Autism in history

Sunday 27 August 2000

A Scottish landowner whose marriage was annulled on the grounds that he was autistic is the subject of a new book by a University of St Andrews historian.

Autism in History: The Case of Hugh Blair focuses on an eighteenth century landowner from Borgue near Kirkcudbright who entered into an arranged marriage. The marriage was subsequently annulled after a long court battle on the grounds that Hugh was an “idiot” and therefore did not understand the solemn contract he had entered into.

The book is written by Professor Rab Houston of the School of History and Professor Uta Frith, a world-leading expert on autism who recently received an honorary degree from the University. Despite their different areas of expertise, they come to a single conclusion about the essence of the case and its lessons for historical and contemporary studies of mental disability. Treating Hugh Blair as a clinical case study, Uta Frith outlines controversial theories on autism and provides an authoritative account of what is known and what still remains a mystery about this complex condition.

Profess Houston said, “There were plenty of quirky things about Hugh Blair. He used to eat with a cat on his shoulder sharing his food and was always washing his wig and watching the drips of water fall from it, like the character played by Dustin Hoffman in the film Rainman.

“He only ever copied social greetings rather than initiating them, had a prodigious memory for religion and used to sleep in a freezing garret in a bug-ridden bed surrounded by twigs and old feathers. He also used to make unannounced visits to people’s houses in the middle of the night and attended as many funerals as possible, even when not invited.”

The book, Professor Houston’s ninth, was strongly refereed and the following review by Oliver Sacks M.D., author of Awakenings and An Anthropologist on Mars, appears on the cover: “I found this book utterly absorbing and utterly convincing. The richness of historical detail – testimonies and actual interrogations – and its telling hold one like a novel. The minute sifting of the evidence is in the best historico-clinical tradition, weighing everything carefully, never overstating or pushing. The interest spreads in all directions – about the way the Law, the culture, and ordinary people thought of mental incapacity or madness in the eighteenth century. I think Autism in History will be extremely valuable in many different ways.”

Published by Blackwell, the book will be available from 18 September 2000 – ISBN 0 63 1220895 – £13.99.


NOTE TO EDITORS – Professor Houston can be contacted on telephone 01334 462901 or via email rah@st-andrews. If required, a photograph of Professor Houston can be found at


Issued by Beattie Media on behalf of the University of St Andrews For more information please contact Claire Grainger on 01334 462530, 07730 415 015 or email [email protected] Ref: autism-rab/standrews/chg/29august2000


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