of psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gaynor, J.F. (1973). The "failure" of J.M.G. Itard. Journal of Special Education, 7, 4,439-445.

Humphrey, G. (1962). Introduction. In J.M.G. Itard (Au.). The wild boy of Aveyron. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Kanner, L. (1960). Itard, Seguin, Howe—Three pioneers in the education of retarded children. American Journal of Mental Deficiency, 65, 1-10.

Kanner, L. (1967). Medicine in the history of mental retardation. American Journal of Mental Deficiency, 72(2), 165-170.

Lamberts, Frances & Miller, Ted (1979). Itard and language pedagogy: A commentary for teachers of children with special language needs. Language Speech and Hearing Services in Schools, 10, 203-211.

Silberstein, R. & Irwon, H. (1962). Jean Marc Gaspard Itard and the savage of Aveyron: An unsolved diagnostic problem in child psychiatry. Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, 1, 314-322.

Websites on Jean Marc Gaspard Itard

Enersen, Ole Daniel (2010). Jean Marc Gaspard Itard. Retrieved on July 19, 2010 from

Plucker, J. (2007). Jean Marc Gaspard Itard. Retrieved on July 19, 2010 from