ADHD is as Modern as Ancient Greece

As if it’s not tough enough to deal with an executive function disorder, those with ADHD and their loved ones are often barraged with comments about how ADHD is a “new thing” or smug references about how they didn’t have ADHD in their day, kids just played outside. Overall, many seem to feel that this is a “modern problem”.  The truth is that ADHD is as modern as Ancient Greece.

Hippocrates, known as the “father of medicine”, lived from about 460 to 375 BC, documented cases, and theorized about a connection between the behaviors associated with ADHD, nutrition, and physical activity.  Shakespeare mentions a person suffering from a “malady of attention” in his play “King Henry VIII, around 1613. In Dr. Weikard’s work published between 1773 and 1775, he provides the most complete description of ADHD to date.  A chapter of his book, “Der Phiosophische Artz is called, “Mangel der Aufmerksamkeit” or “Attention Deficit”. While Weikard dispelled many medieval beliefs such as outside forces like astrology controlling behavior (we are thankful for that), he also perpetuated stereotypes that we are still struggling to move away from such as ADHD being the result of a poor upbringing (we are not thankful for that).

In 1798 Sir Alexander Crichton of Scotland, physician to the czar of Russia, referred to a condition that he called “disease of attention” who’s sufferers had difficulty maintaining their focus on  tasks or games. When John Locke wrote “Thoughts Concerning Education”, he refers to students that cannot “keep their mind from straying.” In 1832, Goethe described a boy, “Euphorion” who exhibited hyperactive behavior, showed little concern for consequences, and displayed excessive motor activity.  The mention of ADHD continues consistently into the next century through the present time.

There were no theories discussed pointing to what we call “ADHD” in the 1800’s however there are several mentions of the typically associated symptoms in case studies.  Sir George Frederic provided a more comprehensive profile of some of the typical behaviors associated with ADHD in 1902. In a series of three lectures, he describes his study of 43 children that showed a lack of ability to maintain attention, while exhibiting difficulty self-regulating, modifying their behavior based on consequences, and in many cases displaying violent behaviors.  He further noted that this condition was not tied to intellectual ability, he suggested that more boys than girls presented symptoms, and explored the possibility of the condition being hereditary.

Benzedrine was given to children for headaches by Dr. Charles Bradley in Rhode Island in the early 20th century and noted that a side effect of the amphetamine administered was increased performance in school due to enhanced focus.  Another amphetamine, Ritalin, became available in 1954 for the treatment of the symptoms associated with ADHD. Ritalin is said to have gotten its name from the wife of Leandro Panizzon, a Swedish doctor chemist, who tested it in on his wife Marguerite, who was known as “Rita”.

Even though we’ve been talking about ADHD since Ancient Greece, we’ve only called it “ADHD” since the 1980’s. The American Psychiatric Association began the use of the names “ADD” and “ADHD”.  We still continue to develop our understanding of the types or presentations of ADHD and to expand our knowledge of medications that help to manage symptoms.

Now that we’ve seen that ADHD is not “new”, why are we hearing more about?  There is a combination of factors that are contributing to an increase in diagnoses.  First of all, people are becoming more aware. The child that was “a rebel” and the kid that had “ants in their pants” when I was growing up are now being referred to counselors and pediatricians to discuss the possibility of ADHD.  Parents in prior generations couldn’t google symptoms. Much less people knew what ADHD was or that their kid could possibly have it. Increased media attention, access to information, and open dialogue about disabilities have all contributed to this increase in awareness. At this point, everyone’s heard of ADHD but not that many people really understand it’s causes, systems, treatment, etc.

Many would argue that our modern life contributes to an increased likelihood for children to have or develop ADHD.  They point out that our food supply is riddled with chemicals and that we don’t even know the extent of their damage.  Others question the excessive amount of screen time that most of our society is exposed to, and arguably addicted to, including its youngest members.  They point to lowering rates of our attention span across age levels as an indicator our hyper exposure to sound bytes is creating ADHD.

Unfortunately it takes humanity hundreds, and even thousands, of years to recognize, understand, create awareness, and provide hope to people that suffer from disabilities, particularly when the disability is invisible.  At this point we don’t have all of the answers but we are beginning to validate the struggle of those with ADHD. The sooner we begin to seek to understand, to listen, to ask questions, to collaborate – as parents, children, teachers, and health care provides – the better for our children.

2 responses to “ADHD is as Modern as Ancient Greece”

  1. Thank you for pulling this history together. I have seen some of it before in various articles but you hav done a great service hear gathering it all together. It helps us to explain to others that this is not a fad but a serious issue effecting many. There is a lot of help for what Dr Barley calls the “diabetes of the mental health world” but first those dealing with it must be viewed with respect and understanding. You have helped with this. Thank you.

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