History of ADHD

The history of the term “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder” is a short one; it was given its current clinical nomenclature in 1987. But the history of ADHD goes beyond a simple name. The trademark inattentiveness and fidgeting that characterize the behavioral disorder have been documented for centuries. 

The Early History of ADHD

As early as 1798, Sir Alexander Crichton, a Scottish-born doctor, studied what he called “mental restlessness” in children that every schoolteacher must have seen. More than 100 years later, Sir George Frederick Still of the UK observed behaviors in 20 children that included defiance, spitefulness, and inhibition and could not be traced back to poor child-rearing practices. He called the children’s behavior, “a morbid defect in moral control.”

While not exactly the terminology used today, many experts believe the characteristics Still saw in those children in 1902 would be classified as ADHD today. In 1904, the premier British medical journal The Lancet published a humorous poem called “The Story of Fidgety Philip:” “He won't sit still/He wriggles/And giggles/And then, I declare/Swings backwards and forwards/And tilts up his chair…” This was perhaps the first documentation of ADHD symptoms in medical literature.

In the 19th century, the preferred “treatment” method for “immoral” children was corporeal punishment. Thankfully, this began to change after the turn-of-the-century, when experts began to explore the link between “bad” behavior and underlying biological traits. 

In 1934, Eugene Kahn and Louis H. Cohen first connected the symptoms of ADHD—distractibility, impulsivity, and restlessness—to a known disease, in this case, the encephalitis epidemic of 1917-18. The first major success in treating this behavioral disorder was in 1937, when Dr. Charles Bradley introduced the use of Benzedrine to treat children with hyperactivity. Though he couldn’t explain why, the stimulant medication worked and set the stage for current pharmaceutical treatments.

The Modern History of ADHD

By the late 1950s, ADHD was labeled “hyperkinetic syndrome” and was routinely treated with stimulants, including Ritalin. In 1968, it was given the clinical name “hyperkinetic reaction of childhood” in the second edition of the official Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, doctors came to understand that the disorder was not caused by poor parenting or “bad behavior,” but was in fact a biological condition that tended to run in families. 

Critics (then and now) argued that ADD and ADHD were myths propagated by psychiatrists to excuse lax parents and out-of-control children. Through research into the connection between brain structure and ADHD (which continues today), this argument has been thoroughly debunked. 

In 1970, C. Kornetsky first hypothesized that stimulant medications work well for ADHD children because they increase the amount of neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and norepinephrine, in the brain. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that carry messages among the brain’s neurons. We still don’t know precisely which neurotransmitters (or lack thereof) are responsible for ADHD, but we do know beyond a doubt that the condition is caused by faulty brain chemistry, not “immorality.”