Thursday, August 11, 2016

1910: Melttzer links asthma with allergies

Samuel James Meltzer (1851-1920)
Samuel James Meltzer is another significant figure in the history of asthma. He collected and studied as much data regarding asthma as he could, and performed some studies on his own, all in an attempt to learn as much as he could about the disease.  His discoveries would have a significant impact on the evolution of the definitions of both asthma and allergies.

He was born in Curland, Russia in 1851, studied medicine in Germany, received his medical degree there in 1882. 

He visited the United States on various occasions when he was a ship surgeon during trans Atlantic trips. He stuck with this job even though he often became sick at sea because it was the only way he could afford to get to the United States.  (4, page 12)(5, page 25)

He found the democratic government of New York appealing, and decided to set up his practice there. This allowed him to make enough money to support his family, and to dedicate a portion of his time to research. (4, page 12) (5, page 25)

In 1904, he became head of the Rockefeller Institute's Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, and in 1907 he became a full time physiologist. This was of no surprise to those who knew him, because his favorite subject was physiology and research.  He became the first president of the American Association of Thoracic Surgery in 1918, and was instrumental in the advancement of the organization.

Dr. George B. Wallace explained that Meltzer:
"...was a man who loved and pursued knowledge for it's own sake.  This was an inherent characteristic... With the environment in which his medical education began, it isfemall wonder that Meltzer's interest turned to research work. What especially impressed him from the beginning was first, the necessity of careful observation and thoroughness in work, and, second, the importance of facts rather than theories. Those who have heard Meltzer present experimental work will, I think, recall numerous instances in which, when pressed for an explanation of his results, he has replied that although he had a theory, it was only the fact itself that he wished to bring out. (4, page 13)
By his research and ideas, he made significant contributions to a variety of areas of medicine.  For the sake of our history, he made significant contributions to the field of respiratory therapy.  For one thing, he invented a device for providing breaths to victims during artificial respiration. 

He also made significant advancements in the study of asthma. The following are the conclusion he made about our disease:

1.  By performing studies in his lab he determined the symptoms of anaphylactic shock were similar to the symptoms of asthma.  Both conditions result in shortness of breath due to spasms of the air passages in the lungs. (1, page 173) (2, page 54)(3, page 115)

2.  He described how an asthmatic can become sensitized to certain substances, and then, when exposed to those certain substances, the asthmatic air passages become hyper-reactive.  This response is what results in an asthma attack.  (3, page 115)

3.  He discovered that Atropine relieved asthma symptoms, and he believed it worked because it relieved allergy symptoms.  (3, page 115)

4.  Based on all the accumulated data he obtained from both his research and studies, he postulated that asthma was not a nervous disorder and that it was, in actuality, an allergic disorder.  This would have a significant impact on other asthma experts of his era, because for many generations asthma was believed to be nervous in origin.  (1, page 173) (3, page 115)

He passed away on November 7, 1970, although through his contributions to medicine his legacy will live on. The best summary of his life was made by Howell:
By his good work and his high character he attained a position of honor and distinction in American medicine and endeared himself to his fellow workers in all parts of the country. His productivity was remarkable. The list of his published papers includes over two hundred and forty titles, distributed among some forty-eight scientific journals of this country, Germany and England. These papers contain contributions to the subjects of physiology, pharmacology, pathology and clinical medicine together with a number of lectures and general addresses. That he was an investigator of recognized standing in these several branches of medicine and was regarded as a valued contributor to so many scientific journals of the first rank is a striking demonstration of the breadth of his interests and knowledge. ... his work... entitles him certainly to be ranked among the foremost American physiologists." (5, pages 25-26) 
We can especially thank him for his contributions to asthma, as through his research scientists were better equipped with knowledge to more accurately define the disease.

  1. Lipkowitz, Myron A., Tova Navarra, "Encyclopedia of Allergies," 2nd edition, 2001, New York, page 173
  2. Mittman, Gregg, "Breathing Space: How allergies shape our lives and landscapes," 2007, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, page 54
  3. Jackson, Mark, "Asthma: A Biograhy," 2009, New York, Oxford University Press, page 115
  4. Wallace, George B., "A tribute to Dr. Meltzers life and service," during a memorial service fo Dr. Melter, published in the book "Memorial Number for Samuel Meltzer, M.D., Founder and First President of the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine," 1921, New York, Press of the New Frontier Company, pages 11-16
  5. Howell, William H, "Dr. Melter's influence on American Physiology."  This was a speech given in tribute to the life of Dr. Meltzer published in the book "Memorial Number for Samuel Melzer," 1921, New York Press of the New Frontier company, pages 25-36

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