Epilepsy History

A Brief History of Epilepsy

It was the devil’s fault. So the Babylonians believed. The earliest mention of epilepsy appears in a Babylonian tablet that now sits in the British Museum. Hammurabi, the sixth king of Babylonia, in his Code of Hammurabi cautions potential owners against epileptic slaves, who the Babylonians suspected were possessed by demons.

Epilepsy History

In the world of the Babylonians, demon possession automatically explained

  • Disorders
  • Diseases
  • Confusing, frightening health issues

In ancient Assyrian and Babylonian dialect, the word for epilepsy translates as “what has fallen from heaven,” such as a disgraced angel cast into hell and the world of men.

Sadly, this connotation and related prejudices persisted until the 20th century. Ellis Island authorities denied admission to immigrants who had seizures. Epileptic colonies within the United States were still common in the early 20th century. Some states even enforced eugenics laws, prohibiting epileptics from marrying or requiring sterilization.

Advances in Neurology and Medicine

The 19th century brought advances in neurology and medicine, particularly in Europe and North America. Neurologists surmised that epilepsy was a brain disorder, not the work of malevolent spirits or demons.

The London neurologist Huhglings Jackson proposed that electro-chemical discharges within the brain caused seizures. Soon thereafter, the scientists

  • Eduard Hitzig
  • Gustav Theodor Fritsch
  • David Ferrier

In Germany and London, respectively, discovered the electrical excitability of the cortex within certain animals. Previously, in 1857, Sir Charles Locock began prescribing bromide, the world’s first-generation anti-epileptic drug to prove effective.

Later in the early 20th century, the use of more powerful epilepsy drugs became common, such as

  • Phenobarbitone
  • Phenytoin

Science and Epilepsy

Throughout the 19th century, scientists and doctors in various fields related to brain health made considerable technical strides that positively affected epilepsy treatment. During the 1920s, the German psychiatrist Hans Berger developed the electroencephalograph (EEG), which records brainwaves.

In the 1930s, doctors and scientists used EEG machines to locate the epicenter of seizure discharges. This practice evolved in Paris, Montreal and London throughout the 1950s.

Since the 1950s,

  • Computer tomography (CT) scanning
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • MRI spectroscopy
  • Positron emission tomography

have greatly improved the ability to discover the types of brain trauma and lesions that are the root of epilepsy.

The Stigma of Epilepsy

Sadly, the initial medical and scientific advances into understanding epilepsy during the 19th century took nearly a whole century to change attitudes. In 1895, any epileptics living in Connecticut who married risked imprisonment up to three years. Connecticut did not repeal this bill until 1953.

In 1896, New York City opened Craig Colony for epileptics, subsequently changing its name to Craig Developmental Center. The center didn’t close until the 1980s and is now part of the NYC correctional system.

In 1907, Indiana became the first state to pass eugenics laws that legalized the sterilization of epileptics. These laws became an example followed in Germany during the Holocaust. The law never specifically mentioned epileptics, but it contained words that at the time implied epileptics, such as

  • Imbeciles
  • Feebleminded
  • Idiots

Also in 1907, Ellis Island turned away epileptics.

Progress, Understanding and Acceptance

A group of professionals formed the American Epilepsy Society in 1936. The society “promotes interdisciplinary communication, clinical information exchange and scientific investigation.”

International groups include the International League Against Epilepsy, which has chapters in 60 countries; and the lay equivalentInternational Bureau for Epilepsy, which has 50 international chapters.

Second-generation anti-epileptic drugs became available in the 1990s as did non-pharmaceutical treatment options, such as the vagus nerve stimulator (VNS). Like a pacemaker, VNS stimulates the vagus nerve, which reduces seizures by sending messages to the brain.

November is Epilepsy Awareness Month, thanks to a resolution passed by the 108th Congress on November 19, 2003. March 26th is Purple Day in Canada and in many U.S. states. It symbolizes support for epilepsy awareness.