By in Science

Was ADHD Invented?

I was around when ADHD was invented.

One of the most common claims made by naysayers is that attention deficits and hyperactivity were invented, rather than discovered. They know, because they – or their mother, their teacher, or their best friend's babysitter – was around at the “ beginning ,” when these disorders were first described and diagnosed.

For this to be true, the individual in question would have a most remarkable lifespan. In fact, they'd have to be over two hundred years old!

First Descriptions of ADHD

The text currently accepted as the first medical description of what is today called Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) was published in 1775. It was a chapter in a German diagnostic manual written by Melchior Adam Weikard’s , Der Philosophische Arzt . Several other descriptions date to an era at least a century ago, including those of UK physicians Sir Alexander Crichton in 1798 and Sir George Frederick Still in 1902.

In 1844 another German doctor, Heinrich Hoffmann, authored a story about a character known in English as “Fidgety Phil.” Although a work of fiction, the story describes a scenario that demonstrates the impact of a very real neuropsychiatric disorder on family life.

20th Century Medical Texts

All these early descriptions touch on both the inattentiveness and the hyperactivity or lack of impulse control today associated with ADHD. Medical texts from the 20 th century would focus mostly on the hyperactive component for a period of several decades.

The “ hyperkinetic disease of infancy” of the 1930s and the "Hyperkinetic Reaction of Childhood" that appeared in the second edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-II) in 1968 would later be renamed "ADD (Attention-Deficit Disorder) with or without hyperactivity," in DSM-III.

The current diagnosis is ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.) There is no more ADD – everyone gets the “H,” despite what some self-appointed experts may try to claim. There is a distinction for primarily inattentive types, and those marked more by hyperactivity or lack of impulse control. There is also a combined type recognized, for people whose symptoms combine both concerns.

Was ADHD Invented?

Not on your life!

So if you think you or a close relative were around when ADHD was “invented,” it's likely your belief is informed more by popular opinion and sensationalist media than by actual medical history. ADHD is a very real and debilitating medical condition that had been described and diagnosed long before your granny's granny was in diapers.

With close to 250 years of medical observation and documentation, and current medical technology that reveals structural, developmental, and chemical anomalies in the brains of people with ADHD, it's about time we stopped the nay saying. ADHD is not made up by parents or teachers who simply can't cope with differences in temperaments or learning styles, nor is it a conspiracy by Big Pharma to medicalize laziness and socially unacceptable behaviour.

Please watch here for more about this controversial and often poorly understood condition that affects roughly 5% of the world population. There is much we can learn, and much we can do to address the challenges of both children and adults with ADHD.

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Image credit: Bright Idea ” by zaldy icaonapo, Public Domain Pictures ( CC0 1.0 )


Klaus W. Lange, et al ., “ The history of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ” in Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorders , December 2010.

Russell A. Barkley and Helmut Peters, “ The Earliest Reference to ADHD in the Medical Literature? Melchior Adam Weikard’s Description in 1775 of 'Attention Deficit' ,” in Journal of Attention Disorders, November 2012.

Note: This article has been migrated from Bubblews, where it was originally published by the author

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MsBiz wrote on February 16, 2015, 4:28 PM

Thank you for this! As a counselor, ADD (now ADHD) is one of the most commonly misunderstood conditions I encounter.

Last Edited: February 16, 2015, 4:28 PM

Ruby3881 wrote on February 16, 2015, 4:35 PM

As the parent of three kids who were diagnosed with ADHD, I can say that educators, lay people and sometimes even health professionals tend to have a lot of misconceptions about this condition. Awareness needs to be raised about what it is and isn't, and people need to stop making wild claims without basis.

MsBiz wrote on February 16, 2015, 4:40 PM

Absolutely. The media, in particular, needs to stop perpetuating untrue stereotypes, especially the "it's an invented condition" myth. There's a lot yet to learn, but a lot we do know that needs to be shared.

Kasman wrote on February 16, 2015, 4:42 PM

From what i have heard about ADHD it can be difficult to diagnose and this may have led to some confusion over whether it existed or not.

WordChazer wrote on February 16, 2015, 4:53 PM

ADHD and similar has always been around, you're right there. There was just no medically diagnosed name for it until 250 years ago or thereabouts. Indeed some science fiction writers would have it as a natural part of the human psyche that allows people to be good at certain things and not others (witness scientists, musicians, painters who are considered geniuses). However, I do think that some people use it as an 'excuse' for actions which could be placed elsewhere on the scale of acceptable human behaviors. That said, as MsBiz points out, it is commonly misunderstood. You and I have had that part of the conversation before, I think.

Ellis wrote on February 16, 2015, 4:57 PM

I wonder how many lives have been ruined by simply writing off children as badly behaved...

BNelson wrote on February 16, 2015, 5:34 PM

Watching Sponge Bob is proven to make attention problems worse

PeterChase wrote on February 16, 2015, 6:34 PM

When I was a kid if a child had problems staying still in class he was diagnosed as hyperactive. This was a very rare condition then. Now ADHD is very common and a larger percentage of children are diagnosed with this condition every year. The problem and controversy is not if this condition exists but what is causing so many children to have this condition. American child psychiatrists tend to only treat the symptoms with medication, instead of trying to find out what is causing the problem. In France it is the opposite. First the pediatrician asks the parents a series of questions about the home situation, dietary habits, school performance and social skills. If all of these are normal (like not eating large amounts of junk food, or having family problems) then the child is prescribed medication. A large majority of potential cases are treated by changing the diet, family counseling, and psychological counseling.
Why don't US psychiatrists do this? The answer is a simple one. For every prescription they write they get a kickback, reward or bonus from the drug companies that make the medication. It is that simple!

BeadDoodler wrote on February 16, 2015, 6:37 PM

Very interesting. I had never heard that ADHD was invented, but I have heard it is so prevalent in the US because of diets high in simple carbs. Of course simple carbs and allergies to such things in food as additives do make the disorder worse.

Ruby3881 wrote on February 16, 2015, 6:40 PM

Actually, it's more that people who should know the signs and symptoms - teachers, pediatricians, community health nurses, etc. - don't recognize them. Once a child is referred for diagnosis, it's fairly simple. The problem is that you can't diagnose a child if all the so-called experts are telling parents that the child "can't possibly" have ADHD. Any child who has even a few symptoms should be referred for assessment.

Ruby3881 wrote on February 16, 2015, 7:11 PM

That's oversimplified.

The study to which you are referring used a very small, mostly white and mostly middle- or upper-class sample, all of which were four years old. The researchers involved admit there wasn't adequate blinding, and that results are of limited value for a number of reasons. It's also important to note that the tests used to assess the impact of the Sponge Bob clip as an example of a fast-paced cartoon. Other shows that involve frequent scene changes could have a similar impact.

Ruby3881 wrote on February 16, 2015, 7:55 PM

As ADHD is a neurological imbalance, much the same as some types of seizure disorder, it seems highly unlikely that family counselling or changes in diet would make any significant impact on a child who was appropriately diagnosed. The reason stimulant drugs are the first choice of doctors is simple: they do the job. The difference for a person who has ADHD is night and day, as I've seen with my own daughter.

The question of why we are seeing more ADHD now than ever before is crucial, and I don't think enough research is being done in that area. If anything is impacted by Big Pharma, I'd says it's the type of research being done and not the prescription criteria in place.

Ruby3881 wrote on February 16, 2015, 8:09 PM

If anything, a diet high in simple carbs and caffeine (chocolate, colas, coffee, etc.) could be just another symptom of ADHD. It's partly about the fact that many people with ADHD have difficulty with impulse control, and partly that ADHD is a problem of the brain not getting enough dopamine. Dopamine is what gives us both the energy and motivation to get things done, so it's natural that a person who has ADHD would reach for foods that would boost dopamine levels.

It's often tough to differentiate between symptoms and causes. But given the dramatic change when someone is given a stimulant drug that regulates the dopamine levels, I have no doubt that people with ADHD would crave the foods that bring about that boost. Unfortunately, it's difficult to achieve the same results with diet that you can get with a drug like methylphenidate emoticon :sad:

Nar2Reviews wrote on February 16, 2015, 8:24 PM

A very informative post here. I had no idea that it went back that far!

Colibry21 wrote on February 16, 2015, 8:35 PM

This is quite interesting. Thank you for sharing! Having ADD (a form of ADHD) this is interesting, and useful for me. I'm glad that you shared this information.

Ruby3881 wrote on February 16, 2015, 10:22 PM

Neither did I, until I went to write about it and did the research. I had suspected it went back about 100 years or so, but it was much more than that!

Ruby3881 wrote on February 16, 2015, 10:25 PM

So today your diagnosis would be ADHD, but as the "H" wasn't initially included it might be "primarily inattentive." Unless perhaps you struggled with impulse control? I think that's really the most recent addition, and I suspect the "H" often shows up in women more as being impulsive than the stereotypical bouncing off the walls kind of hyperactivity emoticon :smile:

BarbRad wrote on February 17, 2015, 1:38 AM

I'll be interested in reading the rest of what you write on this.

PeterChase wrote on February 18, 2015, 2:06 PM

This is the truth for many chronic disorders. The causes are not researched just the treatments. My point is that treatments are what makes the money for big pharma. Many psychological diseases are misdiagnosed and that is the point of the French studies. Proper diagnosis is crucial and can be time consuming. That is why some doctors just label every kid that is having a behavior problem as ADHD. Many are just behavior problems that can be solved with proper discipline like the "123 Magic" techniques. You have to admit that doctors receiving "rewards" for prescribing certain medications is a conflict of interest.
As far as causes for ADHD many studies have proven that certain food coloring's can cause the symptoms of ADHD. Just google it and you will see. It is probable that these and other chemicals in food can alter the brain chemistry and cause a neurological imbalance. The French doctors have had good results with switching ADHD candidates to organic chemical free diets. Wouldn't it be better and less expensive to treat ADHD with a diet change instead of powerful stimulants?

bleekley wrote on February 18, 2015, 2:45 PM

Both the post and the other comments are very interesting, like the question whether diet is a cause or effect and the question what causes the brain chemistry imbalance -- genetics or environment or what. A related (I think) question I have is whether it harms both health and learning to deny school children, with or without ADHD, morning and afternoon recess and lunch hour playground time.

trufflehunter wrote on March 3, 2015, 12:13 PM

The media is full of nonsense if you ask me. Many do not fact check. Great article.