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Epilepsy- The "Sacred Disease"

ccywes's picture

Across both the reading for tomorrow in chapter 6 of A Disability History, as well as the podcast for thursday, and many other sources on eugenics, epilepsy appears to be one of the most common conditions mentioned as a reason for forced sterilization or placemenent in institutions for people with disabilites. This mad eme question why epilepsy drew so much focus, particularly when  other disabilities are much more visible on a daily basis. After doing some research, I found that epilepsy (once called the "sacred disease") was first referenced over 4,000 years ago on a Akkadian tablet and was attributed to possession by a god or demon (Kaculini et al). Despite its presence throughout history and all over the world, it was one of the most stigmatized diseases until the 20th century, and remains stigmatized today, long after it was no longer attributed to spiritual pathophysiology. Due to its somewhat dramatic presentation and spontaneity, epilepsy imparts fear on some members of society, which resulted in intense discrimination against people with epilepsy. I believe part of the reason it was so heavily targetted during the eugenics movement was because it was so widely known to be a disorder, but the misconceptions about its cause as well as a lack of activism around equal rights for people with epilepsy made the stigmatization worse by almost encouraging people to believe the misconceptions. According to Kaculini et al, there is a strong correlation between social perception/knowledge of epilepsy and the successful treatment of the disorder. As with many other disabilities, shining a light on the truth of disabilites like epilespy can help lighten the burden faced by people with epilepsy (though the extent to which it is lightened is debatable).

The paper I sighted below was really helpful for me to learn more about the origins of epilepsy and answered some of my questios about why it was targetted so heavily by the eugenics movement and beyond. Also, this post is not meant to say that other disabilites are not also heavily targetted by the eugenics movement. I was just curious about why epilepsy is one of the more common disabilities mentioned in the sources I have read about eugenics.


Kaculini CM, Tate-Looney AJ, Seifi A. The History of Epilepsy: From Ancient Mystery to Modern Misconception. Cureus. 2021;13(3):e13953. Published 2021 Mar 17. doi:10.7759/cureus.13953