I will begin with an excerpt taken from Henry Handel Richardson’s novel:Ultima Thule  first published in 1929. It is the third volume of her Trilogy: The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, a fictionalised biography of her father, Walter Lindesay Richardson, a medical practitioner. In this scene we hear his response to a crying child:

..she had cocked an attentive ear and now she said: ‘Tilly there’s something about that child’s cry…there’s a tone in it – a…’                                                             ‘

‘Ungry…!’ said Tilly fiercely. ‘E’s starving -that’s what it  is’.

‘Of course, hungry, too. But I must say it sounds to me more angry. And then look at how he beats the air with his little fists. He’s not trying to suck them or get them near his mouth…’

Who’s to say where consciousness begins?…or ends. For all we know, the child in the womb may have its own dim sentience. Now I don’t need to give you my opinion of the wet-nurse system. Nonetheless if the case were mine, I should urge the mother to leave no stone unturned to find the person who first had it at her breast’.

(Henry Handel Richardson, (1929) Ultima Thule ( The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, Vol.3); Penguin, 1971, pp. 22-23).

I am intrigued by this excerpt by the Australian writer, Henry Handel Richardson.  She was the sister-in-law  of the radical pedagogue, AS Neill. She was well versed in Freud and psychoanalytic theory and, presumably would have been aware of ‘Child Study’ – the scientific study of infants and children which originated in the United States during the 1880s. Here, she infers  the ‘folk knowledge’ of mothers who, from experience, have learned the language of their babies.  Through her protaganist, Richard Mahony, a doctor and the central figure in her trilogy, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony‘ Richardson reaches towards understanding the babe’s experience: Who’s to say where consciousness begins?…or ends. For all we know, the child in the womb may have its own dim sentience.

‘Child Study’, the scientific study of infants and children, formally began  in Sydney in October 1898 when a ‘so called’ anthropolgist, Dr Allan Carroll,chaired the first meeting of the Child Study Association of New South Wales at the ‘club room’ at 137 King Street in Sydney. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that  Mrs A Wilson presented a paper: ‘The Earliest Manifestations of Intelligence in Infants’. It was intended that the Association follow the  United States Association by holding fortnightly ’round table’ discussions. This would be every second Wednesday evening. was presented and,following practices in the United States subsequent meetings in the form of ’round table discussions’ were held on every second Wednesday evenings throughout the year.

Alan Carroll, of short stature with a long flowing grey beard, was something of an eccentric. Born as Samuel Mathias Curl in London in 1823, he arrived in Sydney in 1885. According to one biographer he claimed to hold three doctorates in addition to an M.A., namely D.Sc., D. Litt. and Ph.D. He founded  the Australasian Anthropological Society as well as the Child Study Association, and was a founder of the Kindergarten Union in Sydney. His notes on these matters, a miniscule hand on any scrap of paper he could find, are now lodged in the State Library of New south Wales.

Reports from the Sydney Morning Herald provide an overview of the group’s development and interest. In February 1899 a Miss Adams delivered a paper: ‘The Earliest Cries and Articulate Sounds of Childhood’. Adams recognized that the earliest sounds and behaviours of an infant were worthy of careful study. They were communications. The wail of the feeble infant and the cry of the lusty child all had a meaning, a reporter, from the Herald, recorded. The babe  was hungry, cold or in pain… A little later, both by sound and gesture, he shows attention, joy or contentment, thus leading to the utterance of articulate sounds. The first sign of defiance of authority was the cry of anger at the removal of food. His earliest desires were for physical comfort.

There are shades of evolutionary theory. Vocalisation was considered to be more of a rudimentary song than attempt at articulate speech‘. Its rhythmic element pleased the child like rude vocal music pleased the savage. In Miss Adams’s opinion the child’s development during its first year was  largely physical. All the phenomena of motion – sitting standing, the first steps in walking -claimed the little one’s powers during this period. The little one’s brain were awake and active, and there could be no doubt that those early impressions had an influence on the true development of the child.

During the 1910s Alan Carroll’s Child Study Association evolved into an organization providing formula for babies considered to be in need of healthful food – a result of Carroll’s particular proclivities and interests. Meanwhile the Child Study Society, focusing upon the psychological and intellectual development of the child, drew the attention of Peter Board, of the Department of Education as well as government officials and public servants. Influenced by developments in experimental psychology and teaching practice, Child Study also drew on work in the United Kingdom led by Cyril Burt as well as developments in the United States.

There is a longer history. Charles Darwin’s observation of one of his children in 1840 and published 37 years later in the journal, Mind, opened the field for detailed scientific observation and study of infancy.

It was a response to a response to  M Taine’s  essay ‘The Acquisition of Language by Children’ also published in Mind. M Taine’s observations  ‘were made from time to time and written down on the spot’ the editors of Mind wrote.The subject was a little girl whose development was ordinary, neither precocious nor slow’.

From the first hour, probably by reflex action, she cried incessantly,
kicked about and moved all her limbs and perhaps all her muscles. In
the first week, no doubt also by reflex action, she moved her fingers and
even grasped for some time one’s fore-finger when given her. About the
third month she begins to feel with her hands and to stretch out her
arms, but she cannot yet direct her hand, she touches and moves at
random; she tries the movements of her arms and the tactile an
muscular sensations which follow from them ; nothing more. In my
opinion it is out of this enormous number of movements, constantly
swayed, that there will be evolved by gradual selection the intentional
movements having an object and attaining it. In the last fortnight (at
two and a half mouths) I make sure of one that is evidently acquired;
hearing her grandmother’s voice she turns her head to the side from
which it comes.

Darwin’s theories of evolutionary development were incorporated into infant studies by the British psychologist, James Sully in his 1896 work, Studies of Childhood. Sully, a colleague of Darwinist Thomas Huxley, was a leading figure in the British Child Study Association during the 1890s. Sully theorised that the developing baby passed through all the phases of evolution from conception onward. As we all know the lowest races of mankind stand in close proximity to the animal world‘ he wrote. The same is true of the infants of the civilised races. Their life is outward and visible, forming a part of nature’s spectacle; reason and will, the noble prerogatives of humanity, are scarce discernible; sense appetite, instinct, these animal functions seem to sum up the first year of life‘.(Sully 1896, p.5). His contemporary the American psychologist G. Stanley Hall, also grounded infant and child development in evolutionary psychology and anthropology.

As the twentieth century approached M Taine’s account of a baby’s discovery of herself in the world prompted further investigations.  One of these was the 1898 study The Biography of a Baby’ published by American woman, Millicent Shinn. Her observational methodology drew on the work and words of Dr Joseph Le Conte a geologist and physician known for his scientific rigour and research…

What is wanted most of all in this as in every science is a body of carefully observed facts. But to be an accomplished investigator in this field requires a rare combination of qualities. There must be wide intelligence combined with patience in recording. There must also be an earnest scientific spirit, a patience in observing and an honesty in recording. There must be an earnest scientific spirit, a loving sympathy with the subject of investigation yet under watchful restraint, lest it cloud the judgement; keenness of intuitive perception, yet soberness of judgment in interpretation’.( Shinn, 1898, p.2).

Shinn’s referred to Professor Preyer’s 1881 publication of his ‘model record’ in 1881 which  reached the United States in translation: The Senses of the Will and The Development of the Intellect.  Mrs Hall’s ‘The First 500 Days of an Infant’s Life’ and Mrs Moore’s ‘Mental Development of a Child’ both drawing on Darwinian theory published at the the same time as Shinn’s investigation, all recognized the value of the observational method  outlined by Preyer.

When an infant is observed or the development of a child studied, what is seen? Does whatever the observer expects to find influence what is found? Or to put it another way, how does the cultural milieu in which we live, with its particular unconscious constraints and restraints, shape interpretation and understanding? The careful work of Shinn’s and her contemporaries, centred in Darwinian theory, showing the infant to be passing through stages of evolution from primate to human and, it is inferred, civilized at that. Freud’s theories, emerging a generation later, was more concerned with the effect of infant and childhood experiencing: how early life and trauma made its mark upon the developing mind consciously and unconsciously. Shinn’s observations of a little girl responding to the people around her incidentally reveal a portrait of a child engaging with the world around her. Freud sought clues in childhood experiencing for understanding of his patients’ symptoms.

By the mid 1920s after Melanie Klein, drawing on Freud’s work, had published her first paper on the Emotional Life of the Infant,  Henry Handel Richardson wrote of a baby crying, perhaps, for her wet-nurse: Who’s to say where consciousness begins?…or ends. For all we know, the child in the womb may have its own dim sentience. Now I don’t need to give you my opinion of the wet-nurse system. Nonetheless if the case were mine, I should urge the mother to leave no stone upturned to find the person who first had it at her breast’.

‘Dr Alan Carroll and Mrs D Izzett, Anthropological Society, Australasia’ http://www.auspostalhistory.com/articles/1633.php accessed 16 August 2015.

Henry Handel Richardson, (1929) Ultima Thule ( The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, Vol.3); Penguin, 1971.