The Mighty Logo

When Was Epilepsy Discovered? A Short, But Long History

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Whether or not you live with epilepsy, you may find this history of how the understanding of the disease evolved intriguing. The journey of epilepsy, from its discovery to our current understanding, spans many cultures and millennia.

Other relevant stories:
Is Epilepsy an Autoimmune Disease
Can Epilepsy Kill You
Is Epilepsy a Disability 

Ancient Understanding of Epilepsy

The story of epilepsy begins thousands of years ago when human understanding was closely intertwined with mysticism and spirituality.

Early Beliefs and Superstitions

In the early days of human history, epilepsy was misunderstood, leading people to create beliefs and superstitions around it.

  • Sacred affliction: In some societies, epilepsy was believed to be a sign of divine presence or possession.
  • Demonic possession: Many believed seizures were a result of being taken over by evil spirits or demons.
  • Omens and prophecy: Some cultures perceived people with epilepsy as seers or prophets with special powers to predict the future.
  • Lunar beliefs: The idea that seizures were linked to phases of the moon, given the term “lunatic” derived from “luna” (moon).
  • Animal spirit theory: In certain cultures, epilepsy was believed to be caused by animal spirits entering one’s body.
  • Ancient rituals: Some societies performed rituals or ceremonies, believing they could drive out the spirits causing the seizures.
  • Isolation and stigma: People with epilepsy often experienced isolation due to fear and misunderstanding, being labeled as cursed or unclean.

These early beliefs, fueled by a lack of knowledge, shaped society’s treatment and understanding of people with epilepsy, often leading to fear and ostracization.

Ancient Civilizations and Epilepsy

Historical records show that ancient cultures like the Greeks and Egyptians had their ways of explaining and addressing epilepsy.

  • Ancient Egyptians: Early medical texts mention seizure disorders, hinting at possible treatments.
  • Sumerians: One of the earliest records of epilepsy mentions the “hand of the ghost” as a cause.
  • Babylonians: Symptoms resembling epilepsy described in their cuneiform texts.
  • Hippocrates: Greek physician who challenged the belief that epilepsy was a curse from the gods; authored “On the Sacred Disease.”
  • Ancient China: Epileptic seizures were linked to wind disturbances within the body.
  • Ancient India: Ayurvedic texts described epilepsy symptoms and suggested herbal treatments.
  • Rome: Roman physicians, building on Greek knowledge, expanded medical treatments for epilepsy.

Across ancient civilizations, epilepsy was observed and interpreted through a mix of cultural beliefs and emerging medical insights.

Medieval Perspectives on Epilepsy

As the world entered the medieval era, religious teachings shaped views on epilepsy.

  • Epilepsy is often associated with demonic possession or divine punishment.
  • Church-led exorcisms and holy rituals to “treat” seizures became common.
  • Some regions distinguished between different types of seizures, suggesting an evolving understanding.
  • Dark Ages: A shift back to viewing epilepsy as a divine or demonic possession due to the decline of scientific inquiry.
  • Saint Valentine: Patron saint of epilepsy; people made pilgrimages to his sites seeking relief.
  • Islamic Golden Age: Physicians like Avicenna and Rhazes wrote extensively on epilepsy, its causes, and treatments, blending Greek knowledge with new insights.
  • Talmudic Texts: Jewish rabbinic texts suggest spiritual remedies alongside practical treatments.
  • European Middle Ages: Witch hunts and inquisitions associated epileptic seizures with witchcraft or being in league with the devil.
  • Hildegard of Bingen: A nun who wrote about the herbal treatments of epilepsy.

The medieval period saw a blend of superstition and medical understanding, with pockets of enlightenment amidst widespread misconception.

The Scientific Evolution of Epilepsy Understanding

With the dawning of the Renaissance, a new era of science and reason began to reshape perspectives on epilepsy.

Renaissance and Early Scientific Insights

During the Renaissance, people started to study epilepsy more scientifically, moving away from previous superstitious beliefs.

  • Shift from mysticism: During the Renaissance, there was a gradual move away from viewing epilepsy purely as a mystical or spiritual affliction.
  • Anatomy and dissections: The practice of human dissections became more widespread, leading to a deeper understanding of the human body and brain.
  • Role of the brain: Scholars began to suggest that the brain was the source of epileptic seizures, not external or spiritual forces.
  • First medical treatments: While still rudimentary, some treatments began to be developed based on fundamental knowledge of the nervous system.
  • Scientific documentation: Epileptic symptoms and seizures were documented more systematically, differentiating between various types and causes.
  • Increased literacy: As more people learned to read and write, knowledge about epilepsy became more widespread, challenging existing superstitions.
  • Notable figures: Physicians like Paracelsus challenged prevailing notions and pushed for a more scientific understanding.

The Renaissance marked a turning point, as the approach to epilepsy began to pivot from mystical interpretations to budding scientific comprehension.

19th Century Medical Advancements

The 19th century saw significant progress in the medical field, including discoveries and an understanding of epilepsy.

  • Introduction of the first antiepileptic drugs, revolutionizing treatment.
  • Advances in neurology helped classify and understand various seizure types.

Modern Discoveries and Treatments

The 20th century ushered in groundbreaking research, offering insights into epilepsy’s complexities.

20th Century Breakthroughs

Research and knowledge about epilepsy grew extensively in the 20th century, leading to improved diagnosis and treatments.

  • The development of the electroencephalogram (EEG) enabled doctors to monitor brain activity.
  • Significant advancements in antiepileptic drug formulations and surgical treatments.

Contemporary Approaches and Technologies

Nowadays, with the help of technology and advanced research, there are more resources and treatments available for epilepsy than ever before.

  • Leveraging technology, such as MRI, to better diagnose and treat epilepsy.
  • Ongoing research aims to tailor treatments to individual needs, enhancing efficacy and minimizing side effects.

Debunking the Myths: An Ongoing Journey

While our understanding has come a long way, the journey of dispelling myths surrounding epilepsy continues.

  • Efforts to improve public education and reduce stigma are ongoing.
  • Advocacy groups and communities play a pivotal role in reshaping societal perceptions.

From ancient superstitions to cutting-edge research, our perspective has been shaped by countless discoveries. As you navigate your journey with epilepsy, remember that every step taken in the past has paved the way for the knowledge and treatments available today.

Getty image by ilbusca

Originally published: November 3, 2023
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home