On April 10, 1944, Life magazine published a feature article about dyslexia.
As American soldiers marched off to war, Life suggested that the country was fighting an enemy closer to home: dyslexia.
“Millions of children in the US suffer from dyslexia, which is the medical term for reading difficulties. It is responsible for about 70% of the school failures in 6 to 12 year age group, and handicaps almost 13% of all grade-school children.” (Life, 1944)
Life takes us into the Dyslexia Institute at Wesley Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Not an educational institute, but a medical clinic where they approached dyslexia as an illness that needed to be diagnosed, treated and cured.
They believed that dyslexia was caused by everything from vision problems to psychological disorders, heart disease to hormones:
“Dyslexia may stem from a variety of physical ailments or combination of them–glandular imbalance, heart disease, eye or ear trouble–or from a deep-seated psychological disturbance that “blocks” child’s ability to learn. It has little or nothing to do with intelligence and is usually curable.” (Life, 1944)
They conducted a battery of tests with space-age machines that “amused” the children:
“To analyze and cure reading difficulties Chicago’s Dyslexia Institute, in Wesley Memorial Hospital on the downtown campus of Northwestern University, has set up a clinic equipped with Man-From-Mars machines that amuse the young patience while diagnosing their ailments. After a series of exhaustive tests, the Institute’s specialists get together to determine the causes of the trouble and the treatment needed.” (Life, 1944)
Amused? I’m not sure. The children look like they are starring in a low budget horror film.
“Attack of the killer dyslexic children!”
I feel a kinship with the children in these photos. I remember going for similar tests to try and identify my reading problems in the 1970s. I don’t remember being amused, nor abused, but I do remember feeling like a lab rat for a few years.
The article reveals the long history of dyslexia in our society: causes and treatments, underlying myths and misunderstandings. And it shows how we — the subjects of all this scrutiny and study — have been viewed by medicine and society.
How far we’ve come. Thanks to neuroscience, we now know that dyslexia is not a disease, but an inheritable brain difference. It can’t be cured but can be greatly improved through reading interventions. We’re still searching for answers, but at least we’re moving in the right direction.
You can read the five-page Life magazine article in full here.
Author: The dyslexic library has an MSc in the Sociology of Medicine from the University of Edinburgh.