History & Stigma

“The word epilepsy is derived from the Greek verb epilambanein, meaning to be seized, to be overwhelmed by surprise” (The History and Stigma of Epilepsy).

From the beginning of time, or at least human history, there have been epileptic people. The disease has been understood differently by different people throughout history. For example, in ancient Mesopotamia seizures were described and attributed to “the hand of Sin,” the “god of the moon” (The History and Stigma of Epilepsy). Moving forward in time, the ancient Greeks, and specifically Hippocrates, thought that it was hereditary and that the “cause lies in the brain, releasing factors of the seizures are cold, sun and winds which change the consistency of the brain” (The History and Stigma of Epilepsy). In other more recent histories, people have thought that epilepsy was caused by possession. This could be due to the way that seizures appear from an onlooker’s point of view. This is the way that, even today, exorcism is portrayed. It was also a common belief for the majority of history that epilepsy was contagious. This led to the stigma, ostracizing, and segregation of epileptic people from society. During the second half of the 19th century, medicine focused on the topographic localization of epileptic seizures. In 1873, “John Hughling Jackson gave the following definition for epilepsy: Epilepsy is the name for occasional, sudden, excessive, rapid and local discharges of grey matter” (Highlights in the History of Epilepsy: The Last 200 Years).

Having a greater understanding and definition of epilepsy helped people to understand it, and diagnose it more accurately. For a long time, there was no real diagnosis for epilepsy and so it was common for people to be misdiagnosed, and subsequently not treated appropriately by health professionals. Misunderstandings of epilepsy led to beliefs like William Gowers, who argued that epilepsy was often “prevalent in families with a history of insanity or alcoholism” (Hewitt). Moving forward in the early 20th century, more work was put into the understanding of epilepsy, and so “the 1906 Nobel Prize went to Golgi and Cajal for identifying neurons and synapses in epileptic people” (Highlights in the History of Epilepsy: The Last 200 Years).

An epileptic or sick person having a fit on a stretcher, two men try to restrain him. Ink drawing attributed Jean-Baptiste Jouvenet.
Wikimedia Commons.


James J. Cereghino, “The major advances in epilepsy in the 20th century and what we can expect (hope for) in the futureEpilepsia (March 2009) Volume 50, Issue 3, pp. 351-357.

Disability in the Early 20th century 1914-1945

R. Hewitt, “Social Stigma, Stress and Enforced Transition in Specialist Epilepsy Services 1905–1965” in Taylor S., Brumby A. (eds) Healthy Minds in the Twentieth Century. Mental Health in Historical Perspective. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).

The History and Stigma of EpilepsyEpilepsia, 44 (Suppl. 6):12–14, 2003.

Emmanouil Magiorkinis, Aristidis Diamantis, Kalliopi Sidiropoulou, and Christos Panteliadis, “Highights in the History of Epilepsy: The Last 200 Years,” Epilepsy Research and Treatment, vol. 2014, Article ID 582039, 13 pages, 2014.

The History of Epilepsy Society