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Allergy: The History of a Modern Malady
Reaktion Books, 2007
288 pp., $25.00
Breathing Space: How Allergies Shape Our Lives and Landscapes
Yale University Press, 2007
336 pp., $40.00
J. Matthew Sleeth
The Big Sneeze
Lewis Thomas, the noted physician and essayist, mused openly on the allergic tendency of our species. He found the condition without teleological merit, and declared it a "mistake." Now two books—Mark Jackson's Allergy: The History if a Modern Malady and Gregg Mitman's Breathing Space, How Allergies Shape Our Lives and Landscapes—are available for those who wish to delve further into this "mistake" that affects 50 million Americans.
Both works are splendidly done. Of the two, Breathing Space is distinctly American while Jackson, a British author, takes a more Continental view. Mitman prefaces his book with a disclosure: he has a personal stake in our allergic landscape. He writes with the authority of one whose childhood was viewed from inside an asthmatic's oxygen tent, and as a parent who, regretfully, has passed this trait on to his son.
Just how long has society been plagued by asthma and hay fever? In his essay "The Summer Catarrh in 1938," E. B. White describes his own struggles with seasonal allergies and tells us of the first modern statesman to fall victim to allergy's ruin—Secretary of State Daniel Webster. According to White, "Webster had had Presidential ambitions but by this time it had become apparent to him that anyone whose runny nose bore a predictable relationship to the Gregorian calendar was not Presidential timber."
The history of allergy is a relatively recent one, confined to the last century and a half. Both authors point toward industrialization and the disruption of native landscapes as contributing causes. Cut down a forest, and pollen-bearing weeds such as goldenrod are encouraged. Build a roadway or rail line, and those living nearby breathe in more pollen.
Before the advent of effective pharmacologic treatment, the only escape from hay fever was to leave home and go on a road trip. Places such as Bethlehem, New Hampshire became the destination of those wishing to escape urban pollen. The high altitude of the White Mountains ...