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John Langdon Haydon Down (18 November 1828 – 7 October 1896) was a British physician best known for his description of the genetic condition now known as Down syndrome, which he originally classified in 1862.

John Langdon Down
Portrait of John Langdon Down (c 1870) by Sydney Hodges.jpg
Portrait of Down
John Langdon Haydon Down

(1828-11-18)18 November 1828
Died7 October 1896(1896-10-07) (aged 67)
OccupationMedical doctor
Known forFirst to describe Down syndrome


Early lifeEdit

Down was born in Torpoint, Cornwall. His father was originally from Derry in Northern Ireland, and his mother, Hannah Haydon, from North Devon.[1] His father was descended from an Irish family, his great-great grandfather having been the Protestant Bishop of Derry and Raphoe.[2] John Down went to local schools including the Devonport Classical and Mathematical School.

At 14 he was apprenticed to his father, the village apothecary at Anthony St Jacob's. The vicar gave him a present of Arnott's Physics which made him determined to take up a scientific career. At the age of 18, he went to London where he got a post working for a surgeon in the Whitechapel Road where he had to bleed patients, extract teeth, wash bottles and dispense drugs. Later he entered the pharmaceutical laboratory in Bloomsbury Square and won the prize for organic chemistry. He also met Michael Faraday and helped him with his work on gases. More than once he was called back to Torpoint to help his father in the business until he died in 1853.

Early careerEdit

Down entered the Royal London Hospital as a student in 1853. There he had a career distinguished by honours and gold medals and he qualified in 1856 at the Apothecaries Hall and the Royal College of Surgeons. In 1858, he was appointed Medical Superintendent of the Earlswood Asylum in Surrey.


He decided to transform Earlswood, a large institution which had its origins in two pioneering institutions set up in Highgate and Colchester, while he took his MB in London, won the Gold Medal in physiology and took his MRCP and MD degrees. He was elected Assistant Physician to the London Hospital and continued to live at Earlswood and practice there and in London.

He and his wife Mary transformed Earlswood from a place of horror where patients were subject to corporal punishment and kept in dirty conditions and unschooled, to a happy place where all punishment was forbidden and replaced with kindness and rewards, the patients' dignity was valued and they were taught horse riding, gardening, crafts and elocution.[3]

In 1866, he wrote a paper entitled "Observations on an Ethnic Classification of Idiots" in which he put forward the theory that it was possible to classify different types of conditions by ethnic characteristics.[4] He listed several types including the Malay, Caucasian and Ethiopian types. In the main the paper is about what is known as Down syndrome, named after him, but which he classified as the Mongolian type of idiot. As a result, Down syndrome was also known as "Mongolism" and people with Down syndrome referred to as "Mongoloids". Down's paper also argued that if mere disease is able to break down racial barriers to the point of causing the facial features of the offspring of whites to resemble those of another race, then racial differences must be the result of variation, affirming therefore the unity of the human species. Down used this reasoning to argue against a tendency he perceived in his day to regard different races as separate species.

In 1868, Down set up his own private home for the those with developmental and intellectual disabilities at Normansfield, between Hampton Wick and Teddington. His sons, Reginald and Percival, both qualified in medicine at the London Hospital, joined their father, and became responsible for the hospital after his death in 1896. His grandson, Reginald's son, was born with Down Syndrome.[5]

The building at Normansfield is grade II* listed and is now known as the Langdon Down Centre. It accommodates the headquarters of the Down's Syndrome Association.[6]

The newest part of his hometown, Torpoint, had a street named in his honour, Langdon Down Way.[7]


  • J Langdon Down (1887). On some of the mental affections of childhood and youth. J & A Churchill. ISBN 0-397-48017-2. OCLC 14771059.


  1. ^ Stephen Ashwal, The Founders of Child Neurology, p. 222
  2. ^ "Munks Roll Details for John Langdon Haydon Langdon-Down".
  3. ^ Van Robays J (2016). "John Langdon Down (1828 - 1896)". Facts Views Vis Obgyn. 8: 131–136. PMC 5130304. PMID 27909572.
  4. ^ JLH Down (1866). "Observations on an ethnic classification of idiots". Clinical Lecture Reports, London Hospital. 3: 259–262.
  5. ^ Ward, O Conor (1 January 1999). "John Langdon Down: The Man and the Message". Down Syndrome Research and Practice. 6 (1): 19–24. doi:10.3104/perspectives.94.
  6. ^ "About us". Langdon Down Centre. Retrieved 15 October 2010.
  7. ^ "Langdon Down Way, Torpoint". Google Maps.


External linksEdit