The History of Dyslexia Project

This is a new collaboration between historian William Whyte and psychologists Maggie Snowling and Kate Nation.  It is funded jointly by The John Fell Fund and The Wellcome Trust Institutional Strategic Support Fund at the University of Oxford.  Find out more at the project website.

Dyslexia is the subject of intensive research by psychologists and educationalists. It has not, however, been studied by historians. Yet dyslexia has a history, even if it is one that has yet to be told. The first paper was published in the British Medical Journal in 1896, and in the last fifty years there have been significant advances both in understanding its causes and in finding ways of remediating it. At the same time, people with dyslexia and, still more, the parents of children who are dyslexic have campaigned for better treatment. Both these trends have shaped public policy and practice in schools. There is also a history to be written about the experience of being dyslexic. This project has four strands:

The science of reading.

Developing a definition of dyslexia took decades; determining the causes of dyslexia is an on-going debate. No one has as yet offered an authoritative account of these scientific debates, nor of the institutions which did so much work to put dyslexia on the map.

The politics of dyslexia.

Scientists and campaigners struggled to make government take dyslexia seriously. It was not until 1994, for instance, that the Department of Education officially acknowledged its existence. The Rose Report, commissioned by government and published in 2009, contains the most recent guidance but it has not led to widespread policy change. This strand will explore what was at stake in these struggles.

Everyday dyslexia.

In writing the history of a neuro-developmental disorder it is easy to ignore the voices of those with the dyslexia in favour of experts and officials. This strand will explore the everyday experience of dyslexia and also how dyslexic people and their families came to understand the subject.

The dyslexia archive.

Underpinning the other aspects of the project, the dyslexia archive is an attempt to provide the first repository of material relating to the subject. This already includes the archives of pioneering experts on dyslexia, and a series of oral testimonies. We hope to build on this with the acquisition of new material, and by crowdsourcing other resources.