A Brief History of Allergic Asthma

by John Bottrell Health Professional

Like asthma, allergies have been around for a very long time. Yet, unlike asthma, allergies weren't defined until fairly recently. Still, there are historical accounts that can lead you to believe that allergies, like asthma, were recognized by ancient civilizations.

Perhaps the first known recording of an allergic reaction occurred in ancient Egypt. About 2640 B.C., King Menses of Egypt was reported to have died after being stung by a wasp.

Around this time a Middle Eastern physician named El-Razi observed redness and swelling of the nasal passages in some of his patients, and what he described in his writings were what we would now consider allergic rhinitis or hay fever. Yet those terms weren't used until the 19th and 20th centuries.

Arnoldo Cantani, in his book, "Pediatric Allergy, Asthma and Immunology," describes how Caesar Augustus suffered from asthma and seasonal rhinitis (allergies/hay fever). Julius Caesar is also believed to have suffered from asthma.

The Roman emperor Claudius (10-13 B.C to 54 A.D) also is believed to have suffered from allergy symptoms, and his son, Britannicus, is thought to have suffered from an allergy to horses. Historical reports note that when exposed to horses, his eyes would swell up and he'd develop a rash.

Britannicus was heir apparent to the throne, but due to his allergies he was limited in what he could do. And when his mother died, Claudius remarried to Agrippina the Younger. She had a son named Nero, and Claudius adopted him. Nero soon won the favor of the public, and ultimately was named emperor in 54 A.D.

Within only a few months of the beginning of his reign, Nero is believed to have poisoned his weaker, older brother Britannicus to death.

Dr. Paul M. Ehrlich, in his book, "Living with Allergies" explains that it was an ancient Roman physician who first described allergies. Ehrlich quotes Lucretius, who lived from 99 to 55 B.C., as saying, "What is good for some may be fierce poisons for others."

Ehrlich also recounts the legend of how England's King Richard III's allergic reaction to strawberries may have been a factor in his dramatic and unexpected decision to order the beheading of Lord William Hastings.

In 1656 a French doctor named Pierre Borel suspected that one of his patients developed a rash when he ate eggs. To test his theory, he placed some egg particles on the patient's skin. When blisters developed, the physician knew he had made the correct diagnosis.

In the 19th century, physicians diagnosed hay fever. The first descriptions of this medical condition were based on the observation that some patients developed nasal congestion, runny nose and sneezes during haymaking season.

In his book, Ehrlich explains that in 1819, Dr. John Bostock defined "hay fever" as a disease that caused inflammation of the upper respiratory tract, leading to the annoying symptoms. Ultimately, however, we would learn that the condition really didn't cause a fever and little to do with hay. Bostock was describing the condition we now know as seasonal allergies.

The first real scientific discovery of allergies came in 1902, when two French scientists injected dogs with a small amount of extract from the sea anemone (a flower-like marine animal). Nothing happened. But a week later they repeated the procedure in exactly the same way -- and watched as the dogs developed severe reactions. The dogs had somehow become sensitive to the formerly harmless substance. The scientists had caused and observed an allergic recation.

In 1906, an Austrian pediatrician named Clemons von Pirquet did studies of his own, and he actually believed that asthma was an allergic condition. He thought that curing this disease was only a matter of finding the right foreign proteins to inject into a patient. History would prove him right in juxtaposing asthma and allergies, yet wrong on the notion that a protein could provide a cure. Von Pirquet was also the first person to use the term "allergy." ("Asthma" was first used in 800 B.C. by Homer in his Illiad, and later by Hippocrates around 400 B.C.).

Histamine was discovered in 1910 by a British scientist named Henry Dale. It is an amine produced in your body and plays a role in your immune system. It was once believed that this was the only cause of allergies and that finding an antihistamine would mean the end of allergies and asthma. Scientists, however, would determine that an allergic response was really a more complex series of chemical reactions.

Gregg A. Minton, in his book "Breathing Space: How Allergens Shape Our Lives and Landscapes," describes how in 1946, the first two antihistamines--Benadryl and Pryibenzamine hit the market. Minton points out how antihistamines became, next to antibiotics and barbiturates, the third most commonly prescribed class of drugs in America.

Leukotrienes were discovered in 1938 and proved to be a major cause of airway constriction during an allergy attack. In the early 1980s, a leukotriene antagonist was discovered, and by the early 2000s, Singulair was approved by the FDA for use by asthmatics.

In 1967, Immunoglobulin E antibodies (IgE) were discovered. It was later learned IgE has a significant role in an allergic response. Xolair was approved by the FDA in 2003 as the first drug to block the effects of IgE.

John Bottrell
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John Bottrell

John Bottrell is a registered Respiratory Therapist. He wrote for HealthCentral as a health professional for Asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).