The History and Medication Timeline of ADHD

ADHD Basics

Intuniv is a non-stimulant ADHD medication
Intuniv is one of the newest ADHD to have been approved by the FDA. Photo courtesy of Shire US Inc.

While ADHD wasn't always recognized, diagnosed, or treated as much as it is now, doctors have actually known about ADHD for some time.

Names for ADHD

They didn't always call it ADHD though, instead using terms like:

  • brain-injured
  • brain-damaged child
  • hyperkinetic impulse disorder
  • hyperexcitability syndrome
  • clumsy child syndrome
  • hyperactive child syndrome
  • hyperkinetic reaction of childhood
  • minimal brain dysfunction
  • organic brain disease
  • nervous child
  • attention deficit disorder

Even now, there is confusion on whether to call it ADD or ADHD.

History of ADHD

The earliest references to an ADHD-like disorder date back to the late-18th century and Sir Alexander Crichton. Some even try to say that many famous people and historical figures could have had ADHD, such as Mozart, Leonardo da Vinci, or Ben Franklin.

Work on ADHD is more often thought to begin in the early 20th century, though:

  • the first descriptions of children with ADHD symptoms are made as early as 1902 by Sir George Frederick Still and were thought to have a 'defect of moral control'
  • in 1908, Alfred F. Tredgold describes 'high-grade feeble-minded' children who likely had a form of mild brain damage that caused them to have ADHD-like anti-school behavior
  • a study is published describing the use of benzedrine (racemic amphetamine) in children with behavior problems in 1937 by Dr. Charles Bradley, who accidentally learned about the benefits of benzedrine when giving the medication to help kids who had severe headaches, but noticed it instead helped their behavior and school performance
  • the first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in 1952 and includes no mention of an ADHD-like disorder
  • hyperkinetic impulse disorder is first used to describe children with ADHD symptoms in 1957
  • Herbert Freed and Charles Peifer study the use of Thorazine (chlorpromazine) on 'hyperkinetic emotionally disturbed children' in 1957
  • C. Keith Conners publishes a study on the effects of Ritalin (methylphenidate) in 'emotionally disturbed children' in 1963
  • in 1966, minimal brain dysfunction syndrome becomes a popular term to describe kids with 'various combinations of impairment in perception, conceptualization, language, memory, and control of attention, impulse, or motor function.'
  • in 1967 and 1968, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) gives a number of grants to researchers to study the effectiveness of stimulants for children with ADHD symptoms
  • the second edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-II) is published by the APA in 1968 and includes the disorders hyperkinetic reaction of childhood or adolescence and organic brain syndrome
  • the first Conner's Rating Scale is published by C. Keith Conners in 1969, which eventually leads to revised editions of the Conner's Rating Scales for parents and teachers
  • in 1970, the Washington Post published a story describing how 5 to 10 percent of all school children in Omaha, Nebraska were receiving stimulants, like Ritalin, to control their behavior, even though the statistics only referred to kids in special-ed programs. The story creates a controversy around the diagnosis of ADHD and use of stimulants, especially since it implies that many parents are coerced into medicating their kids.
  • the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 make stimulants, such as Ritalin (methylphenidate), Schedule III medications and then Schedule II medications in 1971
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 can allow students with ADHD who qualify to get additional help and services at school to help them succeed
  • an anti-Ritalin movement greatly expands in 1975 as several books are published to help reinforce the belief that ADHD isn't a real diagnosis, was created by drug companies to make money, or that hyperactivity is caused by food allergies and food additives, etc.
  • the AAP publishes their first statement about ADHD, Medication for Hyperkinetic Children, which says that in addition to 'consideration of nondrug therapy in situations where such an approach is appropriate,' that 'there is a place for stimulant drugs in the treatment of hyperkinetic children.'
  • the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) is published by the APA in 1980 and includes Attention Deficit Disorder for the first time, including the subtypes ADD with hyperactivity, ADD without hyperactivity, and ADD residual type
  • Dr. Russell A. Barkley writes his first of 17 books about ADHD in 1981 - Hyperactive children: A handbook for diagnosis and treatment.
  • the DSM-III-R (revised edition), published in 1987, again changes the name, this time to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), but doesn't include any subtypes
  • a 1987 report from the AAP, Medication for Children With an Attention Deficit Disorder, offers 'indications for drug therapy in the treatment of attention deficit disorder,' such as Ritalin, Dexedrine, Cylert, and 'other potentially useful drugs,' including tricyclic antidepressants
  • Dr. Barkley begins publishing The ADHD Report newsletter in 1993
  • the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) is published by the APA in 2000 and describes three types of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), including ADHD, Combined Type, ADHD, Predominantly Inattentive Type, and ADHD, Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive Type
  • Joseph Biederman publishes one of the first of hundreds of medical studies about children with ADHD in 1995
  • an updated AAP report, Medication for Children With Attention Disorders, published in 1996, stresses that drug therapy should be combined 'with appropriate management of the child's environment and curriculum.'
  • the 2000 Clinical Practice Guideline: Diagnosis and Evaluation of the Child With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder from the AAP offer clear guidance for pediatricians and parents on the assessment and treatment of kids with ADHD
  • Strattera, the first non-stimulant treatment for ADHD, is approved in 2002
  • warning labels on ADHD medications are updated in 2007 to include warnings about the possibility of cardiovascular risks (sudden death in children and adolescents with structural cardiac abnormalities or other serious heart problems) and risks of adverse psychiatric symptoms (hallucinations, delusional thinking, or mania).

ADHD Medication Timeline

Dr. Bradley's studies on the use of Benzedrine was once thought of as heralding the modern era of ADHD treatment, but that role has likely now passed to the newer, once-a-day ADHD medications that most kids take.

Although it seems like a lot of different ADHD medications have been developed over the years, especially in the last ten years, most of them use same basic active ingredients (methylphenidate and amphetamine/dextroamphetamine) that have been used since the earliest days of ADHD research.

  • 1937 - Benzedrine (racemic amphetamine)
  • 1943 - Desoxyn (methamphetamine hydrochloride)
  • 1955 - Ritalin (methylphenidate)
  • 1955-1983 - Biphetamine (mixed amphetamine/dextroamphetamine resin)
  • 1960 - Adderall (mixed amphetamine/dextroamphetamine salts)
  • 1975-2003 - Cylert (pemoline)
  • 1976 - Dextrostat (dextroamphetamine)
  • 1976 - Dexedrine (dextroamphetamine)
  • 1982 - Ritalin SR
  • 1999 - Metadate ER (methylphenidate)
  • 2000 - Concerta (methylphenidate)
  • 2000 - Methylin ER (methylphenidate)
  • 2001 - Metadate CD (methylphenidate)
  • 2001 - Focalin (dexmethylphenidate)
  • 2001 - Adderall XR (mixed amphetamine salts)
  • 2002 - Ritalin LA
  • 2002 - Methylin (methylphenidate) oral solution and chewable tablet
  • 2002 - Strattera (atomoxetine)
  • 2005 - Focalin XR (dexmethylphenidate)
  • 2006 - Daytrana (methylphenidate patch)
  • 2007 - Vyvanse (lisdexamfetamine dimesylate)
  • 2008 - Procentra (liquid dextroamphetamine)
  • 2009 - Intuniv (guanfacine hydrochloride)
  • 2010 - Kapvay (clonidine hydrocloride)
  • 2012 - Quillivant XR (liquid methylphenidate)
  • 2016 - Adzenys XR-ODT (amphetamine oral disintegrating tablet)
  • 2016 - Quillichew ER (chewable methylphenidate)

Many of these ADHD medications, even the extended release versions, are now available as generics.


AAP. Medication for Hyperkinetic Children. Pediatrics, Apr 1975; 55: 560 - 562.

Bradley C. The behavior of children receiving Benzedrine. Amer. J. Psychiar., 94:577, 1937.

C. Keith Conners. Symposium: Behavior modification by drugs: II. Psychological effects of stimulant drugs in children with minimal brain dysfunction. Pediatrics, May 1972; 49: 702 - 708.

Clements, Sam D. Minimal Brain Dysfunction in Children; Terminology and Identification. Phase I of a Three-Phase Project. NINDB Monograph No. 3. 1966.

Conners, C.K. The effects of methylphenidate on symptomatology and learning in disturbed children. Am J Psychiatry 120:458-464, November 1963

Maurice W. Laufer, Eric Denhoff. Hyperkinetic behavior syndrome in children. Journal of Pediatrics Vol. 50, Issue 4, Pages 463-474.

Palmer, E.D. An Early Description of ADHD (Inattentive Subtype): Dr Alexander Crichton and 'Mental Restlessness' (1798). Child Psychology and Psychiatry Review (2001), 6: 66-73

R. Mayes and A. Rafalovich. Suffer the restless children: the evolution of ADHD and paediatric stimulant use, 1900-80. History of Psychiatry, December 1, 2007; 18(72 Pt 4): 435 - 457.

Continue Reading