English physician John Langdon Down first characterized Down syndrome as a distinct form of mental disability in 1862, and in a more widely published report in 1866. Due to his perception that children with Down syndrome shared physical facial similarities (epicanthal folds) with those of Blumenbach's Mongolian race, Down used the term mongoloid, derived from prevailing ethnic theory; while the term "mongoloid" (also "mongol" or "mongoloid idiot") continued to be used until the early 1970s, it is now considered to be pejorative (as well as inaccurate) and is no longer in common use.
By the 20th century, Down syndrome had become the most recognizable form of mental disability. Most individuals with Down syndrome were institutionalized, few of the associated medical problems were treated, and most died in infancy or early adult life. With the rise of the eugenics movement, 33 of the (then) 48 U.S. states and several countries began programs of forced sterilization of individuals with Down syndrome and comparable degrees of disability. "Action T4" in Nazi Germany made public policy of a program of systematic murder.
Until the middle of the 20th century, the cause of Down syndrome remained unknown. However, the presence in all races, the association with older maternal age, and the rarity of recurrence had been noticed. Standard medical texts assumed it was caused by a combination of inheritable factors that had not been identified. Other theories focused on injuries sustained during birth.
With the discovery of karyotype techniques in the 1950s, it became possible to identify abnormalities of chromosomal number or shape. In 1958, Jérôme Lejeune discovered that Down syndrome resulted from an extra chromosome. and, as a result, the condition became known as trisomy 21.
In 1961, 18 geneticists wrote to the editor of The Lancet suggesting that Mongolian idiocy had "misleading connotations," had become "an embarrassing term," and should be changed. The Lancet supported Down's Syndrome. The World Health Organization (WHO) officially dropped references to mongolism in 1965 after a request by the Mongolian delegate. Advocacy groups adapted and parents groups welcomed the elimination of the Mongoloid label that had been a burden to their children. The first parents group in the United States, the Mongoloid Development Council, changed its name to the National Association for Down Syndrome in 1972.
In 1975, the United States National Institutes of Health convened a conference to standardize the nomenclature of malformations. They recommended eliminating the possessive form: "The possessive use of an eponym should be discontinued, since the author neither had nor owned the condition." Although both the possessive and non-possessive forms are used in the general population, Down syndrome is the accepted term among professionals in the U.S., Canada and other countries; Down's syndrome is still used in the UK and other areas.
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