Dennis the Menace and ADHD

Why we went from celebrating misbehavior to diagnosing it.

Posted Mar 31, 2018

On March 12, 1951, one of the strangest coincidences in the history of comic books occurred.  On that day, completely coincidentally, both the British and the American Dennis the Menace made their first appearances on the public stage.  While the dark-haired Dennis graced the pages of the Dundee comic book, The Beano, the fair-haired American Dennis quickly became a fixture of American newspapers, today appearing in over 1000 different papers in 48 countries and in 19 languages.  Described as a precocious, enthusiastic and energetic five and a half year old boy, the American Dennis, like his British counterpart, is a habitual trouble maker whose adventures often end up irritating his long-suffering neighbor, Mr. Wilson, whom Dennis paradoxically regards as his best friend. 

Much of Dennis’ popularity arose from the fact that he was such a recognizable figure.  Kids like Dennis were on every street in the burgeoning American suburbs during the 1950s, tearing around corners on their tricycles or hitting baseballs into kitchen windows.  They were thought to be normal boys, doing what boys did.  Or were they?

Within a decade of Dennis the Menace’s first appearance in an American newspaper, his exuberant, mercurial tendencies were beginning to be seen in a very different light.  Instead of being perceived as precocious, enthusiastic and energetic, boys like Dennis were increasingly being described as impulsive, hyperactive and inattentive, and being referred by school counselors to physicians for medical treatment.  Instead of being seen as part of the fabric of American society, like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, boys like Dennis were being diagnosed with what we now call Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD, and prescribed powerful stimulant medication, such as Ritalin, to treat their pathological behaviour.

So, what happened in decade between 1951, when Dennis first peered over Mr. Wilson’s fence, and 1961, when Ritalin was first marketed to children?  A clue can be found in the profession of Dennis’ father, Mr. Mitchell, an aerospace engineer.  The origins of ADHD are closely linked to the desire to ‘slip the surly bonds of Earth’ and, specifically, the 4th of October 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to be put into Earth’s orbit.

It’s likely that, as a man of science and technology, Mr. Mitchell viewed the launch of Sputnik with a mixture of thrill and apprehension.  The image of a beach ball-sized sphere catapulted into space at the flick of a switch was an awe-inspiring sight, heralding a new era of exploration and discovery at a time when the highest, deepest and most remote spots on planet Earth were being checked off the list of terrestrial places to conquer and plant flags.  But for politically-minded Americans, Sputnik was an all too obvious indication that Cold War, and the inextricably-linked race for scientific and technological superiority, had taken a potentially disastrous turn.  If the Soviets were the first to reach space, what did that say about their ability to design new fighter jets, submarines and, most importantly, nuclear weapons?  And just how had this development been allowed to occur?

For many American politicians, scientists, educators and military men, the answer was clear.  The blame lay squarely with the lackadaisical American education system.  Commentators ranging from Admiral Hyman Rickover, the father of the American nuclear navy, to James Conant, former president of Harvard University, railed against what they saw as a permissive, child-centered and soft school system and demanded a return to core subjects, more rigorous standards and higher levels of achievement across all levels of society.  Only then would the USA develop the scientists and engineers to outpace the Soviets in the race for space.  Both high achievers and students who struggled academically were expected to pull up their socks.  Dropping out of high school to begin work in the unskilled labor market was no longer an option.  Funded by the National Defense Education Act of 1958, thousands of school counselors were hired, at both primary and secondary schools, to determine what prevented these children from doing better.  Counselors were to ‘be on the lookout for the bright boy or girl whose high ability has been demonstrated by the results of aptitude tests. . . but whose achievement … has been low’.  This intelligent, yet underachieving, student, would become, alongside Dennis the Menace, the poster child for ADHD.

The more school counselors analysed what sort of children struggled to reach their potential, the more they determined that certain characteristics, namely hyperactivity, impulsivity and inattention, were most likely to interfere with academic success.  One group of researchers compared underachievers with so-called ‘future scientists’, who were attending a space camp, and agreed that what differentiated such children was an ability to control both their impulses and their motor activity.  As early as 1959, parenting columnist Dorothy Barclay observed that a great deal of attention in schools was given to ‘smoking out and stimulating the efforts of the underachievers’.  In other words, identifying hyperactive, inattentive and impulsive children.

Barclay’s use of the term ‘stimulating’ was both ironic and prescient.  Just two years later the stimulant Ritalin was permitted for use in children.  By the mid-1960s, drugs like Ritalin dominated the treatment of hyperactive, impulsive and inattentive children, becoming the fundamental means by which to transform these underachievers into the future scientists who would win the Space Race and the Cold War.  In an era where scientific advancement was thought to take priority over everything else, it was somehow appropriate that the solution for the problem of the hyperactive child, the symbol of American academic underachievement, was to be found in the highly scientific, highly technical setting of a pharmaceutical laboratory.  Americans may have won the Space Race by reaching the moon, but the desire to ‘smoke out and to stimulate underachievers’ did not dissipate.  It only grew, resulting in successive generations of children whose energetic and enthusiastic behaviour, the very stuff that endeared millions to Dennis the Menace, is now medicated away with the writing of a prescription.

References

Smith, M. (2012) Hyperactive: The Controversial History of ADHD. London: Reaktion