Domesticating Victor of Aveyron: the French Mowgli

Victor in a tree (Film 1970)| Courtesy of Pintrest

Winner of the Fall 2017 StMU History Media Award for

Best Explanatory Article

The Jungle Book is one of the most iconic Disney movies of all time. It’s a story about a young boy named Mowgli, who was raised in the jungle by wolves after his parents were killed by a tiger named Shere Khan. As Mowgli grew older he began to form a timeless bond with his best friend Baloo, and they went on wild adventures together. This story has captivated audiences since 1967. But long before the Bear Necessities, on January 9th, 1800 in Aveyron, France, a real child was discovered in the woods. He was found walked erect and completely naked except for a mangled shirt that showed no modesty. But, unlike Mowgli and his jungle friends, the young boy wasn’t able to communicate with anyone except in strange, meaningless cries. The young boy appeared to be between the ages of six and eight, with no evidence of having had any previous human encounters, and no real certainty on how he had been surviving. The local authorities sent him to an orphanage, but he escaped. He was then found again, and scientists began to take an interest in this “unfortunate being” who was “unhousebroken.” So Jean Marc Gaspard Itard and his team took the boy and began a series of experiments on him to see if this “savage” could be domesticated.1 

The Jungle Book | Courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes

After taking the young child in, Itard began to observe the different things he had taught himself to do to survive. In one instance, the young boy was sitting by a fire and grabbed a potato out of a boiling pot. When a man tried to get him to let it cool, he scarfed it down. As time passed, he ate it faster and refused to rationalize with the people that were trying to interact with him.2 Shortly after these observations began, word traveled rapidly of a wild savage found in Aveyron, France. Scientists, psychologists, and even Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother were interested in meeting the child. Lucien Bonaparte sent a letter to Itard in Aveyron stating, “I want the boy here and instruct you to send him without delay.”3 

After they took him to Paris, some scientists wanted to conduct experiments on him to see if they could “domesticate” him. Some psychologists and scientists argued that it was a selfish thing to do. They also did not believe that the child should be domesticated just because he had all five senses. These professionals felt that it was morally wrong to try to force the young boy to learn skills even though his desires did not stretch beyond his own physical needs.4

Although there was a lot of disapproval received from other scientists due to the conducting of experiments on this boy, they continued to try to help him progress towards domestication. These efforts were partly due to the world-view of these scientists, namely the world-view of the French Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. In this period, the ideals of the Enlightenment pervaded French society. It gave the intellectual elite of France confidence that, through applied science, France could perfect its social, political, and economic institutions.  So, as Itard and his team began to help this boy talk, and read, and express himself more civilized, they were doing that applied science that was leading French society toward its perfected goal. This particular concept of perfection seemed very attainable to many French people. They were just emerging from a decade-long political experiment of the French Revolution, where the goals of liberty, equality, and brotherhood were on the lips of all. And now, with a certain order restored by Napoleon, the business of perfecting society could advance in smoother form. The restructuring of the French law code under the Napoleonic Code assured all French citizens the equal protection under the law and illustrates the ideals of the Enlightenment, that a scientific understanding of citizenship and law required this egalitarian view of both. So it was because of these fundamental ideals of applying science to social and political institutions for their improvement that the young boy was helped my Itard and his team. While these same ideals led some to the formation of micro-utopias, such as feminist, socialist, and Christian utopian experiments, for others it meant medical experimentation using shock therapy, and other experiments like the ones conducted on the “Young Savage of Aveyron” in order to help fix him. This idea of “correcting” or “fixing” individual’s flaws flows naturally from the same Enlightenment ideals that fostered “fixing” the political institutions of the ancien regime, the illness being a monarchy and the “fix” being republicanism. Victor gave the French a way to test the foundations of the social, educational, and philosophical institutions that were being formed. This time period brought hope to humanity, hope for growth, belief in change, and who better to be the poster child for this fundamental belief than a wild boy’s domestication.5 

Victor of Aveyron | Courtesy of Wikipedia

As Itard and his team continued testing the “Wild Boy of Aveyron,” they moved him to a Deaf and Mute institution in the hope that it would help him progress faster in learning how to communicate and express himself to others. Many months passed, however, with very little progress for him. In fact, they had come to realize that the young boy’s eyesight was heavily impaired, so much so that he could not tell the difference between a painted object and the real thing. Doctors also found that his coordination could be compared to that of a retarded child’s.6 

After months of tests, most of Itard’s colleagues and other researchers all seemed to agree that the young boy had “incurable idiocy.” It was after these results that many scientists began to reject the idea of domesticating the boy at all. Many scientists in France thought the idea of domesticating this “idiot savage” was really an intangible goal; this was primarily due to the childhood development theory of this period.7 Their conclusions came about due to the parallel of Native American studies and research on how so-called primitive people react to being colonized by the French. These studies concluded that Native Americans and other people from primitive societies were limited in how much they can learn and how far they can progress toward fully civilized behavior. Itard’s colleagues believed that there must be a parallel between the way that natives are innately limited and way that this feral child is limited. It was discovered that they both tended to have the same natural instincts and selfish behaviors. These selfish and primitive behaviors are said to have been developing since the boy was young and they were taught due to the environment he was raised in, much like the Natives. This led scientists to believe he was too old and to accustom to his lifestyle to ever be able to adapt to the French civilized way of life. This was mainly due to the fact that social scientists believed it was the parental roles in our lives that help form the nature of who we are, and at a certain age they believe our ability to change who we are at the core becomes less likely. Scientists not on Itard’s team deemed that, due to the age and mental state they saw him in, it just did not seem logical that this child would ever make the intellectual progress that the researchers desired to see for him.8 

It is quite tragic how quickly scientists were to give up on the young boy’s intelligence and hope for his domestication. The leading researcher that remained, Itard, made five goals that he hoped to accomplish with the boy: they wanted to give the boy the ability to respond to other people; to train his senses; to extend his physical and social needs; to teach him to speak; and to teach him to think clearly.9 As Itard continued working with the boy, progress began to occur. He started eating food with spoons and would no longer grab food out of the boiling pot with his bare hands.9 

After seeing these results, Itard moved into the next phase of his research. The “wild boy” finally received his name, Victor. It was in this phase of research that Victor finally said his first words, “Oh Dieu!”(Oh my God), which is an exclamation of happiness.11 Although he could only communicate with random noises, Victor was finally expressing himself. The goals Itard had set for Victor were starting to be met. Itard’s progress had led him and his research team to believe that Victor did not actually suffer from idiocy, but rather, he was merely developing. They compared him to a toddler learning to talk.12 

The progress was not fast enough for the people watching over Itard’s research. After Victor failed his language course, his language therapist was extremely disappointed because his results were much lower than they had been from his previous results. After that failure, Itard had to take responsibility for it and find a new way to push Victor to work harder and push his limits. Victor began to receive shock treatments, which started to increase his results tremendously. These shock therapy sessions were very common in the nineteenth century, but their results could be deadly due to the electric current and massive amounts of drugs that were given to patients when they received this inhumane treatment. Nonetheless, Victor could now identify shapes and colors and was also able to match objects that looked alike.13 Not all the effects of the shock therapy were positive. Victor began to act out and had a hard time controlling his anger. As time passed, these outbursts of rage kept occurring. Eventually, Victor started to fall into convulsions because of his rage. Itard then began to fear that in trying to help this young boy become domesticated, he was instead giving him an incurable disease (epilepsy).14 

Shock Therapy| Courtesy of Wikidot
Victor was not the only one who experienced cruel treatment to force results. In the nineteenth century, mental health patients in France were treated very poorly. Many of the patients in this time tried to report the mistreatment, but due to the stigma that these people had, no one would listen. It was not until the mid-1850’s that reform movements began to address the mistreatment of mental patients in asylums, which was after years of “bloodletting, blistering, dousing patients in either boiling or cold water to ‘shock’ them, sedatives and using physical restraints such as straitjackets.”15 Much like Victor, many of them also went through shock therapy and began to experience outbursts of rage leading to epilepsy. This shock therapy consisted of basically inducing someone into a coma by using a massive amount of drugs or an electric current. This treatment would occur about three times a week depending on what the condition of the patient was and whether results were being seen. As times passed, more and more people began to oppose this method of treatment, but many patients had already begun to suffer from the mood swings, depression, and uncontrolled rage that came as a result of these treatments.16 

The shock treatment was ended because of concern about Victor’s health. Victor was just beginning puberty. For a while, conducting research on this stage of his life became challenging. This was due to Victor’s stubbornness. He refused to reason with anyone or listen to anyone when he would become frustrated or unhappy during tests. There was one instance recorded where he became so frustrated that he threw the objects he was being tested with across the room and broke down in tears in frustration. Nonetheless, after a few months had passed and Victor began to be less irritable and more cooperative, Itard moved into the next phases of his research where Victor was taught to read. Itard also began to hold cards that had a wide variety of objects written on them, and Victor learned to process, read, and retrieve the objects written on the paper. At first, he had to have the card in his sight to find the object, but as time progressed he could just retrieve it from his memory. Itard was very pleased with the growth and progress that the young boy had undergone in his time with him.17 

Shortly after this, Victor’s progress slowed down as his rage continued to worsen. In one instance, Itard decided to conduct a test in order to see if Victor truly understood what the words meant. Itard moved him to a different room with similar objects. He showed Victor a card that said “book” and Victor went to the door and refused to retrieve any of the books that were already in the room. This was because he wanted the book he had been retrieving during his testing in the other room. The Wild Boy had learned, but not what Itard thought. He became able to catch patterns and became comfortable with these patterns. So when he was moved from his environment for further testing, he wasn’t familiar with his surroundings, and became enraged and unwilling to work or cooperate with anyone. These events led Itard to conclude his research, because he felt that there was nothing else to research. As Victor continued the onsets of puberty, Itard felt that he would have to wait for years before Victor could resume his progress.18 

Victor being examined(film)|Courtesy of Deviant Art

In Itard’s concluding report where he reflected on the research, he wrote three negative conclusions: “1. because he cannot hear the speech of the other and learn to speak himself, Victor’s education will always be incomplete. 2. His intellectual progress will never match that of children usually brought up in society. 3. His emotional development is locked by the profound impossibility of channeling his awakening sexuality toward any satisfactory goals.”19 

After Itard had concluded his experiment, many continued to debates as to whether his tests were a waste of time. There were people who tried to claim that the experiment was successful. Many scientists asserted that the reason that Victor struggled so much to become “domesticated” was that he was innately incapable of becoming civilized. Others argued that Victor’s environment was to blame for his lack of progress. In this period, people were thought to be who they inevitably were either because of their innate nature or because of the environment in which they were nurtured: the nature-nurture debate. Those of the nature side of the debate believed that criminals were people who were defective innately, and therefore would inevitably be imprisoned. This is how many saw Victor as well, saying that he was initially a savage and would always be one regardless of educational rehabilitation. But Itard’s team argued that humans aren’t naturally disposed to be one way or another, and that one’s nurturing and educational experiences offer much hope to someone like Victor.20 

Itard saw Victor as a boy with potential when no one else saw any worth in this so-called “savage.” But Itard pushed social sciences and science to new limits providing new lenses for people studying education, autism, idiocy, and simply how people development. Itard accomplished the improvement of Victor’s sight and touch and enlarged his perspective on the world. Victor also learned how to communicate with others and he learned some written signs. Finally, this extraordinary “Wild Boy” learned how to build friendship and “love others.”21 

The world naturally hesitates to accept anything new and out of the ordinary, but sometimes it is extraordinary individuals like Victor and Itard that push the limits of the world around them. These two proved many people wrong; they said Victor was incapable of learning anything because he was an idiot and nature made him like that, so he was just stuck like that. But, Itard refused to believe that, and he helped push Social Sciences to new heights.  

Sadly, Victor lived the rest of his life like a zoo animal. They never gave this young boy the chance to develop himself fully. The state kept him alive, and no one noticed him when he was gone. He died in early 1828. There are no records of his death, and it is uncertain as to how he died. It is quite tragic that this child did so much for the social sciences, but he was treated as nothing more than a science experiment. In that case, I believe that is why he is known as “The Forbidden Experiment.”22 

  1. Roger Shattuck, The Forbidden Experiment: The Story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron (Great Britain: Secker and Warburg, 1980), 1, 4, 8, 9, 13.
  2. Nancy Yousef, “Savage or Solitary: The Wild Child and Rousseau’s Man of Nature,” Journal of the History of Ideas 62, no. 2 (2001): 245, 249.
  3. Roger Shattuck, The Forbidden Experiment: The Story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron (Great Britain: Secker and Warburg, 1980), 15, 18, 20.
  4. Nancy Yousef, “Savage or Solitary: The Wild Child and Rousseau’s Man of Nature,” Journal of the History of Ideas 62, no. 2 (2001): 245, 250.
  5. Gregory Claeys, The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge Press, 2010), 63-64, 66.
  6. Nicole Simon, “Kaspar Hauser’s recovery and autopsy: A perspective on neurological and sociological requirements for language development,” Journal of Autism and Childhood Schizophrenia 2, no. 2 (1978). 250, 252, 259.
  7. Murray K. Simpson, “From Savage to Citizen: Education, Colonialism, and Idiocy,” British Journal of Sociology of Education 28, no. 5 (2007): 571.
  8. Murray K. Simpson, “From Savage to Citizen: Education, Colonialism, and Idiocy,” British Journal of Sociology of Education 28, no. 5 (2007): 565.
  9. Roger Shattuck, The Forbidden Experiment: The Story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron (Great Britain: Secker and Warburg, 1980), 159.
  10. Roger Shattuck, The Forbidden Experiment: The Story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron (Great Britain: Secker and Warburg, 1980), 159.
  11. Roger Shattuck, The Forbidden Experiment: The Story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron (Great Britain: Secker and Warburg, 1980), 87.
  12. Nicole Simon, “Kaspar Hauser’s recovery and autopsy: A perspective on neurological and sociological requirements for language development,” Journal of Autism and Childhood Schizophrenia 2, no. 2 (1978): 88, 90.
  13. Roger Shattuck, The Forbidden Experiment: The Story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron (Great Britain: Secker and Warburg, 1980), 90, 91.
  14. Robert E. Drake, “The History of Community Mental Health Treatment and Rehabilitation for Persons with Severe Mental Illness, Community mental health journal 39, no. 5 (2003): 427.
  15. Robert E. Drake, “The History of Community Mental Health Treatment and Rehabilitation for Persons with Severe Mental Illness, Community mental health journal 39, no. 5 (2003): 427, 433.
  16. Encyclopedia Britannica, May 2016, s.v. “Shock Therapy,” by Darshana Das.
  17. Murray K. Simpson, “From Savage to Citizen: Education, Colonialism, and Idiocy,” British Journal of Sociology of Education 28, no. 5(2007). 570, 574.
  18. Roger Shattuck, The Forbidden Experiment: The Story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron (Great Britain: Secker and Warburg, 1980), 198.
  19. Roger Shattuck, The Forbidden Experiment: The Story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron (Great Britain: Secker and Warburg, 1980), 197, 200, 201.
  20. Encyclopedia Britannica, May 2016, s.v. “Feral Child,” by Michelle Jarman.
  21. Roger Shattuck, The Forbidden Experiment: The Story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron (Great Britain: Secker and Warburg, 1980), 201.
  22. Murray K. Simpson, “From Savage to Citizen: Education, Colonialism, and Idiocy,” British Journal of Sociology of Education 28, no. 5 (2007): 572, 574.
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69 Comments

  • I loved the way this story was told. The first paragraph looped me in because it related the movie to real life and of course I have seen the movie “The Jungle Book”. I cannot think to imagine how the boy lived on his own for so long. It would have been so interesting if people would have tried to get him to talk and learn how to communicate with people so that the boy could have told his story.

  • An excellent example of an explanatory narrative. In fact, as I read through this piece, it came off to me as two individual narratives which perfectly accented one another rather than a traditional narrative/ digression layered story. From the beginning, the use of a well-recognized Disney story laid a solid foundation for what I should expect and left me wanting to read further in wonder as to what was next. What helped as well, was my ignorance regarding this story. For those like me, Thomas does a very good job of combining the narrative of storytelling with the informative elements needed to maintain the attention of his reader. Although it is easily understood, the one area which I wished was better formed were the visuals used in this story. Being so intrigued by this story, I would have loved to see more documented footage of this real-life Mowgli. Despite this, such a good job was done in capturing my attention that it has left me wanting to expand on this story and learn more.

  • I first learned about this story through Truffaut’s “The Wild Child.” It does a great job of showing the relationship between Itard and the young boy. I recommend watching it if you’re interested. I think you did an amazing job with this piece. I especially like how you were able to tie in these events with what France was going through at those times.

  • I have heard things here and there about the original “Mowgli,” but never the full story. Your research is well versed in his life and in the bigger picture. I was happy to see that you would speak about an aspect of his life and then step back to talk about what is going on around him in France. By this I mean when you speak about the ideals of French society at the time and when you talk about the leading theories of child rearing as well.

  • Great story telling with this fascinating tale. The explanations were well spaced with the story that they did not break the flow or ruin the reader’s interest. This is a fascinating study of nature vs nurture. I am learning a lot about attachment disorder and brain development of children. It is a very interesting field of study. I never realized how important the bond between parent and child is in those early years. Without proper attachment a child’s brain won’t grow properly. This is what happen with young Victor. He lacked the brain development that would have allowed him to learn the things that make people civil.

  • This is a really interesting piece. I have never heard of this story and i find it very interesting. I remember taking psych classes in undergrad and learning different case studies that are similar to this story but never this particular one. It is very sad that once his found, it could be argued that perhaps his quality of life went down once he went under the process to be domesticated. It is sad that his life ended in vain. He was exploited by the world and treated like animal. Thank for sharing this story/

  • The idea of achieving perfection that pervaded the French Enlightenment is a deeply flawed and a dangerous way of thinking. It’s shameful that Victor was treated like a guinea pig and given electric shock therapy repeatedly throughout his life. The way in which scientists and researchers treated Victor was cruel and I’m saddened to learn he spent the rest of his days in a similar fashion. This article was very well researched, and I learned a great deal from reading it.

  • This is such a fascinating case study! It is crazy to know that a boy had managed to live on his own with no outside contact for eight years. What was particularly interesting was how French scientists studied Victor during the French Enlightenment – the way they incorporated Napoleonic Codes of equality and brutal shock therapy. It is unfortunate that Victor was unable to progress, despite all of Itard’s attempts.

  • Brilliant job of telling the very specific story of this individual, comparing it to entertainment forms based on this type of story, and relating it to larger problems at play in the world at the time. I found your use of italicization interesting – in some sections they were indicative of tone, and other times to denote importance for a particular term. It really me, as a reader, to process what you as the writer found important. Great job!

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