Citation:  Miller, R. S.  (1998).  Nineteenth century observations of American ADHD.  The ADHD Report, 6(5), 5-6.  Copyright 1998 by Guilford Press. Reprinted with permission from The Guilford Press.


Nineteenth Century Observations of American ADHD

Robert S. Miller, A.M., A.C.S.W., C.S.W.

As a social worker specializing in ADHD, my work is frequently greeted with suspicion. Some cynics claim that the disorder, called "the designer disease of the '90s" (Rafferty, 1995), is a recent artifact of the mental health profession. To disprove this fallacy, I looked for evidence of ADHD in American history. In the process, I discovered four disparate observers from the 19th century who witnessed symptoms of what we now call ADHD: two phrenologists and two Yukon poets.

The word phrenology is derived from the Greek roots "phren" (mind) and "logos" (study); it means "study of the mind." Phrenology was the "first complete theory of cerebral localization" (Sabbatini, 1997). Founded by Austrian physician Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828), it attempted to explain an individual's character by the exterior morphology of the person's skull. Gall hypothesized that the human mind consists of 27 unitary mental faculties. He believed that each faculty has a distinct location and size, just beneath the skull, that produces the protrusion of an exterior feature (e.g., "bump") on the head.

In 1832, phrenology was introduced in the United States through a series of lectures given by Gall's collaborator, physician Johann Spurzheim.  Brothers Orson and Lorenzo Fowler, American disciples of the phrenology movement, popularized the pseudo-science in this country. In Phrenology: Proved, Illustrated, and Applied (Fowler & Fowler, 1856), they describe a "remarkably ingenious" student with obvious symptoms of ADHD. The young man, they said, "was uneasy and restless in school, inattentive to his books, and strongly prone to cut the benches; but...the moment he was released from school, he would repair to his workshop, and there indulge his mechanical propensity" (p. 264).

The Fowlers identified a mental faculty called concentrativeness, "the power of mental concentration and continuity" (p. 70), situated, they thought, on the occipital lobe of the brain. If this faculty was very small, the adult who possessed it, they wrote, "has so great a thirst for variety, and change of occupation, and is so restless and impatient, that he cannot continue long enough at anyone thing to effect much" (p. 72). They made the generalization that Americans as a group tended to lack the ability to concentrate, and therefore pursued many different occupations throughout their lifetimes, while Europeans-for example, the English and Germans-often stayed with one career for their entire lives. It was said that the American educational system contributed to this problem by requiring too great a variety of studies that competed for the student's attention.

Paradoxically, the Fowlers linked versatility of talents and genius to this "great defect in the American character" (ibid.), and Benjamin Franklin was extolled by the Fowlers as an example of an eminent American who possessed a small measure of concentrativeness. (Hartmann [1993] and Hallowell & Ratey [1994] speculate that Franklin had ADHD. Some current writers in the ADHD field also make linkages between creativity, high intelligence, and symptoms of ADHD, but to date this appears to be based largely on conjecture and anecdotal evidence).

Orson Fowler thought that the balance of a person's faculties could be preserved or regained by use and cultivation (Fowler, 1856). To that end, he recommended a holistic approach to achieve well-being: reducing anxiety; participating in vigorous daily exercise; getting adequate sleep; avoiding meat in the diet; abstaining from tobacco, alcohol, and stimulants such as coffee and tea; breathing fresh air; and refusing the medications prescribed by allopathic physicians.

One of the medications decried by Fowler was laudanum, a mixture of alcohol and opium. Parents administered it to induce drowsiness in their children, and one suspects that many frustrated parents of hyperactive children used laudanum in the 1800s to manage their children's behavior. It was perhaps the first patent medication prescribed for hyperactivity. Laudanum and similar "soothing syrups" diminished appetite, sometimes led to severe malnutrition and death, and were significant causes of infant mortality during the Victorian era (Wohl). The Harrison Act of 1914 eventually banned these nostrums in the United States.

Instead of using medicines, the Fowlers' advised parents to "reform the diet and regimen of your child ... [to] subdue his bad temper" (Fowler & Fowler, 1856, pp. 427-428). This sounds like the advice given by some of today's alternative health care professionals. But diet alone did not improve the behaviors of children in the 19th century, and it does not now. Dietary proscriptions for the treatment of ADHD, such as the Feingold Diet in the 1970s, have proven to be unsuccessful (Barkley, 1990). Similarly, assorted contemporary dietary supplements and herbal products are touted as remedies for ADHD despite the lack of any scientific proof of their efficacy.

Phrenology was discredited when scientific discoveries pinpointed actual functions in areas of the brain not corresponding to those identified by phrenologists. Ironically, F. Xavier Castellanos, who recently discovered differences in the brain structures of boys with ADHD through magnetic resonance imaging (Castellanos et al., 1994), characterizes his findings as only somewhat superior to those of phrenology (Leutwyler, 1996).

When gathering genealogical information about my paternal grandfather and paternal great-grandfather, who participated in the Yukon Gold Rush of 1897, I inadvertently found two more 19th century observers of American ADHD symptoms: Captain Jack Crawford, "Poet-Scout of the West," and famed Yukon poet, Robert W. Service.

Crawford was a former scout for George Armstrong Custer and claimed to be friends with William Cody and Bill Hickok. He was a popular speaker in Dawson City during the gold rush who was known for his ability to improvise poems. In a serious tone, The Klondike Nugget reported, "The great and striking difference in the character of Americans and the present nations from which they have sprung was aptly explained by Captain Jack... ‘Americans are the descendents [sic] of the restless and impulsive people of the earth'" (1898, November 16). The article goes on to say that the "restless souls" of the world impulsively migrated to America over many decades because their originality and experience were stifled in their native lands. This impulsivity, transmitted through heredity to subsequent generations, manifest itself in the great migration to the Western United States. The mass flight of Americans to the Klondike during the gold rush was cited as yet another example of the impulsive nature of the American "race." The article concluded with the statement that statesmen could not plan effectively for America's future without understanding these inherent traits.

Crawford's observations about the American character (admittedly drawn from generalizations about a self-selected group of gold prospectors) are echoed in the poetry of Robert W. Service. His poems chronicled the type of men lured to the Yukon in the 1890s.  Two poems published in Songs of a Sourdough (1907), "The Men That Don't Fit In" and "The Rhyme of the Restless Ones," offer particularly fitting metaphors for adults with ADHD. Service's poems portray restless, risk-taking men-impulsive wanderers, prone to excess, who were unsuccessful in conventional jobs and lifestyles.

Fowlers' remarks about the American "defect," the inability to sustain concentration, and the observations by Yukon poets of the American traits of restlessness and impulsivity, support Thom Hartmann's theory that European immigrants to America may have included a high concentration of "hunters," persons with ADHD traits, who tended to be impulsive and take risks (Hartmann, 1993). Risk takers, he suggests, are more likely to leave their countries of origin.

ADHD is not a new phenomenon. Its symptoms have been seen and explained in different ways throughout history. In the 1990s, the diagnosis of ADHD exploded when therapists gained a better understanding of the disorder's neurobiological basis; they became knowledgeable about the number and degree of symptoms that differentiate people with this disorder from the general population; and they were able to distinguish ADHD from other disorders with similar symptoms.

Robert S. Miller is the director of Catholic Community Services Northwest (CCSNW) family centers in Oak Harbor and Mount Vernon, Washington, and is affiliated with the CCSNW ADHD Clinic [Described in Elin, R. J. (1994). The mental health center ADHD clinic: An efficient cost-effective multimodal, and accessible service delivery model. The ADHD Report, 2(2), 1].


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Copyright (c) 2017 Robert S. Miller, LICSW, ACSW, PLLC