James Henry Pullen

Born: 1835
Died: 1916

Occupation: Draughtsman & Wood Carver

Challenges overcome: Hearing Impairment, Aspergers Syndrome and Asphasia

Successes, Achievements & Awards:

James Henry Pullen was born in Dalston, London in 1835, he was a British autistic savant, possibly suffering from aphasia and lived in Peckham, South London. He managed some words, he was considered hard of hearing for most of his early years and was considered developmentally disabled. He could not write and he communicated using primitive speech and sign language and never developed social skills or insight. By the age of 7 James had learned only one word, mother, which he pronounced poorly. As a child, he began to carve small ships out of firewood and draw pictures of them. James was first confined to Essex Hall, Colchester.

At the age of 15, in 1850, James Henry Pullen, also known as the Genius of Earls wood Asylum, was taken to the then new Earlswood Asylum (later called Royal Earlswood Hospital), in Redhill, Surrey. Contemporary account tell us that James Henry Pullen could not give any answers through speech, but could communicate through gestures. He could read lips and gestures but never learned to read or write beyond one syllable. James Henry Pullen’s brother William later followed him to Earlswood; a good painter, who died at the age of 35.

Earlswood Asylum tried to teach its patients a number of handicrafts so they could support themselves and the asylum. He was however an expert draughtsman and carved in wood and ivory. James Henry Pullen continued his handicrafts and became a gifted carpenter and cabinet maker. He would work at the workshop in the day and create drawings at night. Most of the drawings were of the corridors of the asylum and he framed them himself. If James Henry Pullen could not find a suitable tool, he would make it himself. In addition he would also make practical items, such as bed frames, for the needs of the asylum. His memories of his life were set out in a unique series of over 80 sketches, recording his inability to learn at school and the models, increasingly complex, which he designed each year.

Queen Victoria accepted some of James Henry Pullen’s drawings and Prince Albert received one that he had drawn of the Siege of Sebastapol in the Crimean War, based on newspaper accounts. James Henry Pullen’s artistic talent attracted interest of the Prince of Wales, future King Edward VIII; and James Henry Pullen referred to him as “Friend Wales.” Prince Edward sent him pieces of ivory so he could carve them.

Asylum superintendent Dr. John Langdon Down, for whom Down syndrome is named, gave James Henry Pullen a great deal of leeway, for example, he was allowed to eat his meals with the staff. John Langdon Down was the first to use the designation idiot savant in 1886. He described 7 individuals in institutional care who had exceptionally highly developed talents in specific areas although suffering from global learning disability. The best known of these was James Henry Pullen. James Henry Pullen’s masterpiece is a model ship, a 10-foot long replica of The Great Eastern, that he started in 1870 and spent seven years building; James Henry Pullen made all the details, including 5,585 rivets, 13 lifeboats and interior furniture in miniature, all completed by himself. In its maiden voyage the model ship sank for lack of buoyancy but James Henry Pullen repaired that flaw later. The model was exhibited in the Crystal Palace.
James Henry Pullen also built a large, mechanical mannequin in the middle of his workshop; he would sit inside it, manipulate its face and limbs and talk through a concealed bugle in its mouth.

While at Earlswood, James Henry Pullen became a woodworking apprentice and learned to make furniture. He quickly settled into a routine which involved making furniture during the day while sketching marvellous drawings at night using coloured chalk. After completing his drawings, James carefully glazed them and constructed beautiful frames so that the drawings could be displayed. Many of these drawings went on display throughout the asylum.

After James Henry Pullen’s death in 1916, his workshop became a museum of his work until the Royal Earlswood Hospital was closed in 1997. It is now an apartment complex. Some of James Henry Pullen’s ship models, designs and art work may be seen in the Museum at the Langdon Down Centre, Normansfield, 2A Langdon Park, Teddington.
James Henry Pullen lived out his entire adult life in Earlswood.

Challenges Overcome

When James Henry Pullen died an expert autopsy examination was carried out which identified an underdevelopment of the left temporal and frontal lobes, now known to be consistent with a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome. At the time James Henry Pullen’s disability was referred to as mute and idiot, but these derogatory terms have now been replaced by learning disability and with a medically termed diagnosis  Asperger Syndrome and Aphasia.

Disability Definitions


Aphasia is the name given to a collection of language disorders caused by damage to the brain. A requirement for a diagnosis of aphasia is that, prior to the illness or injury, the person’s language skills were normal. The difficulties of people with aphasia can range from occasional trouble finding words to losing the ability to speak, read, or write, but does not affect intelligence. This also affects visual language such as sign language. The term “aphasia” implies a problem with one or more functions that are essential and specific to language function. It is not usually used when the language problem is a result of a more peripheral motor or sensory difficulty, such as paralysis affecting the speech muscles or a general hearing impairment. Aphasia is most commonly caused by stroke. It can also be caused by other brain diseases, including cancer (brain tumour), epilepsy, and Alzheimer’s disease, or by a head injury.



Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people.  It also affects how they make sense of the world around them.

Asperger syndrome is a form of autism.  People with Asperger syndrome are often of average or above average intelligence.  They have fewer problems with speech but may still have difficulties with understanding and processing language.



Hearing impairment/Deafness

Hearing impairment or hard of hearing or deafness refers to conditions in which individuals are fully or partially unable to detect or perceive at least some frequencies of sound which can typically be heard by most people. Hearing loss is caused by many factors, including: genetics, age, exposure to noise, illness, chemicals and physical trauma. Deafness is defined as a degree of impairment such that a person is unable to understand speech even in the presence of amplification. In profound deafness, even the loudest sounds produced by an audiometer (an instrument used to measure hearing by producing pure tone sounds through a range of frequencies) may not be detected. In total deafness, no sounds at all, regardless of amplification or method of production, are heard.

Hearing loss. (2015, May 16). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 10:42, May 20, 2015, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Hearing_loss&oldid=662664415

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The childhood and the life of James Henry Pullen, the Victorian idiot savant (1832–1916), O. Conor Ward.


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