The history of hay fever

The history of hay fever

The history of hay fever

Even those who don’t have hay fever know the summer months are notorious for causing symptoms. However, as little as 200 years ago, no one knew hay fever existed. This seems surprising now, considering it affects approximately 13 million people in the UK. This number is more of a testament to how much allergies have increased in the past 200 years.

When John Bostock first started on the hunt for the cause of a mysterious summer illness, he could only find 28 other subjects for his research with the same symptoms. Nevertheless, Bostock managed to publish his paper titled ‘Case of a Periodical Affection of the Eyes and Chest’ to the Medical and Chirurgical Society. This was the beginning of the discovery of hay fever.

The inception of hay fever

Bostock’s research described someone called JB who was a man ‘of a spare and delicate habit’. He was talking about himself. He expressed his symptoms as those typical of hay fever today. Sore, watering eyes, a running, blocked, itchy nose, sneezing, and an itchy throat being the main ones. He decided these symptoms were a result of a new illness caused by something in the summer, possibly the heat.

Modern-day hay fever

Today we know that hay fever is an allergic reaction to various pollens. Typically, it becomes more prevalent during the summer. However, the concept of allergies was not understood until the early 1900s. It’s no wonder why many were perplexed by Bostock’s research. He called the illness ‘Summer Catarrh’ and tried to convince medical professionals that it was a brand new illness to no avail. He documented the treatments he used to try to cure his affliction. They included cold baths, bleeding, self-induced vomiting, and opium, but nothing worked. It was only when general interest in Bostock’s work increased that effective treatments emerged.

Attempts at treatment

The public decided that there was a link between the symptoms Bostock described and the smell of new hay. This hay fever became fashionable among the upper class who would take trips to coastal areas to rid themselves of their symptoms, whether they had hay fever or not. The fresh sea air was becoming a popular remedy for a variety of ills at the time.

Surprisingly, it was effective for hay fever as although it was unknown to the general public, there are typically lower pollen counts in coastal areas. In 1827 The Times reported that the Duke of Devonshire had hay fever. Then in 1837 King William IV supposedly died a few days after his diagnosis.

The discovery of pollen

It wasn’t until another scientist with hay fever got involved that the exact cause was finally understood. In 1859, Charles Blackley had a violent bout of hay fever after sniffing a bouquet of bluegrass. He became convinced the answer to hay fever was pollen, and he was right. The scientists at the time had no knowledge of allergies, but it was the work of Bostock and Blackley that aided the discovery of what we today understand as the common allergy to tree, grass and flower pollen.

As knowledge about hay fever improved, so did the available treatments. No longer do people have to self-induce vomiting or turn to opium. At London Allergy and Immunology Centre, we offer a wide range of modern treatments to help you deal with your allergies. To see how we can rid you of your symptoms book an appointment with one of our consultants today.

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