Epilepsy has always been surrounded by prejudice. In Brazil in the nineteenth century, as in other countries and times, epilepsy was nearly always hidden behind a veil of silence. Families concealed the disease when it afflicted one of their members. Society commented in hushed voices when a famous writer suffered a seizure in public. And at Rio?s Valongo slave market, it was common for prospective buyers to pass a strong-smelling substance under the noses of the ?merchandise? on display, a practice harking back to Roman times when buyers would make the slaves smell pitch to see if they were epileptics, because they thought the strong smell would provoke a seizure in those who suffered from epilepsy. Everybody avoided using the proper term for the disease, preferring pleonasms such as ?the great evil", or "Hercules? malady".

The study group that develops the research project called Science and Prejudice: A Social History of Epilepsy in Brazilian Medical Thinking. 1859 ? 1906 considers it important to add its efforts to those of other groups and researchers that study the history of health and disease, for three main reasons.

In the first place, it appears relevant to an understanding of Brazilian medical thinking in the nineteenth century to study how epilepsy was analyzed and treated at that time, since physicians were mostly in the dark about how to treat the disease. It is important to perceive how the fumbling attempts to apply science to the matter incorporated longstanding attitudes about the illness and its treatment. It is also significant to identify the textual, logical and rhetorical apparatus mobilized to lend a scientific aura to discourse on epilepsy, since this analysis provides elements to understand the particular subgroup of the educated universe composed of medicine doctors.

Second, the then current medical thinking on epilepsy, a disease whose manifestations seem to suspend all logic, offers valuable insights into the underpinnings of nineteenth-century Brazilians? attitudes toward a range of issues, such as the body, health and sickness, hygiene, morality, eating habits and the complex relations among the body, mind and feelings. Also called the ?falling disease?, because its sufferers fall down and lose body control during seizures, epilepsy, at that time associated with sexual practices, food, drink, strong emotions, excessive exertion, temperament and even criminality, in the one hand, unmasked science and, in the other hand, revealed how attitudes, taboos, prejudice and stigmas, in no way scientific, crossed the thresholds of august medical colleges, disguised as science.

Third, it appears significant for the field of cultural history in general, and the history of health and disease in particular, to analyze nineteenth-century Brazilian medical thinking on epilepsy, which unlike other diseases such as smallpox, yellow fever, tuberculosis and insanity, still has not been studied in Brazil by historians.

The team conducting the study invites all those interested to learn more about this work to visit this web site.  

Professor Margarida de Souza Neves
Research Group Coordinator
History Department ? Pontif?ia Universidade Cat?ica do Rio de Janeiro ? PUC-Rio



A Social History of Epilepsy in Brazilian Medical Thinking

History - PUC-Rio