There are a lot of people to bring up when we talk about ADHD history, so each of these posts will feature an interesting person that has been relevant in diagnosis, classification, medication, or treatment.
If you have a notable person in ADHD history that you’d like me to write about, please drop a comment below or send me an email.
On to today’s notable – Melchior Adam Weikard!
I didn’t expect this one to be interesting because, well, 18th century medical stuff can be really drudge-y. But Melchior turned out to be kind of cool and I appreciate that he was so ahead of his time! He really did not give two farts about what was popular; he only cared about what was truthful.
He’s kind of “The Father of ADHD Classification”, so let’s give him the respect that’s due!
Melchior Adam Weikard was the first person to publish a textbook that referenced ADHD (of course, not what he called it!). He was a physician and a philosopher, and while he lived, held very progressive views on illnesses – believing they had physical rather than spiritual causes.
Melchior (mell-key-orr, emphasis on “mell”) was born on April 27, 1742, near Fulda Germany, to father Johann Nikolaus Weikard and mother Sabine Franziska Weikard.
He was a seemingly precocious child and young adult, noting that he believed his teachers in secondary school were using out-of-date material, and that his university professors were bad teachers. He studied in a modern-day equivalent of a STEM program but struggled academically, and later argued against small Catholic universities – which he believed didn’t receive enough funding for quality teachers.
In 1763 at age 21 (!!) he became a physician in Fulda, and from 1764 – 1776 he worked at the resort spa at Bad Brückenau, which is still a spa hotspot today.
In 1770 he become the personal physician to Heinrich von Bibra, who was the Prince Bishop/Abbot of Fulda, and soon Melchior earned the title of Professor of Medicine at the University of Fulda.
Prince Heinrich von Bibra remained ever supportive of Melchior throughout their working relationship, even when he was most unpopular in the public eye for his scientific theories and works. Though the prince condemned his works, he never publicly condemned Melchior, and eventually supported him in his retirement.
In 1784, at age 42, Melchior became the physician-in-ordinary for Catharine the Great’s court in Russia – which meant that he oversaw the medical care of the regular court staff. While working in the Russian court, he was appointed to State Council, an advisory body to the Head of State, where he served until 1789 (Vive la France!).
Between 1791 and 1794, he returned to spend time in Germany as the personal physician to Prince-Bishop Karl Theodor von Dalberg of Mainz, and to practice medicine in Mannheim and Heilbronn.
Around 1794 he returned to Russia to become the Imperial Chief Physician to Tsar Paul. This was his final official post, after which he retired, returned to Fulda and become a Privy Councilor (essentially, an advisor) for the Director of the Medical Institutes. Melchior died near Fulda on July 25, 1803.
In the 18th century, most of Germany was Catholic, and most of the world believed that illnesses were caused by supernatural forces. But Melchior believed illnesses had physical causes, and that most of the teachings of the Catholic Church were ill-advised.
He also believed the brain controlled our thoughts, emotions and personalities – not the alignment of the stars. Astrology was very popular at the time.
Melchior valued evidence, objectivity, and scientific theory over more popular ways of thinking. He was truly ahead of his time, and very unpopular while he lived!
Contributions to Study of ADHD
In 1775, Melchior anonymously published the first edition of his book Der Philosophische Arzt (The Philosophical Doctor), and by 1790 had published a third edition with his name attributed to it. A second edition was published sometime in between with date unknown.
In this text, he made the first modern clinical description of ADHD, which he called a “lack of attention” disorder. He outlined the manifestations to include: distractibility; needing more effort to complete basic tasks; carelessness; being error-prone in work; and tendencies toward disorganization.
His text hinted at the concepts of impulsivity and hyperactivity. He also identified that the disorder occurred at higher rates in children than in adults.
Melchior’s theory of what caused this “lack of attention” was that the brain “fibers” were “too soft”, and so they weren’t strong enough to handle requirements for paying attention. He attributed these “soft fibers” to bad parenting, which unfortunately continues today to be used as an (incorrect!) explanation for ADHD.
Melchior’s treatment including leaving the afflicted alone in a dark room (12/10 I would not recommend). He also recommended “rubbing, cold baths, steel powder, cinchona, mineral waters, horseback riding, and gymnastic exercises”.
Notably, Melchior identified that to teach a person with this “lack of attention” required ensuring the individual would be allowed to learn in a way that was interesting to them. That still holds true today in how we can identify our strongest learning styles to help us learn more effectively.
Even though he got a lot wrong about ADHD, his contribution is noteworthy for leading to the wealth of research in the 20th century!
References, in no particular order or citation style:
- Fulda, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fulda
- Melchior Adam Weikard, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melchior_Adam_Weikard
- History of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_attention_deficit_hyperactivity_disorder