The History of Cerebral Palsy

The group of neuromuscular disabilities we know today as cerebral palsy has been observed since antiquity. Ancient civilizations, including the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans described some instances of cerebral palsy, but did not know its causes or how to treat it.

It wasn’t until the 19th Century that medical researchers in Europe began to look at congenital and acquired birth injuries. Since the 1830s, however, numerous doctors, clinical investigators, and other experts have uncovered many of cerebral palsy’s physiological details and some of its causes, though several mysteries about its causes still remain.

Historical Timeline of Cerebral Palsy

1830’s: British surgeon William John Little began the first serious efforts to research what will eventually be known as “cerebral palsy.” Partially disabled by polio as a child, Little spent most of his medical career studying various disabling conditions, including spastic diplegia, which will later be identified as a form of cerebral palsy.

1853: William John Little published a study titled “On the Nature and Treatment of the Deformities of the Human Frame.”  In the study, Little described various neonatal injuries and congenital disabilities that affect the muscular system. Along with his research on spastic diplegia, Little also wrote the first description of pseudo-hypertrophic muscular dystrophy.

1861: William John Little attempted to create the first definition of cerebral palsy, referring to the birth injury as a result of difficulties during labor in which “the child has been partially suffocated.” Since no one else had written about spasticity or variation in muscle tone, the term “cerebral palsy” still didn’t exist. Instead, the disability is referred to as Little’s Disease. Little’s research paper also discussed the importance of early treatment and intervention. Little wrote about how the children have been “restored to considerable activity and enjoyment of life.”

1889: Sir William Osler wrote a book titled Cerebral Palsies of Children. Osler didn’t refer to the disability as Little’s Disease, but instead built upon Little’s work and added to it from his own scientific findings. Osler chose to base the term “cerebral palsy” on the Latin words for “brain” and “paralysis” rather than use common English vernacular.

1892: William Osler became the Chief of Medicine at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Medical School. He published a text titled The Principles and Practice of Medicine: Designed for the Use of Practitioners of Students of Medicine. The textbook became a standard work that was studied for the next 40 years. Osler’s work also helped establish credibility for his studies on cerebral palsy..

1897: Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Sigmund Freud is the first medical researcher to disagree with the theories put forward by Drs. Little and Osler. Freud suggested that cerebral palsy was a brain-related disease that affects children before birth (not during or after as Little proposed). Freud also associated various disorders, including intellectual disabilities, visual disturbances, and seizures, with cerebral palsy  .

1949: The United Cerebral Palsy Foundation (UCP) is founded by Leonard Goldenson, president of United Paramount Theaters and the ABC television network, and his wife Isabelle in a joint effort with prominent New York businessman Jack Hausman and his wife Ethel. Both couples are parents of children with cerebral palsy and use their influence to create a foundation to help others affected by the disability.

1952: Marie Killilea wrote Karen, the first of two nonfiction books about the author’s experiences while caring for her daughter Karen, who was born with cerebral palsy. Karen and its sequel, With Love From Karen (1963) became best sellers. Killilea also wrote Wren (1954), a children’s version of Karen’s story.

1963: President John F. Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Act. The law stipulates that children with mental disabilities can be cared for in the community instead of having to be institutionalized.

1980’s: Medical researchers prove Freud’s theory that cerebral palsy can happen before birth. In addition, clinical studies confirm that cerebral palsy can also be caused by birth injuries, though it only makes up less than 10% of all diagnosed cases.

1990: Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a federal law that  prohibits employers from carrying out discriminatory hiring practices against individuals with disabilities.