Thumb sucking was a brain disease

I’ve just discovered an astounding article from the journal Medical History that left me, dare I say, open mouthed. It’s about how, in the early 1900s, thumb-sucking in children was considered a neurological disorder that was thought serious enough to justify paediatrics as a separate medical speciality.

It sounds ridiculous now, but at the time these were weighty concerns and thumb-sucking merited a place in medical textbooks where it was thought to be responsible for dental damage – a genuine risk to developing teeth in some cases – but less realistically, it was also cited as a cause of facial deformity and, oddly, masturbation.

Fuelled by the popularity of Freudian concepts, thumb-sucking was seen as infantile form of ‘self-pleasuring’ that had lots of knock-on effects for both child and adult development.

It’s probably worth explaining that, in those less enlightened times, whacking off was not only considered dirty, but a leading cause of insanity and hysteria. So the charge that one activity could trigger self-pleasuring was a much more serious affair.

These are genuine quotes from the medical textbooks of the time:

Many are absolutely incurable and the victim may be compelled to carry the marks of this practice and their accompanying discomforts through a long life.

So hideous is the deformity caused by this habit, that it seems incredible that it should be necessary even to call attention to it, much less to urge that action be taken to put a stop to the evil.

Probably the most pernicious result of sucking is its tendency to develop the habit of masturbation.

No consideration of the nervous and mental derangements of infancy would be complete which omitted the consideration of the curious group of minor psychoses which, for want of a more distinctive name, are usually referred to as “bad habits”.


Link to Medical History article on thumb sucking and paediatrics.

One thought on “Thumb sucking was a brain disease”

  1. This is a riot. I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise though when the paradigm of psychiatric care was “if you do something we personally don’t like, it is obviously a horrible mental disease.”

    I’m surprised more children weren’t lobotomized.

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