The history and origin of cerebral palsy includes a number of great minds, generous hearts, and dedicated people striving to improve the lives of individuals with disabilities. In the mid-1800s, Dr. William John Little pioneered the study of cerebral palsy using his own childhood disability as an inspiration. Little was the first man to define cerebral palsy as a brain injury caused by oxygen deprivation at birth. As a child, Little battled mumps, measles, and whooping cough, three diseases that still claim lives today. A bout with polio left Little with a clubfoot, a physical impairment in which the foot turns inward. At the age of 15, his childhood illnesses and foot impairment began to fuel an interest in medicine. By age 27, he had earned his degree as a doctor of medicine. His innovative techniques are still helping people today.
Sir William Osler, a British medical doctor, (known as the father of medicine) is thought to have coined the term cerebral palsy and is recognized as one of the most notable contributors in the history of medicine. He was also one of the most significant early researchers of cerebral palsy and is often credited as the first to use the term ‘cerebral palsy.’ While Dr. William John Little began the study of cerebral palsy, then named ‘Little’s Disease,’ his work referred to only one form of cerebral palsy as defined today. Osler’s book, “The Cerebral Palsies of Children,” explores many other forms of the impairment. The book is a summation of his Osler’s lectures, which present numerous case studies and highlight possible causes of impairment. Much like Little, Osler’s conclusion indicated that proper treatment could greatly increase quality of life.
Dr. Sigmund Freud, the Austrian neurologist better known for his work in psychiatry, published some of the earliest medical papers on cerebral palsy. In the early years, Dr. Little believed most cases of cerebral palsy were caused by obstetrical complications at birth. He suggested that children born with cerebral palsy were born following complicated deliveries, and that their condition was a result of lack of oxygen to the brain. He said this oxygen shortage damaged sensitive brain tissues controlling movement.
However, in the late 1800's, Freud disagreed. Noting that children with cerebral palsy often had other problems such as mental retardation, visual disturbances, and seizures, Freud suggested the disorder was present earlier in life, during the brain's development in the womb. Sir William Osler, considered an important figure in furthering modern medicine, expounded on Little’s research and wrote the first book on cerebral palsy. Dr. Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, proposed the idea that cerebral palsy might result from abnormal fetal development – decades before the medical field embraced the concept.
Other individuals and organizations made historical strides toward helping those with cerebral palsy, as well. At different times, the U.S. government passed crucial legislation to modernize care and further the rights of individuals with disability. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Act, which promoted community-based care as an alternative to institutionalization. On July 26, 1990, President George H. W. Bush passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, prohibiting employers from discriminating against people with disability.
Little’s work on cerebral palsy, although unnamed at the time, actually started in the late 1830s when he lectured on birth injuries. In 1853, he published his research in a document titled, “On the Nature and Treatment of the Deformities of the Human Frame,” noting congenital birth defects and “their capability of restoration to a surprising degree of perfection.” His work on cerebral palsy culminated in 1861 when Little attempted the first definition of cerebral palsy in a paper presented to the Obstetrical Society of London. In it, he stated