The History of Modern Epilepsy: The Beginning, 1865-1914

The History of Modern Epilepsy: The Beginning, 1865-1914

The History of Modern Epilepsy: The Beginning, 1865-1914

The History of Modern Epilepsy: The Beginning, 1865-1914


Although the history of epilepsy, one of the most common serious neurological disorders, can easily be traced back to ancient times, the modern understanding of the disease only began in the middle of the 19th century. This history of the first fifty years of modern epileptology reflects the thinking, accomplishments, and failures of physicians between 1865 and 1914. This epoch presented a very bleak clinical picture: diagnosis was difficult and often arbitrary; treatment was poor and, at times, worse than the disease; and patients, who were usually viewed as having a progressive dementing condition, were shunned by society.


If I wished to show a student the difficulties of getting at truth from medical experience, I would give him the history of epilepsy to read.

—Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1860 [1]

There are two ways that history can be offered: (1) as a process evolving to what there is at present or (2) portraying a situation as it existed at a particular time in order to examine what it was like at that time. For example, the American Revolution can be written about as one of the important steps toward the political situation that presently exists in this country. Here the past is of value as the means to understand the present. This sort of history has been referred to as “presentism.” On the other hand, the period around the time of the American Revolution may be presented only to relate the life and politics in the last part of the eighteenth century in this country.

This present history of modern epileptology intends to view the topic both ways. The things which occurred that eventually led to what we now know about epilepsy are considered, as well as how this medical disorder was regarded during a limited number of years and in a particular place. As we look back over the progress made in epilepsy, the important contributions of those who laid down the foundation stones of our present knowledge are noted, but also included are the ideas and works of those who were of that time, even though, looking from the vantage point of the present, they may appear to have offered little, if anything, toward progress. Both are the records of the past, and both are history.

A complete record of the past is impossible because it is beyond the capability of a reasonably sized group of individuals, let alone the ability of any one person. Also, since the past continues to usurp the present, the record of the

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