The Historical Precursor to ADHD

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.

“I sent in your project to represent Alta Vista at the district-wide competition,” she said. “And guess what! It won!”

I squinted. “Won what?”

“The award for best fourth-grade display in the entire school district. There were hundreds of entries.” She was watching me. “Tim,” she said. “You worked so hard!”

Instead of meeting up with my friends, I pedaled home on my bike. My mother was upstairs. “What’s wrong?” she asked when she saw me.

“Mrs. Parsons says I won the science fair.”

She screeched. Then she was hugging me and crying. I was crying too. I’d never won anything before.


This post has been adapted from Timothy Denevi's book, Hyper: A Personal History of ADHD.

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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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