The Historical Precursor to ADHD

At the time, the British government was in the process of implementing widespread educational reforms. In 1876, the Education Act made attendance at public schools mandatory for all elementary-aged children. The rapid increase in enrollment posed a new question: What about the subset of this population who, because of mental and behavioral problems, couldn’t function in a normal classroom environment? In 1904, the English Royal Commission on the Care and Control of the Feeble Minded was formed to reevaluate the current certification practices. Doctors across the country conducted prevalence studies, determining that at least 4–6 percent of all children could be classified as unfit for normal schooling. The commission’s report led to the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913, which established a compulsory system of state-funded specialized education along three grades of impairment: Idiocy (“unable to guard themselves against common physical dangers”); Imbecility (“incapable of managing themselves ... or ... of being taught to do so”); and Feeble-Mindedness (“involves disability of mind of such a nature and extent as to make them ... incapable of receiving education at school”). The last grade was the vaguest and also the largest; it included the borderline category of children who, like those studied by George Frederic Still, possessed standard enough academic ability but couldn’t pay attention or behave in the classroom.

One of the Royal Commission’s senior medical investigators was a doctor named Alfred Frank Tredgold. Born in 1870, the son of a builder’s foreman, Tredgold studied medicine at London Hospital before choosing to specialize in “mental disease.” In 1908 he published his first edition of Mental Deficiency (Amentia), which over the course of his life would be reissued eight times. In one of the later editions there’s a picture of him posing outdoors. He’s in his early thirties: a preposterously thin man with a wet-looking mustache and elfin ears. His thick hair has been tousled by the wind, and for this briefest moment he appears to have grown a pair of dark, fledgling horns.

Mental Deficiency expanded upon the commission’s findings. In his chapter on “feeble-mindedness,” Tredgold offered his own solution to Still’s questions about children who lacked “educability” but nevertheless possessed “sufficient intelligence”: segregation in day and residential programs. One way Tredgold identified “feeble-mindedness” was through deficits in willpower and attention. “Their behavior is more often the result of sudden desires and impulses than of deliberate purpose,” he wrote; and: “the most trifling thing serves to distract these children from their occupation.”

His suggested curriculum included occasional academic material, such as Aesop’s Fables and “lessons in animal and vegetable life.” But the majority of the day was occupied with manual tasks. “Defective children learn more through their hands than their books,” he wrote. He cited the example of Goodrich Road Special School in London, where hours were spent practicing how to “cut out and make simple artificial flowers, knit rugs and weave baskets.” The children worked on “dressing, feeding, personal cleanliness and tidiness,” skills that he deemed to be of “the utmost educational value.”

For Tredgold, the intellectual capacity that Still had earlier observed was in fact nothing more than “parrot knowledge.” Even if intelligence and behavior could be considered separate entities, a deficit of willpower meant that these children lacked self-awareness—and thus “had really very little understanding of the answers they had put down.” In his opinion, the behavioral issues were so damning as to blot out any hope for improvement in other areas.

In the end his version of special education had nothing to do with helping children reach their academic potential. The goal was to convert the hyperactive boy or girl “from a useless, and often dangerous, member of society into one capable of some amount of useful work.”

*  *  *

My science-fair project on earthquakes attempted to explain their geological causes. I made a large orange cardboard display that folded into three panes, each of which documented a different type of tectonic fault: horizontal, oblique, and vertical. In a bottom corner I included a list of the largest earthquakes in history. I drew the illustrations myself, complete with squiggly lines and arrows to represent the earth’s wandering crust. On the first draft I also wrote out the explanations. But my handwriting was so bad that for the final product, my mother copied the paragraphs again in pencil and had me trace over the words with a marker.

At the time my family had a set of World Book Encyclopedias from the 1970s, and in the quiet of my upstairs room, I sprawled out on my carpeted floor and went over the section on earthquakes repeatedly. I discovered that the worst earthquakes occurred when one plate drove beneath another, like in Japan and Alaska. The San Andreas Fault, which my hometown sat along, had been created by the North American Plate’s steady horizontal grind against the southern-moving Pacific. The highest-magnitude events were listed in descending order, beginning with Chile in 1960 (9.5) and Alaska in 1964 (9.2).

I discussed all of this with Mrs. Parsons. She would let me stay in the classroom at recess, and I remember her eyes widening when I told her about the 1960 Chilean earthquake—“I can’t even imagine 11 minutes of shaking!” she said.

That December I turned in my completed display. A few weeks later Mrs. Parsons asked me to stay after class. I thought it was about my behavior; that morning she’d raised her voice after I kept leaving my seat in the minutes before P.E.

Presented by

Timothy Denevi is the author of Hyper: A Personal History of ADHD. He is a visiting writer with the MFA program at George Mason University.

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