ADHD in ancient Greece?

One often hears that the first written description of ADHD stems from the book of the German physician Melchior Adam Weikard “Der Philosophische Arzt” (translated: “The philosophical doctor”) published in 1775. Other well-known old descriptions include for example George F. Still’s description from 1902 published in the Lancet, and Alexander Crichton’s description from 1798. However, this year a Brazilian research group published a report where they claim that the first know description of ADHD, or at least ADHD-like behavior, might be more than 2000 years old!*

The philosopher Theophrastus was a former pupil of Plato and Aristotle who lived in ancient Greece. In approximately 319 years BC he wrote “The Characters”, which essentially is a collection of texts that describes the behavior of 30 stereotypical characters where each character is devoted 10-15 phrases. One of these characters, “the obtuse man”, is an adult man who is described to have both inattention symptoms (forgets important appointments) and hyperactivity symptoms (tires out his children while playing). In addition, “the obtuse man” also has sleep problems and has problems with planning, which both are more common among individuals with ADHD than among those without.

Despite that it can be argued that the behavior of the “the obtuse man” is not a perfect description of typical ADHD, it is still interesting that the oldest known description of ADHD-like behavior describes these symptoms in an adult, in contrast to the later descriptions of ADHD-like behavior that are about children with these symptoms. Moreover, Theophrastus’ more than 2000-year-old text further supports that ADHD (and other psychiatric disorders) has been a part of human life as long as we have been humans.

*Victor MM, Bruna SdS, Kappel DB, Bau CH, Grevet EH. Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in ancient Greece: The Obtuse Man of Theophrastus. Aust N Z J Psychiatry. Jun 2018;52(6):509-513.

Tor-Arne Hegvik is medical doctor who is doing research on ADHD and its co-morbidities as a part of the CoCA project: https://coca-project.eu/

Picture from https://pixabay.com

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