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History of Neurology
June 2002

Free StandingSocial Control and the Sane Epileptic, 1850-1950

Author Affiliations

From the Department of Neurology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.



Arch Neurol. 2002;59(6):1031-1036. doi:10.1001/archneur.59.6.1031

In 1950, Maurice Walsh1 proposed that certain medical terms created a tyranny over individuals who were diagnosed as having the conditions they named. These diagnoses evoked an immediate and a negative response from the public. Among these terms was epilepsy. Throughout history, their often bizarre and misunderstood seizure-related behaviors resulted in people with epilepsy being described as possessed by demons, mystic, insane, degenerate, and defective. Even after epilepsy was determined to be a neurological disorder, its stigma persisted, and numerous attempts were made to segregate people with epilepsy from society. One means society used to segregate or remove any unwanted segment of the population from everyday life was to impose social controls on them.2 Societal-endorsed methods of control of people with epilepsy were particularly oppressive from 1850 to 1950. Among the methods used to segregate them from society were commitment to asylums for the insane, restriction from education and employment, and suppression by social and eugenic laws. Response to this repression came from pioneering physicians who, during this same period, undertook groundbreaking research into the causes and treatment of seizures. Together with a number of enlightened philanthropists, these physicians created and supported innovative care at residential colonies for people with epilepsy. These colonies provided a caring refuge offering expert medical care, education, employment, and support, which allowed many people with epilepsy to return to society as productive members.

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