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The History of Epilepsy

Epilepsy is a disorder with a long history. Epilepsy is referred to in the laws of Babylon in 2080 BC, (Rogan, 1992).  The name epilepsy originally came from the Greek word ‘epilambanein’ which means to seize or to attack passively, (Griffin & Wyles, 1991).  One of the first people to write about epilepsy was Hippocrates (460 – 377 BC) who wrote a book called ‘The Sacred Disease’.  In his book, Hippocrates argued against the prevailing belief of the time that the aetiology of epilepsy was as a result of supernatural forces.  This belief was espoused because epileptic attacks were thought to be brought about by changes in the environment such as the weather etc.  The environment was thought to be the product of God, epilepsy was therefore thought to be a product of God and therefore ‘The Sacred Disease’.  Hippocrates argued that the belief was the result of ignorance or fraud.  Hippocrates believed that epilepsy was a disorder of the brain that could be explained in terms of humorous medicine and hypothesised that epilepsy was a result of an imbalance of phlegm in the brain that may be hereditary, (Temkin 1971).

Many years later, a story in the New Testament of the Bible led people to believe that epilepsy was caused by demon possession.  In the story, Christ drove out an evil spirit from a young boy who has since being a young child, been thrown to the ground where he would foam at the mouth and convulse.  Although Christ did not mention epilepsy by name, the story is thought to relate to epilepsy because of the close match of the boy’s symptoms with epilepsy.  Over the centuries, people with epilepsy were ostracised from society because of the belief that epilepsy was the result of demon possession, (Meinardi 1989).

In the relatively recent past, the aetiology of epilepsy being the result of demon worship was replaced by the belief that epilepsy was due to excessive masturbation and sexual activity.  Although a false belief, a drug was prescribed for epileptics to cure their supposed promiscuous sexual activity.  The drug that was prescribed was Bromide.  By a quirk of fate, Bromide happened to be the first effective anti-convulsant for epilepsy, (OHE 1971). 

Although Hippocrates argued that epilepsy was a disorder of the brain, it was not until many centuries later that his hypothesis was confirmed although not in terms of humorous medicine. In 1860, the National Hospital for the Paralysed and Epileptic was opened in London. One of the Doctors who came to work at the hospital produced one of the first accurate descriptions of epilepsy, (Scott 1969).
“Epilepsy is the name for occasional, sudden, excessive, rapid and local discharges of grey matter.” (Hughlings Jackson 1873)
Hughlings Jackson’s description of epilepsy was later supported by the work of Hans Berger who in 1929 published a paper on the human Electroencephalograph. Electroencephalography measures the electrical activity of the brain that can be described in Jackson’s terms as being “local discharges of grey matter”.