Sigmund Freud (1865 – 1939)
First to Group a Wide Range of Motor ImpairmentsDr. Sigmund Freud, a neurologist, was first to state that cerebral palsy might be caused by abnormal development before birth. Prior to that, orthopedic surgeon Dr. William Little had postulated that cerebral palsy was acquired at birth due to difficult labor. Freud disagreed, stating that difficult birth is “merely a symptom of deeper effects that influence the development of the fetus.” At the time, this conclusion was virtually ignored. It wasn’t until decades later that researchers began to support Freud’s theories.
Freud on the Cause of Cerebral Palsy
Freud disagreed with Little’s findings and fueled a debate that is still argued in courtrooms and researched within the medical community today. Freud noticed that many children who experienced birth asphyxia went on to develop normally with no indication of cerebral palsy. Little believed that birth asphyxia caused cerebral palsy.
Little’s background was orthopedic surgery, and Freud believed that this limited both the type of patients that Little saw and the way Little viewed their condition. Also, Freud was studying the brain and its pathways, which allowed him to see a connection between cerebral palsy and other conditions such as intellectual impairment and seizures. All this led Freud to state that these conditions were likely caused by problems occurring very early in the development of the brain and central nervous system, certainly before birth.
Despite this observation, researchers and doctors continued to follow Little’s conclusions. Freud wasn’t proven correct until almost a century later when research indicated only a small percentage of cerebral palsy cases, approximately 10 percent, were caused by birth asphyxia.
Freud First to Unite Motor Impairments Under One Term, ‘Infantile Cerebral Palsy’
Although the term ‘cerebral palsy’ was not used in the mid-1800s, Freud was first to unite the wide range of infantile motor impairments caused by abnormal brain development under one term: infantile cerebral palsy. This grouping is still relevant today, although Freud intended it as temporary classification; one that would be proven outdated by future research. Today, doctors and researchers continue working toward better methods for classifying cerebral palsy.
The Peculiar Birth of Sigmund Freud
Ironically, Freud was protected from asphyxia at birth. He was born in a Caul, which means he was born inside an intact amniotic sac. This happens most often in preterm birth, and can allow a baby to develop as if they were still inside the womb, not needing to breathe, protected from infection, and taking nourishment from amniotic fluids. According to the folklore of Freud’s day, birth in a Caul was an omen of future success. He was destined to be a great man.