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From The Women's Library: Suffrage Collection; Created by the Suffrage Atelier
A suffragist postcard depicting a lunatic, symbolized by a moon

Lunatic is a term referring to a person who is seen as mentally ill, dangerous, foolish,[1][2] or crazy—conditions once attributed to "lunacy". The word derives from lunaticus meaning "of the moon" or "moonstruck".[3][4][5]


The horoscope of a "Lunatic" according to an astrologer who describes how the positions of the planets Saturn and Mars with respect to the moon are the cause of "diseases of the mind".[6]

The term "lunatic" derives from the Latin word lunaticus, which originally referred mainly to epilepsy and madness, as diseases thought to be caused by the moon.[7][8][9][10] The King James Version of the Bible records "lunatick" in the Gospel of Matthew, which has been interpreted as a reference to epilepsy.[7] By the fourth and fifth centuries,[clarification needed] astrologers were commonly using the term to refer to neurological and psychiatric diseases.[7][11] Pliny the Elder argued that the full moon induced individuals to lunacy and epilepsy by effects on the brain analogous to the nocturnal dew.[12] Until at least 1700, it was also a common belief that the moon influenced fevers, rheumatism, episodes of epilepsy and other diseases. There is also a Greek goddess named luna.[13]

Use of the term "lunatic" in legislation[edit]

In the jurisdiction of England and Wales, the Madhouses Act 1774 originated what later became Metropolitan Commissioners in Lunacy, under the Madhouses Act 1828. The Lunacy Acts 1890–1922 referred to "lunatics", but the Mental Treatment Act 1930 changed the legal term to "person of unsound mind", an expression which was replaced under the Mental Health Act 1959 by "mental illness". "Person of unsound mind" was the term used in 1950 in the English version of the European Convention on Human Rights as one of the types of person who could be deprived of liberty by a judicial process. The 1930 Act also replaced the term "asylum" with "mental hospital". Criminal lunatics became Broadmoor patients in 1948 under the National Health Service Act 1946.

On December 5, 2012, the US House of Representatives passed legislation approved earlier by the US Senate removing the word "lunatic" from all federal laws in the United States.[3] President Barack Obama signed the 21st Century Language Act of 2012[14] into law on December 28, 2012.[15]

"Of unsound mind" or non compos mentis are alternatives to "lunatic", the most conspicuous term used for insanity in the law in the late 19th century.[16]

Lunar distance[edit]

The term lunatic was sometimes used to describe those who sought to discover a reliable method of determining longitude (before John Harrison developed the marine chronometer method of determining longitude, the main theory was the Method of Lunar Distances, advanced by Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne). The artist William Hogarth portrayed a "longitude lunatic" in the eight scene of his 1733 work A Rake's Progress.[17] Twenty years later, though, Hogarth described John Harrison's H-1 chronometer as "one of the most exquisite movements ever made."[17]

Later, members of the Lunar Society of Birmingham called themselves lunaticks.[18] In an age with little street lighting, the society met on or near the night of the full moon.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Great Britain Census Office (1902). "Census of England and Wales, 1901. (63 Vict. C.4.): Middlesex. 1902". Census of England and Wales, 1901. 33. H.M. Stationery Office: xi.
  2. ^ Vermont Commission to Revise the Statutory Laws (1933). "The Public Laws of Vermont, 1933: (proposed Revision)". The Public Laws of Vermont. Capital City Press, 1933: 424.
  3. ^ a b Sherman, Amy (17 December 2012). "Allen West said the House voted to remove the word 'lunatic' from federal law". PolitiFact. Retrieved 18 December 2012.
  4. ^ Rotton, James; Kelly, I. W. (1985). "Much ado about the full moon: A meta-analysis of lunar-lunacy research". Psychological Bulletin. 97 (2): 286–306. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.97.2.286. PMID 3885282.
  5. ^ Forbes, Lebo Jr., Gordon B., George R (1977). "Antisocial Behavior and Lunar Activity: A Failure to Validate the Lunacy Myth". Psychological Reports. 40 (3 Pt. 2): 1309–1310. doi:10.2466/pr0.1977.40.3c.1309. PMID 897044. S2CID 34308541.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  6. ^ Heydon, C. (1792). Astrology. The wisdom of Solomon in miniature, being a new doctrine of nativities, reduced to accuracy and certainty ... Also, a curious collection of nativities, never before published. London: printed for A. Hamilton. ISBN 9781170010471.
  7. ^ a b c Riva, M. A.; Tremolizzo, L.; Spicci, M; Ferrarese, C; De Vito, G; Cesana, G. C.; Sironi, V. A. (January 2011). "The Disease of the Moon: The Linguistic and Pathological Evolution of the English Term "Lunatic"". Journal of the History of the Neurosciences. 20 (1): 65–73. doi:10.1080/0964704X.2010.481101. PMID 21253941. S2CID 5886130.
  8. ^ Frey, J.; Rotton, J.; Barry, T. (1979). "The effects of the full moon on human behavior: Yet another failure to replicate". The Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied. 103 (2): 159–162.
  9. ^ D.E., Campbell (1982). "Lunar–lunacy research: When enough is enough". Environment and Behavior. 14 (4): 418–424. doi:10.1177/0013916582144002. S2CID 144508020.
  10. ^ Cameron, Joy (1983). Prisons and Punishment in Scotland: From the Middle Ages to the Present. United Kingdom: Canongate. p. 170. ISBN 9780862410315.
  11. ^ Bunevicius, Adomas; Gendvilaite, Agne; Deltuva, Vytenis Pranas; Tamasauskas, Arimantas (2017). "The association between lunar phase and intracranial aneurysm rupture: Myth or reality? Own data and systematic review". BMC Neurology. 17 (99): 99. doi:10.1186/s12883-017-0879-1. PMC 5437543. PMID 28525979.
  12. ^ Raison, Charles L.; Klein, Haven M.; Steckler, Morgan (1999). "The moon and madness reconsidered". Journal of Affective Disorders. 53 (1): 99–106. doi:10.1016/S0165-0327(99)00016-6. PMID 10363673.
  13. ^ Harrison, Mark (2000). "From medical astrology to medical astronomy: sol-lunar and planetary theories of disease in British medicine, c. 1700–1850". The British Journal for the History of Science. 33 (1): 25–48. doi:10.1017/S0007087499003854. PMID 11624340. S2CID 22247498.
  14. ^ "An act to strike the word "lunatic" from Federal law, and for other purposes". United States Statutes at Large, 112th Congress, 2nd Session. 126: 1619–1620. December 28, 2012. Public Law 112–231. Retrieved March 11, 2020.
  15. ^ "Statement by the Press Secretary on H.J. Res. 122, H.R. 3477, H.R. 3783, H.R. 3870, H.R. 3912, H.R. 5738, H.R. 5837, H.R. 5954, H.R. 6116, H.R. 6223, S. 285, S. 1379, S. 2170, S. 2367, S. 3193, S. 3311, S. 3315, S. 3564, and S. 3642". December 28, 2012. Retrieved 27 October 2013 – via National Archives.
  16. ^ "Lunacy" . The American Cyclopædia. Vol. X. 1879.
  17. ^ a b Sobel, Dava (2010). Longitude (10th anniversary ed.). Bloomsbury Publishing USA. p. 87. ISBN 978-0802799678.
  18. ^ Ian Wylie. "Coleridge and the Lunaticks". In Gravil, Richard; Lefebure, Molly (eds.). The Coleridge Connection: Essays for Thomas McFarland. 1990: Springer. pp. 25–26.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location (link)
  19. ^ "Transactions and Proceedings". 22–25. Birmingham, England: Birmingham Archaeological Society. 1897: 26. Retrieved 3 February 2017. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)

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