By Millie Plotkin, MLS, Informationist, Eating Disorder Recovery Center
Behaviors that could be described as disordered eating have been observed and documented for centuries. But only in recent history, within the last 200 years, have eating disorders been named, described, and listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
History of eating disorders–anorexia hysterica
In 1873, British doctor William Gull presented a paper to the Royal College of Physicians on a disorder he called “Anorexia Hysterica.” It described a loss of appetite without a clear gastric cause. The same year, French doctor Ernest Charles Lasègue published a similar article. His article described food refusal combined with hyperactivity. He also used the term “l’anorexie hystérique,” implying this was a female-only condition. The following year, Gull published an article based on his earlier presentation but changed the name of the disorder to “Anorexia Nervosa.”
When Gull published another article on anorexia nervosa in 1888, in the journal The Lancet, several other doctors responded with letters to the editor describing similar conditions in their own patients. Some noted they had noticed these behaviors in both male and female patients. Others speculated on whether the cause could be a physical problem in the brain.
Anorexia nervosa was included in the first edition of the DSM as a psycho-physiological reaction. The DSM-II moved it to “Special Symptoms – Feeding Disturbances.” In 1980, a new eating disorders section was finally created for the DSM-III. It included anorexia, pica, and rumination.
Bulimia nervosa—a variant of anorexia
French doctor Pierre Janet first described patients with bulimic behaviors in 1903. But it was not until 1979 that Gerald Russell published the first formal paper on bulimia nervosa. He described it as a distinct variant of anorexia. In 1987, the DSM-III-R listed bulimia as a separate disorder for the first time.
Binge eating disorder—from bulimia to ED-NOS to BED
Binge eating behaviors were first described by Albert Stunkard in 1959. But they were not mentioned in the DSM until 1987, as part of the criteria for bulimia. Binge eating disorder (BED) was first recognized separately from bulimia in the DSM-IV, published in 1994. But it was listed within the group of “Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified” (EDNOS) category. It was not until 2013, with the publication of the DSM-5, that BED was finally categorized as a distinct disorder.
About Millie Plotkin
In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re thrilled to feature this short history of eating disorders from Millie Plotkin, MLS. Millie is an eating disorder survivor and medical librarian. In 2013, she joined Eating Recovery Center to serve as Informationist. This position fused her expertise in library science and deep understanding of the eating disorders community.
As part of her role, she launched the Eating Disorders Information Gateway, a database of citations on eating disorders. Most citations are articles from medical journals. But the database also includes books, handouts from non-profit organizations, policy papers, and even poetry and other creative works. This tool helps patients, families, professionals, and advocates in the eating disorders community find relevant information to support public education of these complex illnesses.
Millie’s story embodies the notion of “Recovery in Action.” She has parlayed her personal experience, passion for recovery, and professional expertise into a career helping others find the information and resources they need to find lasting recovery.