The Psychologist and the Wolf Girl (Part 1 of 2)

On October 22, 1926,  the New York Times ran a memorable headline on the bottom of the front page:  "2 Little Wolf Girls in "Den" With Wolf Cubs; Rescued, 1 Dies; 1 is Humanized Slowly."    According to the story, which was based on a report in London's Westminster Gazette,  two "wolf girls" had been found living in a wolf's den in a remote part of Bengal (then a part of India but now divided between India and Bangladesh).   

The girls had been found by the Reverend Singh of Midnapore after hearing rumours from local villagers about "demons" being in the jungle.   The girls, aged two and eight, were described by Singh as "exceedingly fierce, running on all fours, uttering guttural barks and living like wolves."    While the younger girl died shortly after being rescued, the older girl was given the name, "Kamala" and 220px-0_Lupa_Capitolina_(2)[1]was raised at the orphanage.  Kamala was described as exhibiting "savage ways" including eating with her mouth in a dish and tearing off her clothes even after they had been "sewn on her."  While she eventually learned a few words, Singh said that she was still "weak mentally and neither cries or laughs."   She also avoided the other children in the orphanage and preferred to remain with the dogs.  

When Kamala's story finally received international attention, many remained convinced that the "wolf girl" was a  hoax.   Members of one "well-known London club" even got into a fistfight over the controversy and Professor Julian Huxley at King's College in London suggested that Kamala's case was "just feasible."   Still, it took a more impartial report by a bishop visiting Singh's orphanage to get better information about her.    According to Bishop Pakenham-Walsh, unwanted female children in that part of India were often left exposed and a she-wolf had apparently "adopted" one of thee infants to raise as her own cub.  For whatever reason, the wolf apparently repeated the experience six years later when a second girl was adopted as well. 

In his account, the bishop described Kamala as "of normal size.  and there is nothing peculiar about her except that she sits animal-like and does nothing for hours together. Her face has a vacant appearance, but when she says one of the thirty words she has learned . . . she smiles sweetly and has a pleasing face."   Press reports compared the surviving girl as being similar to Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book character, Mowgli.  Questions were also raised about whether she could even be socialized.   While there have been previous account of feral children being returned to civilization, including the famous Victor of Aveyron, none of them had ever been successfully taught language. 

To complicate the question further, it soon turned out that the two girls had been rescued years earlier in 1920.   The Reverend Singh and his wife had apparently kept Kamala's origins a secret for six years out of fear of how she would be affected by the publicity her story would bring.   As Singh himself would later state,  "if the rescue story became public, it would be difficult for us to settle them in their life by marriage, when they attained that age."  He and his wife also feared that publicity"would lead to innumerable visits and queries, which would be a great drain on our time."    The only reason the story reached the newspapers at all was that a letter by the bishop fell into the wrong hands.

What this meant was that much of the evidence relating to the time the two girls spent in the wild had been lost by the time the case began to attract serious scientific scrutiny.   As it was, Kamala's health began declining (possibly due to the relentless media exposure) and she died in 1929, just three years after her story first broke.  By that time, Singh had already turned down an opportunity to take Kamala to the United States so she could be examined directly.    With her death, all that the scientists had to work with were Singh's own first-hand observations.

There was certainly little documentation available on Kamala and the younger girl.  Not only had Singh failed to get affidavits from the hunters who had been with him when the girls were rescued (to verify the wolf-den story) but there were no medical reports either.   Singh had apparently refused to allow medical doctors to examine the two girls at the time of their rescue despite his apparent concern over their condition.   Some controversy also developed over whether it had been Singh who had discovered the girls as he claimed or whether they had been rescued by local villagers.   

By the late 1930s, anthropologist Robert Zingg had been granted permission by Singh to publish his diary about the wolf girls.  While Zingg insisted that the case was "well-documented", other scientists had since dismissed the entire idea that children could be raised by wild animals.  Since Singh was an untrained observer with a poor command of English, Western researchers tended to regard him as being too credulous to be taken seriously.    In 1942, Zingg published his own book, Wolf-Children and Feral Man.  Co-written with Singh, the book was basically a defense of Singh's original account along with pictures of both wolf girls and a full reprint of an 1833 translation of a book on Kaspar Hauser.    Whatever Zingg's intention, his book was not taken seriously.  Even eminent anthropologist Ashley Montagu wrote that, while he would like to have believed the story, "no scientist can accept as true any statement of a fellow-scientist or the statement of anyone else until it has been independently confirmed by others."   Other scientists would not be so polite with their scorn.

Which brings us to Arnold Lucius Gesell.    One of the founders of the Yale Clinic of Child Development (now the Yale Child Study Center), Gesell is now recognized as a pioneer in the field of child development.   An author of numerous manuals for teaching "deficient children" as well as a leading authority in special education, Gesell was very much a prominent authority in his field.  He also wrote popular books about infant development and behaviour as well as advice about child-rearing, all of which made him a household name (think of him as the "Doctor Spock" of his day).  Parents often relied on Gesell's guides to infant development to monitor how their children were progressing compared to the norms laid out in his books and videos.  When news about the wolf girls first came out,  Gesell followed the story closely and also stayed in contact with Reverend Singh and Robert Zingg to learn all that he could.

It was this fascination that led Arnold Gesell to publish his own book about Kamala in 1941.   The book, Wolf Child and Human Child, was meant to combat the skepticism over Kamala's case and to clear the way for Zingg's own publication (which had been delayed in publication due to resistance from other scientific skeptics).   Describing Kamala's story as "the most singular and perhaps the most remarkable which has ever been told of any human child",   Gesell had serious difficulty covering the numerous gap in Kamala's story and even admitted that he had "to summon imagination and even invent a few conjectures to fill the gaps of actual knowledge."    For Gesell, "filling the gaps" involved drawing on his own extensive research with other children to explain Kamala's development. 

While not as well known as many of the other classic books written by Gesell, it was certainly the most unusual. 

To be continued










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