John Court: A note on the history of Anorexia Nervosa


         Tremendous thanks, Tom Ban, for your thorough and fascinating review of Psychiatric Diagnoses (Ban 2018).

         At great risk of contesting matters of little or no consequence (figuratively, “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin”), I was surprised that you attributed the anorexia nervosa (AN) diagnostic category solely to Charles Lasègue, rather than the customary attribution to both himself and Sir William Gull, both in 1873-4, working independently.  You have dated Lasègue’s paper to 1871, rather than the more usual 1873.  For the latter, please see our colleague, Edward Shorter’s Historical Dictionary of Psychiatry regarding AN (Shorter 2005).  Ned rightly gives a slight edge in this “race” to Lasègue, which I would not dispute, and dates Lasègue’s paper to 1873, rather than your date of 1871 (in your References). 

            I’ve also cited Lasègue in 1873, although our difference may be one of language – perhaps a French article in 1871, English in 1873?  In 2016, Vice-Dean Allan Kaplan and I wrote concerning AN’s modern history: 

“…the pre-modern era’s majoradvance came about in 1873–1874 (Court and Kaplan 2016). Two independent yetcorroborating formulations emerged in that 1-year period when anorexia nervosa (AN) was identified as we now understand it, and conceptualized as a disorder, by Drs. CharlesLasègue of Paris and Sir William Gull of London [Gull 1874, 1888; Lasègue 1873].  Once again, there seems to have been no spike in outbreaks at that time, and none followed immediately after. Consequently, littlenotice seemed to follow their writings on AN. Gull had been elevated to the Baronetcy by Queen Victoria for unrelated services. His [Oxford Dictionary of National Biography] biographer simply notes that: ‘His paper on anorexia broke new ground…’”




Ban TA. Neuropsychopharmacology in Historical Perspective Education in the Field in the Post-Neuropsychopharmacology Era. Background to An Oral History of the First Fifty Years. Special Areas (Volume Seven): 3. Psychiatric diagnosis. Bulletin 61. November 5, 2018.

Court JPM, Kaplan AS. The Disjointed Historical Trajectory of Anorexia Nervosa Before 1970. Current Psychiatry Reports 2016; 18:10.  Open access.DOI 10.1007/s11920-015-0641-6.

Gull WW. Anorexa nervosa (apepsia hysterica, anorexia hysterica). Trans Clin Soc London. 1874;7:22–8. Also

Gull WW. Anorexia nervosa. Lancet 1888;I:516–7.

Lasègue C. On hysterical anorexia.Medical Times and Gazette 1873 (Engl.);2:265–6.

Shorter E. Historical Dictionary of Psychiatry. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2005.


April 18, 2019