The history of Tourette Syndrome

The year 1486 in the city of Speyer, Germany.

The book Malleus Maleficarum (also known as the Hammer of Witches) is published by the catholic clergyman Heinrich Kramer.

The publication is dedicated to demonology and the fight against witchcraft.

The book briefly details a priest unable to control himself when passing a church and when getting down to worship.

When the priest is asked if he can control himself, he responds:

The ‘possessed’ priest goes on to say that:

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

Many readers will be able to relate to this priest. The motor and vocal tics, the struggle to control them at the times they seem most inappropriate.

Sadly, history hasn’t been kind to those seen to be possessed by the devil.

Fast-forward to the 1800’s in Paris, France

A girl is born on 22nd August, 1800.

From the age of seven, she was known to have ‘ticked and blasphemed’ until death 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 at the time.

Now, we know who this person was.

Ernestine Émilie Prondre de Guermantes had rather ‘obscene’ behaviour. Her outbursts and choice of vocabulary would today be recognised as ‘Coprolalia‘.

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.

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

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 then 26-year-old Ernestine Émilie Prondre de Guermantes.

Sixty years later

Jean-Martin Charcot was a neurologist, working at Salpêtrière Hospital, assessing 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 her more frequent vocal tics.

In 1884, 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.

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

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‘.

Interestingly, the official diagnosis still contains the full name of the neurologist it was named after.

This can be seen below in my medical records dated 16th April 1999… 114 years after Gilles de la Tourette’s findings were published.

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 can be put down to the fact that Tourette syndrome hasn’t been a priority for research, and the struggle with stereotypes and misinformation surrounding the condition.

Despite this, more and more people are experiencing tic-like symptoms.

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

This may be a result of the stresses caused by a forced lockdown, along with the increase in tics being seen on social media and increased screen time during the lockdown.

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 Syndrome’ is still being written.

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