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Many people have contributed to the understanding of cerebral palsy. This work included in-depth studies, promoting public awareness, and medical trials to help better understand the condition. Modern cerebral palsy history begins in the 1800s.
When Was Cerebral Palsy Discovered?
According to historical documents, Dr. John Little is recognized as the first person to study cerebral palsy and define it in 1853.
Dr. John Little and Spastic Cerebral Palsy
Dr. John Little was the first person who identified cerebral palsy. Dr. Little battled a long childhood full of illnesses and decided to turn his experiences into a lifelong project to help other children with similar issues.
Dr. Little’s cerebral palsy work began in the 1830s when he gave lectures on how birth injuries can significantly impact children. He attempted to correlate oxygen loss and brain damage to cerebral palsy.
One of the most important contributions Little made to cerebral was a course of published lectures entitled “On the Nature and Treatment of the Deformities of the Human Frame,” which he delivered at England’s Royal Orthopaedic Hospital in 1843.
Around 1861, Little presented research to the Obstetrical Society of London, where he provided the first definition of cerebral palsy. He stated that children with the condition have an injured nervous system that results in spasticity.
In turn, this is the first recorded definition of spastic cerebral palsy. However, it would be years before the term “cerebral palsy” was established. Back then, it was simply called “Little’s Disease,” named after Dr. Little. In some instances, it was referred to as “cerebral paralysis.”
Sir William Osler and the Term “Cerebral Palsy”
It wasn’t until 1887 that the term cerebral palsy was applied to the condition that Dr. Little studied. Sir William Osler, who wrote a book entitled “Cerebral Palsies of Children,” coined the term.
The book summarized all of Osler’s research and records on cerebral palsy. It also provided his insights on treatment information, including therapies that could help children manage the disorder better.
Sigmund Freud and Research into Cerebral Palsy Causes
Although great insights were being published regarding cerebral palsy, there wasn’t a lot of information on the development of the disorder before birth. However, Dr. Sigmund Freud, a renowned psychiatrist, along with a neurologist, made the connection. Previously, experts thought that cerebral palsy only occurred during a difficult childbirth.
Dr. Sigmund Freud was the first to state that cerebral palsy might be caused by abnormal development before birth. Before that, orthopedic surgeon Dr. William Little had postulated that cerebral palsy was acquired at birth due to difficult labor.
Yet, Freud stated that difficult childbirth might be a symptom of something that happened during birth that would result in a harsh childbirth experience. Many people ignored Freud’s assumptions at the time. He continued his work, even disagreeing so much with Little that an argument ensued.
Freud based his theory on the fact that some children who experienced oxygen loss during childbirth were not affected, while others were. On the other hand, Little had always maintained that birth asphyxia was the cause of cerebral palsy.
Regardless, the majority of physicians during that time still relied on Little’s findings, paying little attention to Freud’s theories. This changed years later when extensive research showed that cerebral palsy was caused by oxygen deprivation only around 10% of the time.
Research Continued By More Cerebral Palsy Innovators
Although Little, Osler, and Freud are thought of as the greatest innovators when it comes to cerebral, numerous other notable figures continued the research on the disorder. However, they don’t always get as much credit.
For instance, Leonard and Isabelle Goldenson, a married couple whose first daughter was born with cerebral palsy, put in years of effort and research to better understand the disorder and promote awareness.
When their daughter died from complications associated with cerebral palsy at the age of 29, the Goldensons co-founded the United Cerebral Palsy Association in 1950. Today, the United Cerebral Palsy Association is the 5th largest health organization in the United States.
In 1994, the Harvard Medical School named a research building after the couple, the Isabelle and Leonard H. Goldenson Biomedical Research Center. Leonard Goldenson was instrumental in pushing “research toward preventing cerebral palsy.”
Another notable figure in the advancement of understanding cerebral palsy was an activist and author Marie Killilea. She wrote two New York Times bestseller books, “Karen” and “With Love From Karen.” The books are based on Killilea’s daughter, Karen, born with cerebral palsy.
Additionally, Killilea was the co-founder of The National Cerebral Palsy Foundation.
Breakthroughs in treatment options, different types of cerebral palsy, early diagnosis, and much more are available today. However, without the great innovators of the past, today’s children may not have all the resources available to them to help them live a successful life with cerebral palsy.
- ACCARDO, P. (1989). William John Little and Cerebral Palsy in the Nineteenth Century. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 44(1), 56-71.
Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1093/jhmas/44.1.56
- Little, W. (n.d.). On the nature and treatment of the deformities of the human frame [electronic resource]. Internet Archive.
Retrieved from: https://archive.org/details/b21289141/page/n4/mode/2up
- Current Approaches in Cerebral Palsy, A Focus on Gait Problems: Editorial Comment. (n.d.). PubMed Central (PMC) National Institutes of Health.
Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3314753/
- Ingram, T. (1966). The Neurology of Cerebral Palsy. Archives of Disease in Childhood.
Retrieved from: https://adc.bmj.com/content/archdischild/41/218/337.full.pdf
- Isabelle Goldenson, a Voice for People With Cerebral Palsy, Dies at 84. (2005, March 5). The New York Times - Breaking News, World News & Multimedia.
Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/05/us/isabelle-goldenson-a-voice-for-people-with-cerebral-palsy-dies-at-84.html
- Killilea, M. (2016, April 12). Karen. Google Books.
Retrieved from: https://books.google.com/books/about/Karen.html?id=fIYctAEACAAJ