Evolving Views on Epilepsy and Crime

Holly Dunbar

Mental Health Awareness Week

As it is Mental Health Awareness Week I have been thinking about the portrayals of and stigma surrounding mental health in my historical research. This week I have been researching the case of a prisoner who had epilepsy in England in the 1940s. Epilepsy is no longer considered a mental health issue, as the physical causes are now better understood, but in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries this was not the case. In the late nineteenth century, epilepsy was believed to be caused by a moral failing and even associated with a degenerated brain resulting from excessive masturbation.[1] The only medical treatment for epilepsy was potassium bromide, which was believed to be effective for epileptics as it suppressed libido.[2] However, the bromide solutions were administered at such high doses to manage seizures that they rendered patients lethargic and sedate.[3]

The ‘Epileptic Criminal’

Epileptics were not just viewed as morally dubious, but were believed to be naturally predisposed to anti-social and criminal behaviour. In 1873, Sir Henry Maudlsey named epilepsy “epileptic neurosis” and argued that insane people were biologically inclined to illegal behaviour.[4] In 1911, Cesare Lombroso claimed that there were three types of criminal: the insane criminal, the born criminal, and the epileptic criminal.[5] Epileptics made up proportions of the institutionalised populations in prisons, asylums and, from the 1890s, specialised ‘Epileptic Colonies’. These colonies were marketed as ‘therapeutic communities’, but in reality they functioned more like work camps where epileptics were sometimes medically experimented upon.[6]

Closure of Epileptic Colonies

Medical advances produced drugs better suited to treat epilepsy. From 1903, barbituates were found to be more effective than bromide solutions. Then in 1938, the first anti-seizure medication was trialled, dilantin.[7] Being able to control the symptoms of epilepsy ended some of the fear and stigma surrounding it, and was part of the context to the closure of the ‘Epileptic Colonies’ in the 1950s. However, the stigma associated the condition persisted and as late as the 1960s researchers were arguing that there was a correlation between epilepsy and criminal behaviour.[8] Today, epilepsy is far better understood and no longer viewed as a mental health disorder.


The treatment and stigmatising of epileptics is not a pleasant history. However, a consideration of it during Mental Health Awareness Week, emphasises the dangers of segregating and obscuring ill-health, and shows the importance of approaching people and their conditions in an integrative, supportive and open way.

Image: Portrait of Henry Maudsley (1846–1920). Wellcome Library, London.


[1] Thomas Stephen Szaz, Cruel Compassion: Psychiatric Control of Society’s Unwanted (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1998), p. 47.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, p. 45.

[5] J. C. Gunn, ‘The Prevalence of Epilepsy Among Prisoners’, Royal Society of Medicine, 62 (1969), 60-63 (p. 60).

[6] Jeannette Stirling, Representing Epilepsy (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2010), p. 152.

[7] Szaz, p. 47.

[8] J. C. Gunn, p. 63.

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