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A Brief History of ADHD

An illustration of a brain with the letters A D H D emerging
The syndrome we now call ADHD has been described in the medical literature since 1775.

The concept of ADHD has a long history, starting with clinical reports from European countries. The clinical significance of the signs and symptoms of the disorder has been recognised for over two centuries. Although these early reports did not use the term “ADHD”, they described children who showed the symptoms and impairments we now recognise as ADHD. Here are highlights from the early history of ADHD:


Melchior Adam Weikard, a German physician, wrote the first textbook description of a disorder with the hallmarks of ADHD.


Alexander Crichton from the Royal College of Physicians (United Kingdom) described a similar disorder in a medical textbook (Palmer and Finger, 2001).


Heinrich Hoffmann, who later became head of the first psychiatric hospital in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, described hyperactivity and attention deficits in a children’s book which documented ADHD-like behaviours and their associated impairments (Hoffmann, 1990).


Désiré-Magloire Bourneville, Charles Boulanger, Georges Paul-Boncour, and Jean Philippe described an equivalent of ADHD in French medical and educational writings (Martinez-Badia and Martinez-Raga, 2015).


George Still, a physician in the United Kingdom, wrote the first description of the disorder in a scientific journal (Still, 1902a, b, c).


Augusto Vidal Perera wrote the first Spanish compendium of child psychiatry. He described the impact of inattention and hyperactivity among schoolchildren (Vidal Perera, 1907).


The Spanish neurologist and psychiatrist Gonzalo Rodriguez-Lafora described symptoms of ADHD in children and said they were probably caused by a brain disorder with genetic origins (Lafora, 1917).


Franz Kramer and Hans Pollnow, from Germany, described an ADHD-like syndrome and coined the term “hyperkinetic disorder”, which was later adopted as a term by the World Health Organization (Kramer and Pollnow, 1932; Neumarker, 2005).


Charles Bradley, from the USA, discovered that an amphetamine medication reduced ADHD-like symptoms (Bradley, 1937).


ADHD-like symptoms in children described as “minimal brain dysfunction”.


First hint in follow-up study of the persistence of minimal brain dysfunction-related behaviours into adulthood (Morris et al., 1956; O’Neal and Robins, 1958)


U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved methylphenidate (Ritalin) for behavioural disorders in children.

1970s to today

Diagnostic criteria for ADHD evolved based on research showing that the diagnosis predicts treatment response, clinical course, and family history of the disorder.


Further Reading:

  • Chapter 1: Development of The Concept in The Oxford Handbook of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Professor Eric Taylor, 2018
  • Chapter 1: History of ADHD in Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: A Handbook for Diagnosis and Treatment, Professor Russell Barkley, 2014