Enlightenment-era doctor and educator, Dr. Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, became the guardian of the first known feral child in 1800. Victor, as the boy was eventually named, had been discovered two years earlier in a forest in southern France, living naked and wild, and deprived of all human contact. A scar across his neck indicated that he might have had his throat cut and was left for dead, but somehow survived. Dr. Itard initially wanted to study the child, to learn what separates animals from humans, and he had an ambition to be the first man to civilize a feral child.
Francois Truffaut made a film about this story in 1970, entitled The Wild Child, in which he played the role of Dr. Itard himself. The story progresses step by step, along the lines of the reports made by the doctor: the boy is cleaned up and becomes accustomed to his guardian and his housekeeper, is taught to dress himself and to associate a drawing of a hammer with a real hammer, among other objects, is named, and in the end, learns to communicate without language. Dr. Itard soon realizes that he has reached the limit of Victor’s abilities and despairs, though as a consolation, the doctor notes that Victor has also developed a sense of justice. In one recurring image, Victor, who was brought into civilization against his will but is now reluctant to leave it, takes deep drinks of water while staring through the windows of the doctor’s home, at the woods he has left behind. It’s an image resonant with longing, and one you won’t soon forget.