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The pendulum of reaction to child abuse: denial to revulsion and back
  1. Jonathan Richard Sibert
  1. Department of Child Health, Cardiff University, Cardiff CF10 3AT, UK
  1. Correspondence to Emeritus Professor Jonathan Richard Sibert, Department of Child Health, Cardiff University, Cardiff CF10 3AT, UK; sibert{at}

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Child abuse is not just a 20th or 21st century phenomenon, it has been with us since prehistory. Bernard Knight in 19861 believed ‘that it is evident that child abuse has been part of human society for millennia.’ Kempe’s book,2The Battered Child’ recognised five types of child abuse known before the 19th century: maltreatment, excess discipline, cultural mutilation, infanticide and abandonment. Although child abuse did take place in past centuries, before the year 1700 the reaction of society and medical opinion was one of denial. However, this reaction has swung, like a pendulum, from that denial to revulsion and back and has continued to the present day. From 300 years ago, important figures in Britain began to recognise that children could be abused by their parents: the pendulum swung towards recognition. John Locke (1632–1704), the famous philosopher and physician wrote, ‘children who have been the most chastised seldom make the best men.’ James Parkinson (1755–1824), famous for recognising the ‘Shaking Palsy’, describes in his book The villager’s friend and physician 3 cases of child abuse from head injury: ‘Dropsy of the brain, or watery head, may be suspected when a child appears uncommonly heavy and dull. This complaint maybe caused by severe blows on the head, inflicted in the correction of children. Parents too often forget the weight of their hands on the delicate structure of a child’.

Dr Auguste Ambroise Tardieu from France (1818–1879) revolutionised the scientific study of abuse. His life has been expertly reviewed by Jean Labbé.4 As Professor of Forensic Medicine in …

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  • Funding The author has not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.