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11 June 2011 @ 07:44 am
The History of Allergies (and Other Excuses for Vampire Limitations)  
In the present day, FK has Nick disguise his inability to tolerate sunlight behind a generic claim of "allergies."  While of course allergies and skin conditions have always been around, I wondered, when was the idea of allergies invented?  What did past generations call allergies?  When could Nick have begun using allergies as an excuse, and what excuses might he have used before that point?  (I once wrote a story in which he blamed mustard gas exposure for his skin's sensitivity. There must be infinite such possibilities.)

Several brief histories of allergies turn up in any search engine (a few obviously heavily plagiarized, unfortunately), but the most extensive and informative seems to be a corporate newsletter's three-part summary of the book Ancestors of Allergy (1994), edited by Estelle Simons: Part 1 (Ancient World), Part 2 (Middle Ages and Renaissance), Part 3 (Modern).  On the skin condition side, the available authority seems to be the Historical Atlas of Dermatology and Dermatologists (2002) by John Crissey, Lawrence Parish and Karl Holubar.

It turns out that the word "allergy" was coined in 1906, and "analphylaxis" in 1902.  How long those words took to enter the common vocabulary and understanding, I don't know, but I would guess that they remained medical/academic specialty concepts for some years.

For most of Nick's existence, right into the nineteenth century, the sophisticated would have regarded any allergic symptoms (rash, sneezing, etc.) as evidence of an imbalance of the "humors" (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, blood), while the ordinary person would likely have regarded them as evidence of a curse or demonic interference, or punishment for a sin and sign of God's disfavor.  (I speculate that Nick himself continues to view his sunlight intolerance as precisely that, curse or punishment, down to the present day.)

In the middle ages, Persia and Arabia developed the idea of "rose fever," what we today call seasonal respiratory allergies.  In Europe, however, this idea did not take hold until the Renaissance, when it was called "rose catarrh" (later "rose cold," later "hay fever").  For some time, it was thought to be a disease only of the upper classes (who perhaps had leisure and means to have it diagnosed and treated, unlike poorer sufferers).  Early works mentioning treatments for the wide array of human skin conditions include The Canon of Medicine (1025) by Avicenna, which prescribed zinc oxide for what we today call skin cancer, and De Morbis Cutaneis (1572) by Geronimo Mercuriali, which is transcriptions of detailed lectures to medical students.

All ancient civilizations observed the symptoms of both asthma and allergies, but while most identified and named asthma, none seem to have named allergies or considered them a class of related ailments.  Some historical incidents that feature what we today recognize as allergies, but which were inexplicable at the time, include Pharaoh Menes dying after being stung by a wasp; Emperor Nero inheriting because his brother Britannicus's eyes swelled shut around horses; and King Richard III using his chronic reaction to strawberries as an excuse to kill Lord William Hastings (claiming that Hastings had cursed him).

At this time, I conclude that allergies are not a highly useful cover for Nick's condition before the latter half of the twentieth century, but that the humoral understanding of skin conditions may yield some plausible excuses.  More research!

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greerwatsongreerwatson on June 11th, 2011 03:12 pm (UTC)
Does The Canon of Medicine actually distinguish skin cancer from other types of rash?
Amy R.: Medicinebrightknightie on June 11th, 2011 03:54 pm (UTC)
reportedly, yes
"Avicenna's The Canon of Medicine (1025) described treatments for a variety of skin conditions, including skin cancer. The preferred medication it recommended was zinc oxide." — The Wikipedia entry on the "History of Dermatology"

The Canon of Medicine is five volumes of antique medical theory; I have not read it. Its Wikipedia entry is here, the entry for its author here, and that for the history of dermatology here.

I have not yet been able to access a copy of the Historical Atlas of Dermatology and Dermatologists in person. The limited pages available through Amazon's "look inside" feature skip over the entry for Avicenna.

I was looking up the history of allergic reactions, not of cancer, of course. Do you propose that skin cancer would be an explanation Nick could offer?
greerwatsongreerwatson on June 11th, 2011 04:37 pm (UTC)
Re: reportedly, yes
"Do you propose that skin cancer would be an explanation Nick could offer?"

No, I was just curious. Early medical practitioners were quite well able to describe a number of different kinds of rash; and I'm sure they recognized the difference between, say, measles and acne. I was wondering, though, how far they distinguished skin cancer from other dermatological ailments, and whether they were aware of the difficulty of treating it with the methods they had. Zinc oxide is, after all, an excellent remedy for many types of rash. It would not be unreasonable for a medieval doctor to apply it more broadly, if only just in the hope that it might help.
Amy R.: Historybrightknightie on June 11th, 2011 08:57 pm (UTC)
Re: reportedly, yes
>"I was wondering, though, how far they distinguished skin cancer from other dermatological ailments, and whether they were aware of the difficulty of treating it with the methods they had."

I imagine that their inability to cure skin cancer did not distinguish itself from their inability to cure anything else. ~wry grin~

From what I've read, with the false theory of humors that they had inherited from the Greeks in the way, medieval and Renaissance European university-trained physicians achieved what little success they did through the placebo effect and luck. If you had a real medical issue, you'd usually be better off visiting the local wise woman or clever man for a received folk remedy ("witchcraft") than to be bled, heated, chilled or whatever in accord with the revered physician's reading of your astrological chart and your humors from your urine.

(However, something interesting that I ran across in the Historical Atlas of Dermatology and Dermatologists is that while the surviving ancient authorities described conditions minutely, and some are instantly recognizable by description to any modern doctor, others are unrecognizable, lost to time... either because the disease died out, or we developed resistance to it, or because there was some cultural key to the description.)
Athelas K. Weedmalinaldarose on June 11th, 2011 11:15 pm (UTC)
Huh. Interesting.
Amy R.: Nickbrightknightie on June 12th, 2011 01:36 am (UTC)
The FKFicFest prompt I received, while very nice, does not seem to include any opportunity for historical research, so I had to make up an opportunity from elsewhere. ;-)
Athelas K. Weedmalinaldarose on June 12th, 2011 11:39 am (UTC)
One takes one's research where one can get it.
greerwatsongreerwatson on June 12th, 2011 06:51 pm (UTC)
"The FKFicFest prompt I received, while very nice,...."

Well, I guess you'll just have to take your complaint up with the moderator who paired you with that prompt. :)
PJ1228pj1228 on June 14th, 2011 06:28 pm (UTC)
For some time, it was thought to be a disease only of the upper classes (who perhaps had leisure and means to have it diagnosed and treated, unlike poorer sufferers).

This may also be explained by the so called hygiene hypothesis. It explains why allergies have been on the rise since the industrialization. Better hygiene of the upper classes, especially the increasing use of desinfectants in recent times is responsible for a down-regulated immune system, while people in less sterile environments are exposed to more pathogens that keep the immune system busy and therefore strong.

I agree that Nick's allegy excuse works well in the 2nd half of the 20th century when allergies became more common in the population.
I would resort to the terms "skin condition" and "intolerance" when referring to his restrictions in previous centuries.