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Daniel P. Hallahan, University of Virginia, & Cecil D. Mercer, University of Florida

Although the federal government’s involvement in learning disabilities through task forces, legislation, and funding has only been evident since the 1960s and 1970s, we can trace learning disabilities’ roots back to at least the early 1800s. Thus, learning disabilities may be one of the newest categories officially recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, but the origins of its conceptual foundation are as longstanding, or nearly as longstanding, as many of the other disability categories.

We have divided the history of learning disabilities into five periods: European Foundation Period (c. 1800 to 1920); U.S. Foundation Period (c. 1920 to 1960); Emergent Period (c. 1960 to 1975); Solidification Period (c. 1975 to 1985); Turbulent Period (c. 1985 to 2000). Others before us (Lerner, 2000; Mercer, 1997; Wiederholt, 1974) have also divided the history into roughly similar periods.1


During the European Foundation Period, there were two main lines of work relevant to the field of learning disabilities. First, several groundbreaking discoveries in the field of neurology occurred during this time. Second, toward the end of this period, significant seminal articles and books on reading disabilities were published.

Research on Brain-Behavior Relationships

We can trace the origins of the field of learning disabilities back to research in Europe on acquired brain pathology in adults. Men whose names still grace the pages of neurology textbooks conducted this research. One of the primary objectives of this research was the attempt to match up areas of the brain to particular behaviors. A German physician, Franz Joseph Gall, is credited as the first major figure to explore the relationship between brain injury and mental impairment. Gall based much of his theorizing on observations he made of brain-injured soldiers. In a letter published in 1802, he conjectured that three separate parts of the brain are each responsible for what he termed: (a) vital sources (movement and sensation), (b) moral qualities (inclinations of the soul), and (c) intellectual qualities (Head, 1926; Wiederholt, 1974). Of particular relevance to learning disabilities, Gall is known for noting the effect of brain damage on what today would be termed Broca’s aphasia.

Gall’s contributions in linking brain injury and aphasia, however, were largely overshadowed by his association with the phrenology school of thought, the belief that skull shape determines mental and personality attributes. In later years, many considered him a quack. One exception was John Baptiste Bouillaud, Dean of the Medical School of the College of France (Wiederholt, 1974).

In the 1820s, Bouillaud furthered Gall’s work through autopsies of several patients with brain injury. Bouillaud did not ascribe to Gall’s position on phrenology, but he did agree with much of what he had to say regarding the localization of brain functioning. Although Gall had hypothesized that the control of movement and sensory perception are located in the brain stem, Bouillard concluded that they are located in the cortex. In addition, he asserted that the frontal anterior lobes of the brain control speech.

In the 1860s, Pierre Paul Broca did much to debunk the phrenologists through postmortem observations of adults with brain injury. In particular, Broca is generally known for being the one who did the most to promote the idea that speech functions primarily reside in the left side of the brain.2 He based his case on autopsies of several patients who had had impaired speech while alive. Broca concluded that a small section of the left side of the brain was responsible for speech. This area, which is located in the inferior left frontal lobe, has come to be called Broca’s area; persons who have a particular constellation of speech problems involving slow, laborious, dysfluent speech are referred to as having Broca’s aphasia. Some have

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