A Short History of Mental Health

Looking backward to move forward

The History of Hyperactivity

Sputnik, Hyperkinetic Impulse Disorder, and the birth of ADHD

Nothing is better than a receptive audience. Today I gave a talk on the history of ADHD for the Department for Education in London (I’m not sure why they are a Department for Education, rather than a Department of Education, but I like the implication). Crammed into a corner of their open office complex were 60 or so rather serious-looking policy makers, munching on tiny triangle sandwiches and finger quiches. And there I was at the front, suffering from my worst cold in years, hacking, wheezing, sniffling and just a bit conscious of the camera broadcasting my pallid features to Manchester, Sheffield and goodness knows where else.

But before long it was pretty clear that these hard-boiled bureaucrats were on my side. I was talking about how concerns about what we now call ADHD were fueled by two developments in 1957: 1) the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellites; and 2) the coining of the term ‘hyperkinetic impulse disorder’ by a team of child psychiatrists in Rhode Island.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: I can see where you’re going with point 2 - hyperkinetic impulse disorder does sound like ADHD - but what’s that about Sputnik? And, in response, I’d say, fair enough. It seems like a bit of a leap. But bear with me, the educators did after all, and, ultimately, they were convinced.

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First, let me take you back to 1957. Eisenhower is president, Elvis hasn’t been drafted and family-oriented fare, such as Father Knows Best flickers out of American television. The Korean War has been over for a few years, the economy is booming and, generally, things look pretty good. Then, on October 4th, everything changes. The Soviet Union, long thought by most Americans to be languishing in the Dark Ages as far as technology was concerned, are the first to launch a satellite into space. Then they launch another less than a month later, with Laika, the first space-dog, enclosed in the small metal sphere, the first casualty of space travel. The Soviets celebrate; the Americans panic. Soon American politicians are looking for explanations for this abrupt change in the Cold War’s “brain race” had been allowed to occur.

The primary scapegoat, unsurprisingly, was the American education system. Critics ranging from James Conant, former president of Harvard University and ambassador to Wester Germany, to Hyman Rickover, Father of the Nuclear Navy, began to attack the prevailing education system, claiming that it was too child-centered, too progressive, and not nearly rigorous enough. They, and many others, demanded a return to a rigid, subject-centered, and demanding curriculum where all students, representing all social and racial backgrounds, were expected to achieve higher standards, particularly in core subjects such as mathematics, sciences and English. Their cries were heard in Washington, where the billion dollar National Defense Education Act was passed in 1958, improving the teaching of core subjects and providing thousands of guidance counselors to identify underachieving students and ensure that they stay in school and become the scientists and engineers that the USA desperately needed.

So, what kind of children tended to be identified as underachievers? Well, this takes us to point 2, the coining of hyperkinetic impulse disorder, also in 1957. In defining hyperkinetic impulse disorder (which is nearly identical to the ADHD of today) the Rhode Island psychiatrists stressed that the characteristics presented in the disorder - hyperactivity, impulsivity, distractibility, and academic underachievement - were not so far removed from behaviors normal children exhibited. As such, the term could be applied not only to a select number of highly disturbed children, but also a huge percentage of the juvenile population, the 75,000,000 baby boomers that were flooding American schools like never before in American history, the very baby boomers that had the future of the Cold War on their shoulders. And that’s exactly what happened.

As I told my Department for Education audience - who admirably stuck with me through it all - this is certainly not the end of the story, it’s not even the entire beginning. Countless other changes in American society contributed to the emergence of ADHD as the most commonly diagnosed childhood psychiatric disorder in history and shaped how we would understand it. But, nevertheless, if anyone asks me when the history of hyperactivity starts, I always say 1957.

Why were these educators sympathetic to my hypothesis, which is fleshed out in my book, Hyperactive: The Controversial History of ADHD? Well, I think one reason is that teachers have often been stuck dealing with curriculum changes that have little to do with education and a lot to do with politics. A change in government occurs and all of the sudden what’s expected of the education system - and of children - changes, sometimes with unexpected results. When often all teachers want to do is engender a love of learning in their students, no matter what their abilities are.

Matthew Smith, Ph.D. is a Lecturer and Wellcome Trust Research Fellow at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow.

 

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