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From the archives: Food allergies were’strange jokes’ that scientists had to decipher

To mark our 150th year, we’re revisiting the Popular Science stories (both hits and misses) that helped define scientific progress, understanding, and innovation—with an added hint of modern context. Explore the Notable pages and check out all our anniversary coverage here. When Popular Science ran the article “Food or Poison?” in November 1936, it would be more than 30 years…

To mark our 150th year, we’re revisiting the Popular Science stories (both hits and misses) that helped define scientific progress, understanding, and innovation–with an added hint of modern context. Explore the Notable pages and check out all our anniversary coverage here.

When Popular Science ran the article “Food or Poison?” in November 1936, it would be more than 30 years before Kimishige Ishikaka and his wife Teruko would discover Immunoglobulin E or IgE, the antibody responsible for allergic reactions. But, even in 1936, the hunt for clues that would identify and explain food allergies had been underway for decades.

German dermatologist Josef Jadasshon may have been the first to devise a test for diagnosing such sensitivities in 1896. Jadasshon was known for the patch test. He would apply an allergen-infused swatch to the skin and see if it developed. In 1912, American pediatrician Oscar Menderson Schloss was the first to use a skin prick test, which is still in use today. Nearly half a century before the IgE discovery, Carl Pausnitz and Heinz Kustner identified the role of antibodies in producing allergic reaction, then known as “reagins.”

Frederic Damrau, the MD who penned Popular Science‘s 1936 story, describes a new test developed by American allergist Warren Vaughan that detected a “noticeable decrease in the number of white corpuscles [platelets] in the blood” when patients were fed allergy-triggering foods–a tantalizing clue implicating antibodies. Damrau’s account is full of alarming and humorous anecdotes. Benjamin Goodwin Seielstad provides illustrations to help explain.

Today, food allergies have been on the rise for decades, primarily in industrialized countries. And, despite considerable diagnostic progress over the last century, there is no cure for food allergies, a malady that affects 1 in 13 children in the US.

“Food or Poison? … Strange Pranks of a Medical Mystery” (Frederic Damrau, M.D., November 1936)

A man came to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., not long ago. His curious story was this: He fell asleep every morning at 11 o’clock regardless of whether he was driving his car or attending a business conference.

Dr. Walter Alvarez was at the clinic and followed each clew. He finally found the cause of the problem. The patient stopped drinking cream in his coffee and the problem disappeared.

There are many other cases of the bizarre and sometimes frightening disorder of allergy. People who are allergic to substances that are not harmful to their health are often affected. Literally, they are poisoned by what is considered meat for millions.

If you get hives from eggs, strawberries, or cats, it is possible that you are allergic. Between l0,000,000 and 15,000,000 Americans, it is estimated, are allergic to something.

A boy in Brooklyn, N.Y. starts to cough and sneeze when he chews gum. He is sensitive to chicles. Her eyes get puffy when she smells chrysanthemums. The flower’s pollen is what she is allergic to. A man from the South chokes when he tries to catch up on his steak. Tomatoes in any form can affect him. Blue spots appear on the skin of women in St. Louis, Mo. when they eat onions. It happens every time, but the list continues indefinitely.

I have met people who are allergic to wallpaper, Christmas trees and sauerkraut. I’ve heard of someone allergic to mutton, a florist sensitive t primroses, and a wood dust-sensitive carpenter. Medical research continues to add new problems to the

list.

A case of scratch allergy was reported by Dr. William W. Duke, a prominent Kansas City, Mo., physician. The patient was highly sensitive to mechanical irritation. A scratch could prove fatal. Not from infection, but from the shock from the small injury.

A few months ago, a friend of mine noticed something he believed was an “aunt allergy.” Every time that a certain aunt visited a six year old boy, the boy would get a rash similar to measles.

In the end, however the doctor found that the child was severely allergic to eggs. Invariably, the aunt ate bacon and eggs for breakfast. When she kissed her nephew, traces of egg were still on her lips.

Medical professionals are used to seeing even more unusual cases. Many patients were so sensitive to eggs, that they developed a rash from eating meat from a chicken. However, the same thing happened to them with meat from a chicken. The hen’s meat contained inordinate amounts of egg. A patient may be allergic to milk in severe cases, but a cow’s meat can cause an extreme reaction. Beef from a steer is safe.

One patient was so sensitive to buckwheat, that even a small amount of honey from bees made after they had visited buckwheat flower would cause severe abdominal pains. The problem was not due to the honey’s sugar content. The buckwheat remnants were the problem. It is almost impossible to find any honey in the laboratory if the honey has been removed by dialysis or special membranes. This “nothing” was what triggered the attack.

When a doctor encounters an allergic patient his work resembles that a detective. He hunts for clews, he eliminates suspects, and he traces effect back to cause. A “scratch” test is the most common method for locating outlaw substances. This is illustrated in a fascinating case from the Middle West.

One morning, an elderly man touched the envelope flap to seal a letter. He felt tingling from his head to his feet a few minutes later. His face turned purple and his breath became a series of gasps. He fell to the ground, unconscious. He was awakened in fifteen minutes. He was back in no time. He tried on another pair of shoes, which had just returned from the cobbler’s. He could not get the shoes off his feet without fainting. What was the secret to these strange attacks?

His doctor suspected that allergy was the cause of his problems. He made tiny scratches on his arm and bound different substances against the skin. The test showed that harmless substances had no effect, while harmful substances caused a reaction. The patient began to struggle for breath almost immediately after the fish glue touched his arm. He had come across the glue on the insoles of his shoes as well as the envelope flap.

A scratch test revealed that a four-year old child had an allergy to 28 different substances. The everyday poisons in her body caused her to have hay fever, asthma and hives. These included potatoes, eggs and salmon as well as cod fish, eggs, mustard and green peppers. black pepper, Chicken feathers and cattle hair, ragweed pollen. Aspirin, cockleburs and

Recently the well-known allergist from Richmond, Va. was featured. Dr. Warren T. Vaughan announced a new, more sensitive test to detect foods that can cause problems. It is based on pioneering work by Dr. F. Widal, a French scientist. After a 12-hour fast, the patient eats the suspected food. Next, blood samples are taken at intervals of half an hour and then the specimens go under the microscope. There will be a decrease in white corpuscles in blood if the food is the problem.

It was only a few weeks later that the test became public and it provided dramatic evidence of its value. It lasted eight years. A patient was kept in a western sanitarium for eight years with a persistent fever. Her condition was diagnosed as tuberculosis by doctors. A Vaughan test proved that her condition was tuberculosis. She was constantly being upset by the foods she was being given to keep her well. After these foods were removed, her fever subsided and she was free to leave the sanitarium she’d spent almost a decade in.

Strangely, it’s often the most healthy foods that cause the greatest trouble. In that order, eggs, wheat, and dairy are the top three troublemakers. The allergy victim is unlikely to dislike the food that makes them sick, and often it is his favorite meal!

Ask a specialist to explain what such food does to the system. He will struggle to do so. Thomas A. Edison was once asked for his definition of electricity. He said that any schoolboy could provide a better definition than he could. He was able to describe electricity but not its essence. The same goes for allergy. Although we know the symptoms, much of what causes them is unknown. The Association for the Study of Allergy and the Society for the Study of Asthma and Allied Conditions are currently trying to unravel these mysteries.

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