6 facts about the history of hay fever

As pollen levels soar, we ask: why is it called hay fever? How did people in the past treat the condition? And why was it known as a disease of the upper-classes?

A man sneezes into a handkerchief, c1936. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Here, we bring you six facts about the history of hay fever…

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1

Two hundred years ago, no-one had heard of hay fever…

That is not to say that people didn’t suffer from the condition – it just wasn’t medically recognised yet.

The English physician John Bostock (1773–1846) was the first person to accurately describe the disease. In 1819, he presented a study called Case of a Periodical Affection of the Eyes and Chest to a group of physicians and surgeons at the Medical and Chirurgical Society of London. In his talk, he described a patient with a “rather delicate” constitution who suffered from sneezing and itching during the summer months. Bostock referred to the patient using the initials JB, but the person he was describing was himself.

Bostock, who was 46 at the time, had been suffering from allergic rhinitis – hay fever – since the age of eight. He had tried a number of home remedies over the years, including opium; purging; “topical bleeding” and – rather horrifyingly – “courses of mercury”. None of these ‘cures’ had any “distinct or permanent benefit,” but Bostock did discover that confining himself to his house for six weeks eased his symptoms.

The first surgical treatment of breast cancer performed under general anaesthetic by Seishu Hanaoka (1760-1836) in 1804. (Out of copyright)
2

‘Hay fever’ is a misnomer

Although John Bostock was the first to write about hay fever, he wasn’t responsible for its name. In fact, the term “hay fever” takes its name from a popular idea in the 19th century that the smell of hay in the summer irritated the body. Bostock wrote about this idea in 1828, although he never really believed it to be true; instead, he referred to the affliction as “catarrhus aestivus” or “summer catarrh” (catarrh, here, meaning an inflammation of mucus). The main hay fever culprit – pollen – wasn’t identified until more than 30 years later, by the Manchester physician Charles H Blackley. For whatever reason though, the term “pollen fever” never caught on.

3

In the 19th century, hay fever was known as an “aristocratic disease”

By the 1860s, “hay fever” and “hay asthma” had become widely accepted terms in the medical community. The condition was, however, almost exclusively associated with the elite. In 1873, Blackley observed in his paper Experimental Researches on the Nature and Causes of Catarrhus Aestivus that most of his patients suffering from hay fever tended to be either doctors or members of the clergy. It was an “aristocratic disease”, he said, that was “almost wholly confined to the upper classes of society”.

4

People of “Anglo-Saxon” origin were believed to be most susceptible to hay fever – especially if they were men

Blackley’s observations were backed up in 1887 during a lecture delivered to the West London Medico-Chirurgical Society by Scottish physician Andrew Clark. Hay fever, Clark suggested, was linked to the nervous system and affected “the man before the woman, the educated before the ignorant, the gentle before the rude, the courtier before the clown…” Hay fever thrived in cooler climates, he thought, seeking the city over the countryside and targeting individuals of “Anglo-Saxon” and “English-speaking” origin.

In 1881, the American medical author George Beard concluded that hay fever was the result of the stresses of modern life: “[It] is the cry of the system struggling with its environment,” he argued, and rising reports of the condition could be attributed to factors including, namely, the increased education of women, climate change and industrialisation.

5

Hay fever was once fashionable in the US, and sufferers were known as “hayfeverites”

Given its perceived links with the upper-class, is it any wonder that hay fever became an almost ‘badge of honour’ towards the end of the 19th century? In the US, sufferers were called “hayfeverites” and the illness was considered a fashionable –  even desirable – affliction among elite circles. In his book Allergy: The History of the Modern Malady, Mark Jackson relates how growing reports of hay fever in the 19th century prompted the creation of a number of societies relating to the condition. One of the most notable was the United States Hay Fever Association; founded in 1874 and located in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the health retreat functioned as a sort of hay fever holiday resort, offering wealthy middle-class professionals a peaceful refuge from the irksome summer pollen. One ‘hay fever expert’ at the time, a man named Morrill Wyman, reported taking numerous ‘hay fever holidays’ in the White Mountains during his childhood.

Flagellants scourge themselves as they walk through the streets in order to free the world from the Black Death. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

But hay fever hadn’t always been considered fashionable. In 1827, The Times reported that the Duke of Devonshire was suffering from “what is vulgarly called the Hay-Fever”. Ten years later, their scorn for the condition had lessened. King William IV was said to have “been subject to an attack of hay fever from which he has generally suffered for several weeks”. The king, it appears, could not possibly be suffering from a ‘vulgar’ condition. William died shortly after the publication of the newspaper report, although whether his “hay fever” had anything to do with his death is uncertain.

Queen Victoria's predecessor, King William IV, is believed to have been a hay fever sufferer. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Queen Victoria’s predecessor, King William IV, is believed to have been a hay fever sufferer. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
6

“Tobacco smoking” was believed to help relieve symptoms of hay fever

An article from the Petersburg Times, published on 11 September 1896, reveals that contemporary doctors recommended a number of ways to treat hay fever. Visiting the seaside; taking a trip on a yacht or burying oneself in a “densely populated town” were among the softer suggestions, but the method considered to be the most effective was decidedly more questionable: “One of the best remedies [for hay fever] is tobacco, the smoke being retained in the mouth as long as possible, and ejected through the nose,” advises the journalist.

A group of ailing persons at the counter of a Victorian dispensary. For 19th-century hay fever sufferers, a number of treatments were suggested – ranging from opium to a seaside break. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
A group of ailing persons at the counter of a Victorian dispensary. For 19th-century hay fever sufferers, a number of treatments were suggested – ranging from opium to a seaside break. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

For 19th-century hay fever sufferers who didn’t fancy this particular method (women, in particular, were advised against it), inhaling ammonium chloride was a recommended alternative. The method was not without its risks: you should exercise caution when using ammonium chloride, the Petersburg Times journalist writes – it is, after all, a gateway “to the vice of chloroform inhalation, which sometimes proves fatal.”

Rachel Dinning is Website Assistant at History Extra.

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Further reading: Allergy: The History of a Modern Malady by Mark Jackson.