Historic description of the autistic spectrum found

Peter the Wildboy

The Heberden Collection (reference SA/HEB) was given by the British Society for Rheumatology to the Wellcome Library in March 2012. It has recently been catalogued at reference SA/HEB and while it mostly relates to rheumatism and arthritis it also includes a collection of historic medical manuscripts, which was put together by William Copeman. As well as being an influential rheumatologist Copeman was interested in the history of medicine and collected documents on a variety of medical subjects. One such document is a description of ‘Peter the Wildboy’.

The copy of the writing at SA/HEB/A/2/3/7 is from the parish register of Northchurch in Hertford and the original of this register is held by Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies Service with the reference DP/74/1/8. It describes how a boy aged around 12 years of age was found in 1725 living wild in the German forests around Hamelon, near Hanover. He was wearing the remains of a shirt collar and had been eating leaves, berries and bark from the forest. He was found by a hunting party of George I and was taken to the UK in 1726 and put in to the care of Dr Arbuthnot so that he could receive a proper education.

It became apparent that Peter had, what today would be called, learning disabilities and although he had a willing personality he never learned to speak or retain his education. Because of this he was sent to live with the Fenn family of Northchurch, where it is clear from this document that he was held in great affection and protection by those who knew him.

When Peter was in London his arrival caused a great deal of interest. A Wikipedia entry exists for Peter and the entry shows that Peter was the subject of medical curiosity, satire, rumour, art and mystery. A portrait was painted of Peter by William Kent at Kensington Palace, which showed Peter to have distinct facial features. In 2011 this portrait was used to suggest that Peter had Pitt–Hopkins syndrome.

However the document copied from the Northchurch parish register may offer conflicting evidence. The author of the document emphasises that it was written by people who knew Peter well and that Peter had no facial deformities. It states that

“Peter was well made and of the middle size. His countenance had not that of an Idiot, nor was there anything particular in his form except that two of his fingers of his left hand were united by a web up to the middle joint”

The document also states that it was written deliberately to refute the suppositions that had been made about Peter in London by
“many men of some eminence in the literary world have in their works published strange opinions, and ill founded conjectures about him” and that “this short and true account of Peter is recorded in the Parish Register by one who constantly resided —- in the neighbourhood and had daily opportunities of seeing and observing him”.

Peter’s lack of ability to acquire speech, his apparent ‘normal’ appearance and intellectual disability may suggest that Peter actually had a condition on the autistic spectrum. If so, this document provides an 18th century description of a condition that was only first described in its most severe form in the 1950s, and in milder forms from the 1980s onwards. Knowledge about the true nature of the autistic spectrum as a neurological, genetic, verbal language learning difficulty is only just beginning to be understood now in the 21st century.