Epileptic Colonies

During the early to mid-20th century, epilepsy was also referred to as “The Falling Sickness”. Epilepsy was thought to be contagious, thus rendering many epileptics isolated, furthering harming their overall health. One way of isolating epileptics was the use of epileptic colonies, where schools and town were constructed for epileptic individuals at any stage of their life. Not only was epilepsy seen as being contagious, it was also seen a supernatural or occult obstacle that needed to be fought against.

“The popular belief that epilepsy is contagious, dates to antiquity when people used to spit at a person with the condition and refused to use the same dish.”

The History and Stigma of Epilepsy

The National Society for the Employment of Epileptics (NSEE) was launched in 1892 by philanthropists and medical professionals in London. The ‘colony’ was made for people with epilepsy who were capable of work but couldn’t find work due to their condition and social stigma. However, only people of ‘reasonable mental ability’ were admitted.

The population of the colony increased exponentially, and by 1900 “there were seven permanent homes accommodating 90 men and over 40 women”(NSEE). The men and women who lived there were strictly segregated, and not allowed to marry each other.

Residential accommodation at The Chalfont Centre. The Chalfont Centre is a colony run by the National Society for Epilepsy. Their website http://www.epilepsynse.org.uk/ tells us: “The National Society for the Employment of Epileptics (NSEE) was launched in 1892 by a group of London philanthropists and medical men. The aim of the Society was to establish a ‘colony’ for people with epilepsy who were capable of work but couldn’t find employment due to their condition and the prevailing social attitudes of the time. At that time, many people with epilepsy were confined to workhouses or asylums due to difficulties in finding work and lodgings.”

The psycho-social experience of epilepsy enabled the history of epilepsy to be viewed within a wider history of mental health. 

For some children who were thought to have an “epileptic personality,” the colonies were a respite from chaotic homes and social stigma. For example, “in 1921, Tylor Fox made several references to the link between stress, anxiety and seizures” (Hewitt). The colony served to reduce this stress by providing education, a stable home and employment. However, there were also some instances where the colony itself often produced anxiety in its inhabitants. This depends on the individual experience of people, and the schools that they attended.

In general, people with epilepsy were discriminated against. But, for people with illness, and specifically including mental illness, routine and stress-free environments can relive anxiety. This would help epileptic people, because seizures can be induced, or more common in people with more reports of stress. Epileptic colonies were used all over the world as a response to epileptic individuals.

Epileptic colony children’s school in Chicago, Illinois 1912