Monday, April 25, 2016

1790: Defending old asthma theories

Dr. Robert Bree (1790-1859), an English physician who had asthma, wrote a book about asthma in 1797 called "A Practical Inquiry into Disordered Respiration, distinguishing the Species of Convulsive Asthma, their Causes, and Indications of Cure." It would go on to become the most read asthma book of the first half of the 19th century.

Dr. Bree was an ardent proponent of the bronchitic theory of asthma, a theory that states asthma is caused by an increase of phlegm in the lungs. The theory is similar to those postulated by ancient physicians, such as Hippocrates and Galen.  In this way, he is one of the last known physicians to defend old asthma theories.

He believed that the treatment of asthma was relative to the cause. He said asthma was caused by inhaling a peccant matter, and was cured when the peccant matter was expectorated.  This explained why asthma always ended after a fit of coughing that produced a wad of phlegm.

In this way, he believed modern theories regarding diseases like asthma were often the subject of quackery.  By autopsies and experiments he performed, he attempted to prove men like William Cullen, who postulated that science was a wiser approach to medicine than ancient theories. He was also one of the first physicians to describe asthma as spasmotic and nervous. (3)

Proving Cullen wrong about asthma was the essence of Bree's 1797 book.  He said Cullen is wrong because no science proves the nervous or spasmotic theory of asthma, especially considering those two conditions cannot be seen on autopsy.

On the other hand, phlegm can be seen on autopsy. So, if anything, science supports the bronchitic theory of asthma and the theories of the ancients, more so than the ideas of Cullen.

However, Bree did not completely reject the spaspotic theory of asthma, he simply considered it as secondary to some other cause.  In reviewing the opinions of Dr. Bree in 1890, Ernest Schmiegelow said:
Bree does not actually deny the possibility of bronchial spasms taking some part in the cause of asthma, but it is only secondary; the primary cause is an exudation in the bronchial tubes, by which the lungs (specially the muscles of respiration) are stimulated to contraction, in order to expel the mucus which they contain. (4, pages 8-9)
In other words, Bree believed mucus was the cause of most diseases, including asthma.  He believed the contraction of the lungs was a defense mechanism to expel mucus from the lungs.

About 30 years after Bree published his book the stethoscope was invented, and as soon as it was used to listen to asthmatic lungs Dr. Bree's theory was disproved, said Schmiegelow.  He said that once the stethoscope gained favor, it was easy to prove that an attack of bronchitis does not precede an attack of asthma, and that rhales (a lung sound Laennec used to describe the sound of secretions in the lungs) are heard later during the attack.

While Bree waswell respected in his day, his ideas about asthma, and even most of his remedies, slowly gave way to science.  In this way, Despite Bree's noble efforts, his bronchitic theory of asthma eventually took a back seat to Cullen's nervous and spasmotic theories.

Regardless, all three theories would be debated over the course of the 19th century.

Continue the journey by clicking here.

  1. Pepper, William,  Louis Star, "A System of Practical Medicine," Volume 3, page 184
  2. Berkart, J.B., "On Asthma: It's pathology and treatment," 1878, London,  Chapter II, "History of Asthma," page 12
  3. Bree, Robert, "A Practical Inquiry into Disordered Respiration, distinguishing the Species of Convulsive Asthma, their Causes, and Indications of Cure, London, 1810.  I could not find the 1790 edition online, yet this one serves our purpose.
  4. Schmiegelow, Ernest, "Asthma, considered specially in relation to nasal disease," 1890, London, page 4 
  5. Jackson, Mark, "Asthma: The biography," 2009, London, pages 86-88 (If you're interested in a good asthma history book, this is it.)
RT Cave Facebook Page
RT Cave on Twitter
Print Friendly and PDF

No comments:

Post a Comment