References to hydrocephalic skulls can be found in ancient Egyptian medical literature from 2500 BC to 500 AD. Hydrocephalus was described more clearly by the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates in the 4th century BC, while a more accurate description was later given by the Roman physician Galen in the 2nd century AD. The first clinical description of an operative procedure for hydrocephalus appears in the Al-Tasrif (1000 AD) by the Arab surgeon, Abulcasis, who clearly described the evacuation of superficial intracranial fluid in hydrocephalic children. He described it in his chapter on neurosurgical disease, describing infantile hydrocephalus as being caused by mechanical compression. He states:
“The skull of a newborn baby is often full of liquid, either because the matron has compressed it excessively or for other, unknown reasons. The volume of the skull then increases daily, so that the bones of the skull fail to close. In this case, we must open the middle of the skull in three places, make the liquid flow out, then close the wound and tighten the skull with a bandage.”
In 1881, a few years after the landmark study of Retzius and Key, Carl Wernicke pioneered sterile ventricular puncture and external CSF drainage for the treatment of hydrocephalus. It remained an intractable condition until the 20th century, when shunts and other neurosurgical treatment modalities were developed. It is a lesser-known medical condition; relatively small amounts of research are conducted to improve treatments for hydrocephalus, and to this day there remains no cure for the condition. In developing countries, it is common that this condition go untreated at birth. It is difficult to diagnose during ante-natal care and access to medical treatment is limited. However, when head swelling is prominent, children are taken at great expense for treatment. By then, brain tissue is undeveloped and neurosurgery is rare and difficult.