Tuesday, February 05, 2013

1847 definition: Asthma the opposite of consumption

Consumption (later known as tuberculosis) was the most common lung disease in the mid 19th century.  So one physician defined asthma by comparing it with a disease many people back then knew all too well -- consumption.

The physician was Dr. Samuel Sheldon Fitch, and he defined asthma in his book "Six lectures on the uses of the lungs."  He described it as this: (1)
"It is a disease caused by consumption or consumptive tendency in the lungs, and always arrests the progress of consumption.  It is a vastly lesser disease given in place of a greater, and instead of being a curse, is a greater blessing.  In consumption, the lungs are too small; in asthma they are too larger.  A disease like asthma may be produced by ossification of blood vessels of the heart; but in nearly all cases, it is produced by consumptive irritation of the lungs.  It often takes place suddenly, in earliest childhood, continues until between 12 and 20, then goes off and is never seen again; but the person falls victim to consumption.  Or asthma my reappear and secure the patient from consumption.  If properly treated it is a passport to old age; but when badly treated it may terminate in dropsy of the chest." (1)
Next to this description is a picture of an asthmatic rib cage and a consumptive rib cage. The asthmatic rib cage is large and expanded as thought the patient had his chest puffed out.  The consumptive rib cage is small, narrow and weak.

Thus, Fitch believed since asthma produces a larger rib cage it protects against consumption.  It's strong and mighty while consumption is weak and frail.  While both are diseases that cause discomfort, asthma is minor compared to consumption.  Asthma is temporary and goes away, and consumption is long lasting.

Yet under it all he believes consumption causes asthma in some cases, and this is good because asthma protects against the wasting effects of the underlying consumption. (1)

He wrote:
"Asthma all but always cures consumption, or what is made consumption by very bad treatment.  The asthma leaves the person, and he rapidly is overcome by the consumption that had always been on him whilst he had the asthma, and resumes it's rapid and fatal course, on asthma leaving him.  If asthma is cured without perfectly expanding the lungs, and keeping them so, the person is extremely liable to consumption."
Asthma is a blessing and masks the underlying diseases, and even protects the person from wasting or consumption. He describes a patients who had asthma, didn't take care of it not knowing he had underlying consumption, and died of consumption. (1)
"As in heart disease, woe to the person who is cured of asthma.  Without a free, and perfect, and continued expansion of the chest; as he will, in nearly all cases, sooner or later fall into consumption."
The patient must be brought up well, he proposes.  He must be exposed to outdoor occupations and he must exercise.  This is how to treat asthma and prevent it from going away so consumption doesn't show it's ugly head again, destroy him, and ultimately kill him.

So basically he's saying take care of your asthma if you have it because it's a blessing protecting you from the course of your underlying consumption.

There were other physicians who had similar beliefs about asthma and consumption.  Orville Harry Brown gives us the following quote from two physicians named Hall and Hall (further detail eludes me):  (2, page 33)
"Asthma is a spasmodic contraction of the membranous portion of the windpipe. In consumption the patient dies because there are not lungs enough to receive sufficient air for the wants of the system; that is, they cannot get enough air in; while in asthma they cannot getenough air out; hence asthma and consumption are antagonistic, the former is preventive of the latter and a consumptive is cured on the supervention of asthma."
The idea of asthma as an underlying disease, and of asthma as a blessing, is ironic to say the least.  This was not the first time in history that asthma was considered a blessing.  In Ancient Greece it was considered a blessing to have asthma.

  1. Fitch, Samuel Sheldon, "Six lectures on the uses of the lungs," 1847, page 69-71
  2. Brown, Orville Harry, "Asthma, presenting an exposition of nonpassive expiration theory," 1917, St. Louis, C.V. Mosby Company

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