The history of Tourette Syndrome

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The Middle Ages in the city of 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 crowds.

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.

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…

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."

Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches)

These quotes are 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 said tics.

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

It is well understood that tics can intensify at the 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 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.

Ernestine 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 the earliest known research coming from France.

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

Born in Provence in the southeast of France, 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 behavioursobviously 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.

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

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 Ernestine’s 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.

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‘.

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.

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

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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