Beyond Epilepsy

Demons and Possession

Prior to the development of neurology in the mid nineteenth century, the history of epilepsy was closely tied to cultural beliefs and folk medicine.  Some historians think that from the Greeks to the modern day, epilepsy was the perfect example of science triumphing over medicine. Greek doctors such as Hippocrates, and Roman doctors such as Galen knew that the cause of epilepsy lay in the brain. A collection of medical writings in 400BC ‘on the Sacred Disease’ argued that epilepsy was not a divine disease, to be attributed to the Gods, but was caused by a disturbance in the brain. Ancient Greeks believed that the body was made up of four humours: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood. The imbalance of any of these was believed to cause disease, and idea which remained central to medical thought until well into the eighteenth century. The theory of four humours was in part the basis of the popular practice of bloodletting as a treatment for fevers In the case of epilepsy, convulsions were meant to be caused by too much phlegm in the brain which rushed into the body and produced the symptoms of an attack.  Hippocrates recommended the purging of phlegm, taking a hot bath and anointing the head with oils and salt.

However, popular beliefs about epilepsy at the time led it to be called the ‘sacred disease’, because it was believed that the condition was sent by a deity, or that a demon had entered the body of the sufferer.   Therefore, in addition to the balancing of the humours, many ‘cures’ were based on the supernatural beliefs.  The Romans believed that epilepsy was the result of vengeance from Mene, the goddess of the moon. There was also the strong association with epilepsy and the moon, and of seizures playing a part in omens in dreams. The avoidance of goats was recommended, because of the animals’ connection with the moon goddess and to Hekate.  Gladiator blood was used until the fifth century to strengthen and cure those who experienced seizures, partly due to the belief that it had magical properties.It was common practice up to the Roman times to spit on people experiencing a fit, in order to ward off contagion.

Christian writers and theologians in the late medieval period wrote frequently about sufferers’ unclean spirits and the activity of the devil causing seizures within the body. This led to the attempts to cure epilepsy through the medium of prayer and attempted exorcism of evil spirits. People relied heavily on help from saints and relics to ward off epilepsy, and to enact a cure. In part, this explains why there has always been a prevailing fear of people with epilepsy. In the nineteenth century, this was translated into the language of medical modernity. While neurology was being developed, elsewhere epileptics were being re-case in the language of lepers–not for fear of contagion through disease, but added into the dialogue of ‘deterioration’ of the urban population and the avocation of separate communities.

It’s important here to recognise that the development of medical knowledge does not necessarily mean that folk beliefs are eradicated. In fact, scientific studies still examine the link between seizures and the state of the moon, and although nobody is going around spitting on people having seizures (hopefully!) there remains a constant perception of epilepsy as the ‘epileptic cry’, foaming at the mouth and convulsions associated with a tonic clonic seizure. Its history, as its experience, is so much more than that.

The Borderland of Epilepsy Exhibition – Collaborative Meeting

If you’re interested in contributing to The Borderland of Epilepsy Exhibition we’re holding our first meeting this week!

It’s an open meeting where you’ll have a chance to learn more about this collaborative project as well as the history of epilepsy and the present care and understanding of epilepsy. Hopefully this will help you come up with ideas for your artwork. We’ll also answer any questions on the project or the methodology you may have.

The meeting will be a chance to meet each other and develop the direction of the project and your personal response to it. It will begin with a short presentation by the project leader Rachel Hewitt followed by group discussion and activities. There will be tea and biscuits as well!

Thursday, 12 November 2015 from 14:00 to 15:30 (GMT) Add to Calendar
CEE_3, Centre for Executive Education, Glasgow Caledonian University – Cowcaddens Road Glasgow, Lanarkshire G4 0BA GB – View Map

Curious? Please register to our event or email us at

If you know someone else who may be interested in attending make sure to share this page. We’re looking forward to seeing you on Thursday.

Olivia, Rachel & Sam

The Borderland of Epilepsy Exhibition – Call for Artists

Hello there!

We are looking for volunteer collaborators who would be willing to exhibit their work with the intention of raising awareness and challenging misconceptions about epilepsy. It will aim to use both historical material, modern understanding and artistic interpretation to present a timeline of change in medical and social contexts, throughout which people’s experience will remain central. The project will benefit from the involvement of Epilepsy Scotland, who will be forming a consulting role.

The exhibition is a collaborative project between visual artists and historians, exploring the history of epilepsy in an interactive and engaging way for audiences. We are aiming to use visual art to demonstrate the changes in medical belief and social context, from the Hippocratic ‘sacred disease’ to the present day, through an analysis of female hysteria and the discovery of the workings of the nervous system. It is part of a Wellcome Trust-funded PhD project on the history of epilepsy being undertaken by the project leader, Rachel Hewitt, at the Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare ( The project will also benefit from the input of a Creative Director, Olivia Vitazkova and a Technical Director, Sam House.

Unfortunately, we are unable to pay salaries or fees to members of the project, but materials and expenses for the production of new work will be reimbursed, and all intellectual property rights belong to the producers of the work. As it is largely a charitable project, it is being run not-for-profit through Glasgow Caledonian University and Epilepsy Scotland. Any proceeds raised through charitable collections will be donated to Epilepsy Scotland.

For more information contact us at:

Jean-Martin Charcot
Jean-Martin Charcot

‘One small pig died’, and other stories.

A few weeks ago, some colleagues and I went down to London (from our institutions in Glasgow) to start the archive groundwork for our first chapters. Among other things, I’m looking at the provision of care for people with epilepsy from about 1900-1939, which during this period meant the building of ‘colonies’. These were separate residential institutions which focused on moral therapy over pharmaceuticals–effectively, working outdoors on farms rather than being dosed on bromides and left to rot in asylums and workhouses. London Metropolitan Archives, in Islington, is the repository for all things local and administrative in the City of London. I was going there to view the records of the National Society for Epileptics, a Society founded in part by neurologist, medical pioneer and messy note-keeper John Hughlings Jackson. Jackson was a huge figure in research on epilepsy; it therefore followed that his society, with its links to the Charlfont Colony (now a major research centre) would be a good place to start.

I quickly discovered that they were linked to the ubiquitous Charity Organisation Society who were on the administrative board of just about anything they could get their hands on..The Colony was hit by a major scandal in 1919: a colonist was found dead. John Bull, the magazine famous for being sued by David Lloyd George for libel, published an article which accused an attendant of bodily throwing a colonist out of bed, thus causing the colonist to have a fit and die as a result of cardiac arrest. The Coroner ruled the death as being non-suspicious, but John Bull argued that it was the Coroner who was suspicious as the inquiry was conduced without a jury and on the evidence of a medical officer who was three miles away having his breakfast at the time of death.  Then, John Bull argued, there was more. As well as throwing Colonists from their beds, John Bull accused the attendants of starving the Colonists and working them to the ground, while the attendants themselves feasted on butter. John Bull called for an inquest into the death, and broader investigation into the Colony. The Board wasn’t impressed, and conducted an internal investigation–not into the death per se, but into which of the Colonists had spoken to the press. They noted that the Colonist making the accusation of food shortages was on reprimand by the attendant in question.

A second article was published, following the first. The magazine reported that the relatives of the deceased had visiting the Colony was were told that the death was of natural causes, but no more. The Director of the Colony had informed the relatives that nothing was to be done and quickly shook them off before returning to duty. John Bull  therefore saw this as a sign of guilt on the Colony’s part and once more called for an inquest. However, the attendant accused had by then gone missing, absconded from the Colony following charges of petty larceny. John Bull once again accused the Colony of administering a cover-up, further revealing that the attendant was wanted by the Buckinghamshire courts for carrying on illicit relations with one of the male Colonists. It gets worse (or better, if you write for John Bull): having appeared at court, the attendant had all charges dropped against him due to the no-show of the accuser. The ex-Colonist was found in a workhouse in Brighton, under the care of the Guardians, and could have been sent for at any time. Rather than postpone the hearing, the Judge ruled a verdict of Not Guilty. The magazine therefore hinted that by returning such a verdict to the runaway attendant, the Judge was in the same league as the Coroner: he’d been bribed by the Board to keep the Colony’s reputation afloat.


Perhaps John Bull Magazine really had it in for the COS?

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