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Darwin Correspondence Project

From E. M. Courtenay   22 November 1874

District Asylum, | Limerick.

Nov 22/74

My dear Sir

I beg to forward you the photographs of an Epileptic Idiot, whose case may be interesting from his attitude and mode of progression appearing to simulate more that of the lower animals than man.1 As he died suddenly I was unable to show his remarkable position when about to move which was either on his hands and knees or with the hands raised very slightly from the ground

Believe me | Yours very truly | E Maziere Courtenay

Notes of Case of Michael Feeny, an Epileptic Idiot

M. F Oct 29. Admitted Feb 11/73 Died Augt. 19/74

History received from Mother— Patient, an idiot suffering from frequent Epileptic Fits in the early part of his life, decreasing in frequency as he grew older, was the eldest born of five brothers & sisters, all of whom are in good mental & bodily health— The Father & Mother were second cousins—2 The Father & Paternal Grandfather died insane

Mental Condition Patient may be said to evince only the symp〈to〉ms of the l〈ow〉est form of animal life, shows no desire but for food for which he has a constant craving, has no idea of attention to the calls of nature; his mother states that his habits were such that no servant would remain with her & that the Parish Priest at last insisted on her removing him to the Asylum, but I could not elicit from her that he showed any sexual desire— He always drank from the nearest pool of rain water, dipping his head into it

The peculiarity of the case, however, is he remains constantly in the prone position, when lifted up he immediately lies down again, when placed on a chair he will at once slip back to the ground—3 The three photographs show his usual attitude— No 1 represents his position during the day lying on one side, rapping with his head or his hand on the flags— No 2 & 3 show his sitting posture— Unfortunately these photographs were taken after death and though the limbs were placed as nearly as possible in their natural attitude they have lost the characteristics of life— His mode of progression was usually on his hands & knees; or with the upper extremities slightly raised from the ground— He seldom moved far at a time— When disturbed he would occasionally become very vicious, butting those about him with his head which was his constant weapon of offence & with which he had great power— Unable to speak, he makes a curious humming sound

Died Augt. 19/74

No postmortem allowed


The photographs sent by Courtenay and described in the Notes of Case of Michael Feeny sent with this letter have not been found in the Darwin Archive–CUL.
CD had asked superintendents of insane asylums to check how many of their inmates were the offspring of marriages between first cousins. He wrote on behalf of George Howard Darwin, who was investigating what proportion of the insane, deaf, dumb, and blind were the offspring of such marriages. See letter to James Crichton-Browne, 5 January 1874 and n. 2; letter to superintendent of a lunatic asylum, 20 January 1874; and letter to G. E. Shuttleworth, 17 February [1874]. In his paper on marriages between cousins (G. H. Darwin 1875a, pp. 164–72), George included a section ‘Inquiries in asylums’, in which he tabulated information about Irish asylums provided by Courtenay (pp. 166–7) but made no mention of the case of Michael Feeny.
Courtenay may have sent details of this case after reading in Expression, p. 245, CD’s description of an ‘epileptic idiot’ who kept his head in a ‘habitual downward position’.


Expression: The expression of the emotions in man and animals. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1872.


Sends photograph of epileptic idiot and encloses case history.

Letter details

Letter no.
Edward Mazière Courtenay
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
District Asylum, Limerick
Source of text
DAR 161: 227
Physical description
2pp, encl 2pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 9729,” accessed on 24 February 2020,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 22