Did Shakespeare first notice ADHD? 

Is ADHD a 21st Century phenomenon?

A lot of people I meet ask me why ADHD wasn’t around when they were at school. 

My answer to that is that it WAS around, it’s just that probably it wasn’t in our ‘non-inclusive’ classrooms.


The first reference to ADHD could be in 1613, in Shakespeare’s play Henry VIII, where he mentioned what he called a “malady of attention.”

Following this, a character affectionately called Fidgety Philip was created within a collection of children’s poems. Written by the German doctor Heinrich Hoffmann in the mid 1800s.  Fidgety Phil was a little boy who won’t sit still at dinner and – obviously – fidgets constantly.  Another of Dr Hoffmann’s book characters was “Johnny Head-in-Air” due to his day-dreamy inattention.  These characteristics were drawn from Dr Hoffman’s observations when working with children in his professional practice.

Later, in 1902 Sir George Still (a paediatrician) wrote and presented lectures which were published in the Lancet (a highly respected medical journal). In these he wrote about his work with 43 children who all had normal intellectual ability. They also had some unusual behavioural symptoms where he could see a pattern:

  • Poor self regulation
  • Defiance
  • Low attention span
  • Aggression
  • Mood swings

He concluded that this was a Defect of Moral Control because there seemed to be no particular reason for the behaviour.  They were beyond the control of the individual.

Later in the 20th Century, the names for the condition became a little more familiar and the timeline looks like this:

1931    ‘Hyperkinetic child’ (Winnicott)
1934    ‘Hyperkinetic Disease’ (Kramer – Pollnow)
1940    ‘Minimal Brain Damage’.
1957    ‘Hyperkinetic’ Impulse Disorder / Behaviour Syndrome
1960    ‘Minimal Brain Dysfunction’
1968    ‘Hyperkinetic Reaction of Childhood’ in the DSM-II
1977    ‘Hyperkinetic Syndrome of Childhood’ in the ICD -9
1980    ‘Attention Deficit Disorder’ (ADD)  in the DSM-III
1987    ADHD in the DSM-III-removed sub-typing

Source:  A Brief History of ADHD – ADHD Europe

My view is that we can all experience some inattention and lack of focus at times. This can be driven by tiredness, stress, trauma etc.  If you have experienced it, you’ll have a tiny insight into how difficult it is to operate at that level.

ADHD can appear to a lesser or greater degree in individuals (spectrum) and it’s the extremes of the condition which cause such impairments in everyday life.

So the next time someone questions whether this is a ‘new’ condition, specific to the age in which we live, tell them it isn’t.

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