The history of Tourette Syndrome

It’s the Middle Ages in Speyer, Germany.

Renown for its Romanesque Cathedral, Speyer was an important location for the Holy Roman Empire

By the 1400’s, the Inquisition was well under way throughout Europe.

Conducted by the Catholic Church, the Inquisition had a mission to seek out undesirables such as heretics, devil-worshippers and witches.

It wasn’t a good time to stand out from the crowd.

A picture frame sits on a wall, with Speyer Cathedral and gathering crowds in the picture.

A crusade against witchcraft

In 1487, the book Malleus Maleficarum (also known as the Hammer of Witches) was published in Speyer by the catholic clergyman Heinrich Kramer. 

Kramer’s book was dedicated to demonology and the fight against witchcraft.

It was critiqued by some- notably theologians of the Inquisition at (what is now) the University of Cologne– for immoral and illegal practices against the accused. 

Despite this, the book would become highly influential in the persecution of witches. For centuries, it would be the witch-hunters bible.

The words 'shackles and chains, cruel and unkind, freedom withheld, body and mind' with a hammer and book seen in front of a burning fire.

History in writing

Within the pages, we learn about the lives of those accused of witchcraft, and the reasons for such accusations. 

The following is one very notable example.

A local priest experiences strange urges

These urges are particularly intense when passing a church and when kneeling to worship.

His actions gain unwanted, inevitable attention. Feared to be possessed, the priest is asked whether or not he can control these strange behaviours.

He responds…

"I cannot help myself at all, for so he uses all my limbs and organs, my neck, my tongue, and my lungs, whenever he pleases, causing me to speak or cry out."

The priest continues…

"And I hear the words as if they were spoken by myself, but I am altogether unable to restrain them; and when I try to engage in prayer he attacks me more violently, thrusting out my tongue."

This is believed to be the first written record of a person having Tourette Syndrome.

His account describes behaviours with a striking similarity to tics.

The priest declaring that ‘I cannot help myself at all‘ and ‘I am altogether unable to restrain them‘ is very relatable. The involuntary nature of tics would result in the priest finding it very difficult or impossible to resist these tics.

When I try to engage in prayer he attacks me more violently…

It is well understood that tics can intensify at times we would least like to have them. At a funeral, on a first date… or in this case, at church.

At a time when religion had the community in a chokehold and neurological disorders were a sign of heresy, we can only spare a thought for the priest.

The 1800's in Paris, France

A baby girl is born on 22nd August, 1800.

From the age of seven, she was known to have ‘ticked and blasphemed‘ throughout a long life before passing in her 80’s.

The lady’s real identity was unknown for a very long time, known only as ‘Marquise de Dampierre‘ in medical journals documenting her case.

Now, we know who this person was.

A young girl looks down a Paris street in the 1800's with name and dates also in text following image.

Ernestine Émilie Prondre de Guermantes had rather ‘obscene’ behaviour. 

Her outbursts and choice of vocabulary would today be recognised as ‘Coprolalia‘. At the time this was not so well understood, nor accepted.

She would be one of a number of patients studied in France in the 19th century, a period of increased awareness and research into neurological disorders.

There was a growing interest in the condition, with French specialists taking interest.

Jean Marc Gaspard Itard is believed to have reported the first case of Tourette Syndrome.

Born in Provence, France on 24th April 1774, Itard worked his way up to head physician at the Institution Royale des sourds-muets in Paris.

It was here that in 1825, he assessed a French noblewoman with behaviours:

‘…obviously in stark contrast to the lady’s background, intellect, and refined manners…’.

This lady was a 26-year-old Ernestine Émilie Prondre de Guermantes.

Itard published the article- Memorie sur quelques fonctions involontaires des appareils de la locomotion, de la prehension et de la voix- describing ten cases of people with similar symptoms, one of these being Ernestine.

Sixty years later

Jean-Martin Charcot– born 29th November 1825- became a neurologist working at Salpêtrière Hospital. He assessed patients with movement disorders.

Although it is unclear whether Jean-Martin assessed Ernestine, it is believed that the pair met socially, with Jean-Martin hearing some of Ernestine’s more frequent vocal tics.

In 1884- the year Ernestine passed away- Jean-Martin Charcot assigned an intern to look into movement disorders, hoping to find a condition distinct from hysteria.

This intern was Georges Albert Édouard Brutus Gilles de la -Tourette- born 30th October 1857.

A photo of Tourette, with his name and date of birth/death below.

Georges Gilles de la Tourette published an account of nine patients in 1885, all of which had involuntary moments.

One of these accounts was of Ernestine Émilie Prondre de Guermantes.

In honour of Georges Gilles de la Tourette’s work, Jean-Martin Charcot named the condition ‘Gilles de la Tourette’s illness‘.

Sadly, Tourette experienced a decline in health, notably from being shot by a patient, the death of his mentor Charcot and also the death of his own son. 

He passed away on 22nd May, 1904.

The present day

Although there has been some progress on understanding Tourette Syndrome, some aspects of the condition are still a mystery.

Finding a service that treats Tourette can be difficult, even in developed nations. This could be down to Tourette not being a priority for research, and the struggle with stereotypes and misinformation surrounding the condition.

A study made public in August 2022 shows that up to one in 50 children may have a persistent tic disorder, including Tourette.

A facemask and mobile phone lie on the ground, with the words 'external factors' in the top left corner.

During the 2020 global pandemic, there was a ‘tic explosion‘ seen by specialists taking on new cases.

This may be a result of the stresses caused by lockdown, lived experiences being shared on social media and increased screen time during lockdowns.

Tourette syndrome has had a fascinating history, and as we begin to answer some questions, more questions are appearing.

There is no doubt that the history of Tourette is still being written.

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