The Magazine

Scratch 'n' Sniff

When the body overreacts, all hell breaks loose.

Dec 17, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 14 • By KEVIN R. KOSAR
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Breathing Space

How Allergies Shape Our Lives and Landscapes

by Gregg Mitman

Yale, 336 pp., $30

In my youth, I figured I probably had allergies. My eyes itched and my nose dripped every time I mowed the lawn. My preferred remedy was to quit mowing the lawn, but Mother would have none of that. So I would pop an over-the-counter allergy pill before pull-starting the Toro. In a serene, spacey antihistamine stupor, I pushed the mower about the yard, often in whirly patterns. A long nap on the couch followed, and upon my return to consciousness, I inevitably found our yard looking like it had the mange--tufts and clumps of grass sticking up here and there. Mother was not pleased.

She dragooned me to an allergist, who asked me questions, took blood, then shooed us from his office with our hands full of samples of antihistamines. A couple weeks later, we returned to the good doctor's office and were shown a printout that purported to show the dozens of things to which I was allergic: grasses, trees, mold .  .  . Legumes? What the devil are those, I wondered. We were informed that the best approach to my problem was "immunotherapy." Every two weeks for half a year, I was to come to the allergist's office and get shots loaded with increasing quantities of the substances to which I was allergic.

Once I had completed my immunization treatment, I was cured of allergies. The great outdoors was no longer a threat--until I wandered into a patch of poison ivy on a golf course (one of the perils of a persistent duck hook) which left my body swollen and itching so horribly I could not sleep. A bit of urshiol, the oil in the ivy that causes the dermatitis, had not been included in the serum. Still, provided I stayed clear of poison ivy, I was cured.

If only. Upon taking up residence in Washington, D.C., I got hay fever symptoms again. The allergens here are not the same as those in Ohio or New York. Marrying a woman who owned a cat did not help, either. Back to the pills I went.

My allergy story is not novel. As Gregg Mitman demonstrates, man has struggled haplessly against allergies for over a century. In the late 19th century, urbanism and industrialization were blamed for allergic rhinitis, more commonly known as hay fever. Cooped up in offices all day, choked in the street by smoke and made jittery by the hustle and bustle, city-dwellers were estranged from nature. Rather than address the sources of their discomfort, allergy sufferers of means simply took long holidays in the purifying country. Resort towns like Mackinac Island, Michigan, and Bethlehem, New Hampshire, sold themselves as hygienic places with "tonic" air.

In 1906, scientists invented the word "allergy," derived from the Greek terms allos (other) and energia (energy), to refer to the body's frenetic response to foreign substances. The source of our suffering rested in one of man's strengths: our ability to cleanse ourselves of alien substances. Allergies, scientists theorized, were an overreaction of the immune system, the most extreme form being the sometimes-fatal anaphylactic shock.

Despite this intellectual breakthrough, man continued to flounder in the search for relief. In 1930, Dr. Murray Peshkin, head of the Mount Sinai Hospital's Children Allergy Clinic, argued that allergens and irritants were merely the "sensitizing substances" that excited a response. The real problem lay in the nervous system of the afflicted. So Peshkin shot up allergy-suffering children with adrenalin, and when that did not do the trick, he subjected them to a "parentectomy." Sniffling kids were shipped away from their homes to live in fresh-air locales like Denver or Tucson for six months or more, free from their tension-inducing progenitors.

The quest for cures could be cruel to adults, too. Mitman relates the tale of "Poor Mr. G., [a] fifty-one-year-old bronchial asthmatic [who] had been suffering daily from severe asthma attacks for almost five years." Mr. G went to a medical facility at the University of Pennsylvania. During his treatment, he was placed in a room where an "air washer" was running. His symptoms ceased. Attendants then moved him into a room without an air washer and his suffering began anew. Not convinced that this experiment had verified the utility of the air washer, the attending physicians moved Mr. G. back into the other room. His symptoms subsided, whereupon they scattered house dust in his room, sending the poor sod into a violent fit of gasps that had to be remedied through drug injections.