Epilepsy was the first brain disorder described. It was discussed in ancient Babylon more than 3,000 years ago. The symptoms of some seizure disorders gave rise to many stereotypes and prejudices. People who were diagnosed were thought of as being superstitious. Others even thought that people who had epilepsy were possessed by demons or were visited by gods. Different spirits were thought to cause the different kinds of seizures. Ancient Greeks believed that someone got epilepsy by offending the moon goddess Selene. One of the cures was eating mistletoe that was picked without using a blade during the time the moon was smallest in the sky. The mistletoe could not touch the ground at all because then it would not be effective against the “falling sickness.” Later on, in 400 B.C., Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, wrote a book saying that people do not get epilepsy from the gods. His cure for epilepsy was medicine and diet based upon his theory of the balance of hot and cold. The religious cure at the time was to sleep in the temple overnight and hope that the god Asclepius would appear in a dream and cure you or tell you how to get cured.
Ancient Romans thought that epilepsy came from demons and was contagious by touching or being breathed on by a person with epilepsy.
In Europe in the Middle Ages, epilepsy was called the falling sickness. People relied on saints and relics for a cure. The three wise men and St. Valentine were very important patrons of people with epilepsy. If you had epilepsy, you were given a special blessed ring that would help control seizures.
During the Enlightenment, from the late 1600’s on, the belief that demons caused epilepsy went away. People thought that epilepsy was contagious because of a few well- known cases where orphans started acting like they were seizing. Because epilepsy was considered to be contagious, people who were diagnosed with it were put into mental hospitals. They were separated from the mentally challenged so that they would not get epilepsy.
In Modern times, people with epilepsy were not allowed to marry or even have children for that matter. In Nazi Germany and in America in the 1920’s, they were given surgery to prevent them from conceiving. Medications such as potassium bromide and phenobarbital were created. These medications helped control seizures. Bromides had terrible side effects, but allowed people with epilepsy to live a normal life without seizures. Phenobarbital was a better solution, but it did not help control seizures in everyone.