​History of Epilepsy

Famous People with Epilepsy

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Discover the History of Epilepsy

​  There have always been people with epilepsy. Since the dawn of time, epilepsy has affected millions of people, from beggars to kings. It is one of the oldest conditions of the human race with a rich and distinguished history.

         The earliest reference to epilepsy dates back to the fifth millennium. In Mesopotamia where epileptic auras, generalized convulsions and other aspects of what these ancient people called the "falling disease" were recorded with remarkably accurate descriptions.

          Ancient Greeks thought you got epilepsy by offending the moon goddess Selene. One cure was eating mistletoe that was picked without sickle or blade during the time the moon is smallest in the sky. The mistletoe could not touch the ground, because then it would not be effective against the "falling sickness", because it had fallen itself. In 400 BC, Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, wrote a book saying that people do not get epilepsy from the gods, because that would be thinking bad of the gods. His cure for epilepsy was medicine and diet based on his own unscientific theories of the balance between hot and cold. The religious cure of the time was to sleep in the temple overnight and hope that god Asclepius would appear in a dream and cure you or tell you how to get cured.

         Ancient Romans believed that epilepsy came from demons, and was contagious by touching or being breathed on by a person with epilepsy. If this would occur, people would spit to get rid of the demon. Since they thought epilepsy was contagious, people with epilepsy would have to live alone.

          In Europe during the Middle Ages, epilepsy was called the falling sickness and people looked to saints and relics for cures. The three wise men and St. Valentine were particularly important patrons of people with epilepsy. If you had epilepsy, you were given a special blessed ring that would help control your seizures. This idea was still around in colonial America when George Washington's daughter Patsy had seizures and was given an iron ring by her doctor.

          During the Renaissance, people began to read ancient writings again and ideas of long ago came back into fashion. Some thought people with epilepsy were prophets because they could see the past, present and future when they were unconscious during a seizure. People with epilepsy were thought to be very smart because some very great people in the Roman Empire had epilepsy including Julius Cesar and Petrarch. Epilepsy was still believed to be a terrible disease by the common people.

          During the Enlightenment from the late 1600's on, people belief that demons caused epilepsy faded. People thought epilepsy was contagious because of some famous cases where orphans all started acting like they were having seizures. Because epilepsy was thought to be contagious, people with the disorder were locked up in mental hospitals. They were kept separate from the mentally ill so the insane would not get epilepsy.

          In modern times, people with epilepsy were not allowed to marry nor have children. In Nazi Germany and even in America in the 1920's, they were given an operation to prevent them from ever having children. Medicines such as potassium bromide and Phenobarbital were invented and helped people not to have seizures. Bromides had bad side effects, but allowed some people with epilepsy to live normal lives. Phenobarbital was better, but did not help everyone.

          Scientific discoveries about how the brain works allowed us to make medicines that work better and helped people with epilepsy to live normal lives. Unfortunately, some people still have strange ideas about epilepsy.​

Wyoming Epilepsy Association