Wednesday, October 19, 2016

1860: Villemin's asthma theories ignored

Jean Antoine Villemin (1827-1892)
Most people of the civilized world were aware of a killer by the name of consumption, although no one knew where it came from nor what to do about it.  If you caught it you probably going to die. Fear of this killer created a feeling of doom and gloom that spread across Europe and the United States.

After obtaining his medical degree from Stassburg in 1853, Jean Antoine Villemin was sent to Val de Grace, the military school at Paris, for further study.  While a professor at Val de Grace he made the observation that men living in close quarters in barracks were most likely to catch the disease. So he set out to perform an experiment.  (1)(2, page 664)

Villemin obtained some tissue from a man who died of tuberculosis, and he inoculated it into rabbits.  He knew the rabbits were probably going to die, although he knew that he could save the lives of millions of people around the world if his experiment succeeded.  

Every day he checked on his rabbits, and by the third month his diligence paid dividends, as he observed tuberculosis lesions.  He published the results of his study, and they were ignored by the medical community.  By respecting his experiments physicians could have limited the spread of one of the most dreadful diseases ever to inflict mankind, yet their ignorance prevented them from doing so.

Villemin's work would ultimately be proven true by other scientists.  Yet until that time, Villemin worked overtime trying to convince the medical community that he was correct.  He would ultimately become a hero, although that time wouldn't arrive for several more years.  

By his investigations into the lungs, he was able to learn about other diseases as well, including asthma.  In 1860, he tried to disprove the nervous theory of asthma with his own scientific experiments, which were described by Dr. J. B. Berkart in 1878: 
Villemin professed to have demonstrated the pathological changes that deprived the pulmonary tissue of its elasticity, and predisposed the bronchial mucous membrane to hypersemia. He stated that emphysema originated in a proliferation of the inter-capillary nuclei, whose advancing growth tended to compress the alveolar vessels. As the nutrition of the air-vesicles became impaired, they were unable to efficiently perform expiration. At the same time, the respiratory surface was reduced, and the blood accumulated in the bronchi to such extent as to convert their mucous membrane into a kind of erectile tissue. This condition gave rise to no symptoms, either subjective or objective. Its existence became manifest only by the readiness with which trifling incidents produced their effect. Hyperaemia (inflammation?) rapidly ensued, and led to the dyspnoeal attacks that other writers consider as nervous asthma. The chronic inflammation of the alveoli, described by Villemin, is, however, not recognised by other observersIronically, 130 years later, asthma was found to be a disease of chronic inflammation. Should we go back now and give Villemin cretic in retrospect? (3, pages 33-34)
Like his tuberculosis theory, his asthma theory was ignored by the medical community. This was because the nervous theory was so popular at this time that there was no room for any other theory.  Villemin was yet another victim of how hard it is to change the minds of people who are already set in their ways. 

However, in the decades that followed Villemin's publication of his work on tuberculosis, the works of Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch would force the medical community to look at Villimin's work and accept it as fact.

Further reading:
  • 1855:  Traube doubts nervous theory of asthma
  1. "Jean Antoine Villemin,",, accessed 3/3/14
  2. Garrison, Fielding Hudson, "An introduction to the history of medicine," 3rd edition, 1821, Philadelphia and London, W.B. Saunders Company
  3. Berkart, J.B., "On Asthma: It's pathology and treatment," 1878, London, J. & A. Churchill
  4. "Obituary: Jean Antoine Villemin," The British Medical Journal, Nov. 13, 1892, 1860:  Villemin's asthma theories ignored, accessed 3/3/14
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