By Darold Treffert, MD
One of the earliest, and most colorful, savants was James Henry Pullen who came to be known as the Genius of Earlswood Asylum. Pullen spent 66 years of his life at Earlswood, near London, from age 15 until his death in 1916. During that time, because of his marvelous mechanical and drawing abilities, he became a bit of a national celebrity and his abilities are extensively documented by a number of observers of that time including Drs. Sequin, Tredgold and Sano. Even his majesty King Edward, when Prince of Wales, took a tremendous interest in this remarkable man and sent him tusks of ivory to encourage him in producing beautiful carvings. Pullen’s story is outlined in considerable detail in a chapter named after him in Extraordinary People.
Pullen was deaf and nearly mute. At age 5 or 6 he was impressed by the small ships that his playmates tried to maneuver on narrow puddles in Dalston, his birthplace, and he became obsessed with making such toys. He became skilled in carving ships and reproducing them in penciled drawings. Until he was age 7 he spoke only one word, “muvver.” He later learned some monosyllabic words. He entered Earlswood at age 15 where he was described as “unable to give any intelligible answer, unless he could accompany his broken words by gestures.”
At Earlswood, Pullen continued his skills as a carpenter and cabinet maker, becoming a tremendous craftsman. He would work constantly in his workshop from morning until night, then, later still in the evening would do drawings in dark, colored chalk. Dr Sequin describes those drawings as “most meritorious; and many of them, framed and glazed by himself, adorn the corridor and other parts of the asylum. One was graciously approved and accepted by the Queen, who was kindly pleased to send the artist a present. And Mr. Sidney had the honor of showing some of them to the Prince Consort, no common judge of art, who expressed the greatest surprise that one so gifted was still to be kept in the category of idiots, or ever had been one. His Royal Highness was particularly astonished, not only by his copies of first rate engravings, but by an imaginary drawing made by him of the Siege of Sebastopol, partly from the illustrated London News and partly from his own ideas.”
Because of his expert craftsmanship, Pullen became a bit of a celebrity at Earlswood. He was given two workshops, and freedom to pursue his talents. For many years those two workshops became museums of his art after his death. Royal Earlswood closed in 1997. The museum artifacts mostly went into storage, but some are now on display in showcases in a Shopping Centre in Redhill. A Royal Earlswood Museum Committee does still exist, however, and all paper records are held at the Sorrey History Centre in Woking, Surrey.
“The Great Eastern” was a model ship for which Pullen fashioned every screw, pulley, anchor and paddle from drawings he made beforehand. The planks were attached to the ribs by wooden pins that numbered over one million. The model was 10 feet long, and contained 5,585 rivets and had 13 lifeboats hoisted on complete davits. State cabins were complete with chairs, bunks, tables and decorations. The ship was constructed so that the entire deck could be raised to view the intricate detail below. Pullen spent seven years completing this complicated ship, and it attracted worldwide attention when exhibited at the prestigious Fisheries Exhibition in 1883 in England, where it won the first prize medal.
Dr. Sequin described Pullen, at age 19, as alternately wild and sullen. He never learned to read or write. The older Pullen was usually quiet and reserved, but there was another side to him as well. He was intolerant of advice, suspicious of strangers and, at times, ill tempered and violent. He once wrecked his workshop in a fit of anger, and, another time, erected a guillotine-like instrument over a door, hoping a staff member he particularly disliked might come through. He both impressed and frightened people with a giant mannequin in the center of his workshop, inside of which he would sit, directing movements of its arms and legs and talking through a concealed bugle fitted to its mouth. A picture of the mannequin is shown above as well. Pullen was remarkably sensitive to vibrations coming through the ground and devised an alarm system in his workshop, based on that sensitivity, that made him aware of any approaching visitor.
Dr. Tredgold sums up Pullen this way: “His powers of observation, comparison, attention, memory, will and pertinacity are extraordinary; and yet he is obviously too childish, and at the same time too emotional, unstable, and lacking in mental balance to make any headway, or even hold his own, in the outside world. Without someone to stage-manage him, his remarkable gifts would never suffice to supply him with the necessities of life, or even if they did, he would easily succumb to his utter want for ordinary prudence and foresight and his defect of common sense. In spite of his delicacy of manipulation, he has never learned to read or write beyond the simplest words of one syllable. He can understand little of what is said to him by lip reading, and more by signs, but, beyond a few words, nearly all that he says in reply is absolutely unintelligible.”
The three doctors who knew Pullen best had differing ideas about Pullen’s basic disability (they all agreed on his extraordinary abilities). Dr. Tredgold concluded that Pullen had a ‘secondary mental deficiency’ due to sensory deprivation (deafness). Dr. Sequin summed it up this way: “In short, he has seemingly just missed, by defect of some faculties, and the want of equilibrium in those he possesses, being a distinguished genius.” Dr. Sano concluded that if Pullen has simply been affected by sensory depriviation like Helen Keller, “deprived of sight and hearing, and yet able to acquire every kind of knowledge that enobles human understanding”, Pullen should have been able to advance much further, given the attention and notoriety he had experienced because of his tremendous skill as a craftsman. Instead, Dr. Sano points out, that “Pullen with both of his eyes wide open to the bright world of London, and his skilled ten fingers under complete sense control… could not absorb, digest or exteriorise the most ordinary sentence of politeness. To say, ‘I am very much obliged to you’ was strange to him in grammatical arrangement as well as in social meaning.”
Dr. Sano carried his analysis of the case of Pullen one step further. For him, the case did not end with Pullen’s death. Writing in the Journal of Medical Science, in 1918 Sano gives not only his view of Pullen’s life, but also provides an exhaustive description of a postmortem examination of Pullen’s brain. The brain showed only arteriosclerosis, not unusual at Pullen’s age. There was a slightly larger than normal corpus callosum (the mass of fibers connecting the cerebral hemispheres) and a good preservation of the occipital lobes (the visual center of the brain). From this particular prominent connection between the occipital lobes and the cerebral hemispheres, Sano concludes that those pathways were “bound to have special capacity in the visual sphere of mental existence.”
(How interesting in view of imaging and other findings elaborated elsewhere on this site about the ‘visual thinking’ nature of many present-day savants). There was some lack of cerebral development which, Dr. Sano felt, was consistent with the mental retardation present. But while Dr. Sano did find such evidence to explain the retardation, he went on to say that any further explanation of Pullen’s “character” was “not to be found in his convolutions.”
Dr. Sano sums up his puzzlement and awe of Pullen by quoting Carlyle’s Hero Worship to capture the magic and mystery of the savant: “Science had done much for us, but it is a poor science that would hide from us the deep sacred infinitude of nescience, whither we can never penetrate, on which all science swims as a mere superficial film. The world, after all our science and sciences, is still a miracle-wonderful, inscrutable, magique, and more, whosoever will think of it.”
And so was Pullen. Like the other savants before and after him, Pullen was a paradox of ability and disability. He captured the interest of kings, doctors and the public. He was proud, even boastful, but with good reason given his prodigious ability. He capitalized on that ability with tremendous motivation and became the recipient of equally tremendous reinforcement. He was original, one of a kind, not soon to be duplicated.
The Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disabilities at the site of the old Normansfield Hospital in South London houses some of Pullen’s extraordinary works, including his mechanical “giant” and two very large, carved ships—the Princess Alexander and The Great Eastern.
Pullen, and the condition of the savant, remains a remarkable mystery, one we are still unraveling more than a century later.
Sano, F. (July 01, 1918). James Henry Pullen, the Genius of Earlswood. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 64, 266, 251-267.
Treffert, D. A. (2011). Extraordinary people: Understanding savant syndrome. Lincoln: iUniverse.