Hay fever, an allergy to pollen, sounds like an ancient, rural name for a long-established malady. But, in fact, two centuries ago nobody had heard of it. It took the efforts of one man, himself a sufferer, to cajole the medical world into understanding what was going on.
John Bostock, a Liverpool-born London doctor, had spent his academic career looking at bodily fluids, taking a particular interest in bile and urine. Yet he had also suffered from catarrh – blockages of the sinus and a general feeling of heaviness and tiredness – in June every year since the age of eight. The timing had long perplexed him.
In 1819, aged 46, he presented a study to the Medical and Chirurgical Society called Case of a Periodical Affection of the Eyes and Chest. It described a patient called “JB”, a man “of a spare and rather delicate habit”. It was an article about himself.
Bostock laid out the symptoms still besetting hay fever sufferers today and some of the treatments he had tried to relieve his agony. They included bleeding, cold baths, taking opium and self-induced vomiting. Nothing had worked.
“Bostock was what you might call a gentleman-scientist. His motivation was very personal,” says Max Jackson, professor of medical history at Exeter University. “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.”
Bostock tried to broaden his research base, spending the next nine years looking for fellow sufferers. Amazingly, considering the prevalence of hay fever now, he found just 28 cases he felt qualified. In a second article published in 1828, Bostock christened the condition “catarrhus aestivus” or “summer catarrh”.
“This was thinking outside the box,” says Maureen Jenkins, director of clinical services at Allergy UK. “It’s marvellous, really, how determined he was to prove the point. He was convinced that it was caused by something that happened in the summer, even when no-one else was.”
The medical establishment did not believe there was a problem. Bostock spoke to GPs in London, Edinburgh and Liverpool, but remarked that “it was always considered by them as an anomalous train of symptoms, and no one appeared to have witnessed any occurrence of a similar kind”.
However, Bostock’s 1819 paper had attracted interest elsewhere in the intervening nine years. “With respect to what is termed the exciting cause of the disease, since the attention of the public has been turned to the subject,” he remarked, “an idea has very generally prevailed, that it is produced by the effluvium (smell) from new hay, and it has hence obtained the popular name of the hay fever.”
Edited from John Bostock: The man who ‘discovered’ hay fever.