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The First Description of Allergies Was Published On This Day in 1844

John Bostock was a British doctor suffering from what he called “summer catarrh”

Although it's called "hay fever" it refers to an allergy caused by a variety of grasses. (Pixabay)
smithsonian.com

It was spring. John Bostock was sneezing.

Being an active contributor to a British medical journal of the time, he wrote about his plight, or rather, the symptoms of a patient known only as JB. (Hint: the call came from inside the house.) That article was published in Medico-Chirurgical Transactions on this day in 1844, marking the first clinical description of what we now know as “allergies.”

“The patient,” write Manoj Ramachandran and Jeffrey K. Aronson for the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, was in Bostock’s own words “of a spare and rather delicate habit, but capable of considerable exertion, and has no hereditary or constitutional affection, except various stomach complaints, probably connected with, or depending upon, a tendency to gout.” For a middle-class Victorian, that’s basically “healthy.”

Starting when he was about 8 years old, in June each year, JB suffered a number of unpleasant symptoms. These included puffy, irritated, itchy eyes, “sneezing, tightness of the chest and difficulty in breathing” as well as irritation in the breathing system. Today, we know what he was suffering from. Although colloquially referred to as “hay fever,” it’s an allergy.

JB found no relief in the palliatives of the age, they write: Bleeding, dieting, medicinal iron, mercury and a number of other ghastly-sounding remedies were ineffective. “However, confining himself to the house reduced the symptoms,” Ramachandran and Aronson write.

He went on studying the “summer catarrh,” as he called it, publishing again nine years later with a further 28 cases. Although he suspected it might be connected to hay and other grasses, which we now know to be the case, he ultimately decided it was just another kind of summer cold, they write.

“Bostock was what you might call a gentleman-scientist,” historian Mark Jackson told James Parkinson for the BBC. “His motivation was very personal. There was a desire to find a cure but also a need to spread knowledge of what he was suffering from. For these reasons Bostock gave us a very clear description of what was going on.”

The severity of his suffering perhaps helps explain why, unlike the medical establishment, he thought “summer catarrh” was worth talking about. But he was far from actually figuring out the mechanism of allergies.  Although Bostock was able to clearly describe the symptoms of hay fever, he remained convinced that was he was suffering was “a recurring disease, exacerbated by the exhausting heat of summer,” Parkinson writes.

So, like many moneyed city-dwellers in England during that period, he escaped to the seaside. For three summers in a row, spending time in a clifftop home reduced his symptoms. Many others followed his example, fleeing hay fever by going where pollen was quickly blown away.

Plants wouldn’t be directly linked to hay fever until 1859, when another British scientist followed his own allergies to make the connection. And allergies themselves wouldn’t become a recognized medical tradition until after 1900. But it started with Bostock’s sneezes.

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance journalist based in Toronto who focuses on technology, culture and ethics. She recently graduated from the master’s program in journalism at Ryerson University, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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