Dyslexia: A History

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Dyslexia: A History by Phillip Kirby and Margaret Snowling is the outcome of a 6-year research project led by King’s College London and St John’s College, Oxford. Dyslexia affects at least 1 in 10 people. Recently dyslexia has been in the British headlines, with former Member of Parliament Matt Hancock bringing it to the fore again sharing his experience and advocating for awareness and support. Only recently have historians began to conduct research into learning disabilities. Despite the prevalence of dyslexia, Kirby and Snowling provide the first empirical study, charting both the history of social transformation towards the understanding of dyslexia and the actions of the advocates, teachers, supporters and the state intervention for those with dyslexia.

The book contains four sections, structured in a chronological format capturing 150 years of history. In the first section of the book, the origins of dyslexia were investigated. In 1877 a German neurologist Adolf Kussmaul was the first to document extreme reading difficulties in children in able children which he referred to as ‘word blindness’. By 1896, British practitioner William Pringle Morgan began research into ‘word blindness’. His findings could be comparable to descriptions of individuals with dyslexia today. Moreover, this was followed by British ophthalmologist, James Hinshelwood, with both producing an accumulation of reports. Pringle Morgan and Hinshelwood performed an important role in associating dyslexia with high intelligence. However, the section notes investigation subsided in the UK due to the influence of English psychologist Cyril Burt. Burt was critical of ‘word blindness’ denouncing the diagnosis as a ‘pseudo-pathology’ used by poorly trained psychiatrists. Research into dyslexia was then overtaken by a pioneering study undertaken by American physician Samuel Orton. Orton focused his research on the USA delving into reading and writing challenges and multi-sensory learning and teaching. Additionally, in 1930, in the Netherlands, the first specialist school for dyslexic students was opened.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)579-581
Number of pages3
JournalSocial History of Medicine
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished online - 11 Aug 2023


  • History
  • Medicine (miscellaneous)


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