The 20th Century
In 1902, British physician George F. Still described for the Royal College of Physicians a disease in which children could not inhibit their behavior and were defiant, restless and inattentive. Though he termed it a “defect in moral character," he felt the behavior might be the result of brain damage, but could also have a biological basis. He suggested that parenting was not the cause of this aberrant behavior. Children with such behavior, however, were judged morally; but, doctors finally began to look at the disorder scientifically.
In the 1930s, researchers studied the behavior of children who had been affected by flu and encephalitis during the worldwide influenza pandemic in 1917-1918. Children who recovered from the encephalitis exhibited unusual restlessness, impulsivity, and distractibility—behaviors which are now considered the “diagnostic triad" of ADD, according to Dr. Edward M. Hallowell and Dr. John J. Ratey, authors of Driven to Distraction. The 1930s also brought the first use of stimulants to treat children with behavioral disorders. The stimulants, paradoxically, had a dramatic calming effect on hyperactive, inattentive, impulsive children.
By the 1950s, the idea of ADD as a brain disorder emerged and began to be studied. Ritalin was the stimulant most used to treat the disorder, known then as minimal brain dysfunction. By the 1960s, the genetics connection became evident, along with the idea that, again, biological malfunction, and not poor parenting, was at the root of attention deficit disorder. In the 1960s, too, the first description of symptoms appeared in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), emphasizing hyperactivity over inattention. In the 1970s, impulsivity and distractibility joined hyperactivity as hallmark symptoms of this syndrome, and by 1980, it became known as attention deficit disorder. In the 1990s, research into the condition exploded, and it was renamed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.