Wednesday, January 25, 2017

1873: The Blackley experiments, part 1

Charles Harrison Blackley (1820-1900)
Dr. John Bostock defined hay-fever in 1819, and by 1840 it quickly gained ground as a common diagnosis. This was true despite physicians not understanding the true cause and nature of the disease. Yet this all changed in 1873 when Charles Harrison Blackley published his book "Experimental Researches into the Cause and Nature of Catarrhus Aestivus."

He was born in 1820, and when he was of age he became an apprentice to Bradshaw as an engraver and printer.  (3, page 190)

In 1848, at the age 28, he became ill and became a patient of Dr. David, who practiced in homeopathic medicine, or medicine that was generally shunned by the medical profession.  He was diagnosed with a newly defined disease called hay fever.  This seemed to have peeked his interest in both homeopathic medicine and hay fever. (3, page 190) (2, page 8)

He continued to work as a printer and engraver, studying chemistry, botany, electricity, and Greek on the side.  In 1855, at the age of 35, he left this career to attend Manchester School of Medicine full time.  He qualified as a doctor in 1838, and started a practice in Manchester, England, as both as a surgeon and physician, specializing in homeopathic medicine. (1) (3, page 190)

He returned to school in 1874, this time at Brussels, where he earned his doctorate (M.D.). He did not hide the fact he practiced in homeopathic medicine, in fact he was honored and even wrote papers on the subject. However, once he obtained his doctorate (M.D.) in 1874, he was more generally accepted by the medical community. (3, page 190) (1)

Through it all, and since his diagnosis with hay fever, and his constant reminder of it each fall, he constantly and "carefully read over most of the scanty bits of literature of the disease then existing," he said.   (2, page 8) (3, page 190)

He learned there were a lot of theories as to what caused hay fever, including heat from the sun on hot days, benzoic acid used as food preservatives, strong odors (such as from plants), ozone, dust, light, animals and pollen (from grass or flowering plants).  Yet he was constantly frustrated by the lack of evidence that any of these caused hay fever. (2, pages 3,7)

He was amazed at all the theorizing regarding the cause and nature of this disease. He said: "It is, however, much easier to theorise than to try experiments, and especially when these would have to be tried on the theoriser's own person. (2, page 73)

He said such theorizing resulted in "no advance towards obtaining a remedy on which we can depend as an effectual means of a cure," he said.(2, page 3, 7)

The most common theory at the time was that hay fever was caused by heat, such as heat from a hot summer's day.  However, one day he was in a hot kitchen and he did not have hay fever symptoms.  He wondered why this would not induce the symptoms, but a hot summer day would.  It made no sense.

He said:
"I was inclined to regard heat as the principle exciting cause, but my experiences did not quite coincide with the opinions of those who had written on the disorder, and this experience had, unfortunately, compelled me to come to the conclusion that until something more was known than I had learned from the writings of others, or from my own previous observations, there was no chance of escape from the annual torment. I had thus a personal interest in getting a more thorough knowledge than I then possessed of all the phenomena of hay-fever; and whilst I was in this way furnished with a good and sufficient reason for commencing the investigations, the annoyance caused by the annual attacks acted as a powerful stimulus to exertion in making these as complete as my somewhat limited time and opportunities would permit." (2, page 8-9)
It was this frustration that inspired him, in 1859, to begin a series of experiments to learn the true nature and cause of hay fever, of which he referred to as cararrhus aestivus. (2 page 7)

He initially wanted to perform these experiments on others, although he had only a few volunteers.  So he ultimately decided to perform these them on himself.  This decision was initially criticized by his peers, although they quickly rescinded their criticism as soon as they learned how well his experiments were formulated.

While he initially suspected the experiments would be done quickly, he said that circumstances beyond his control forced them to be done slowly over the course of many years.  He had to test pollen under various situations, and in various seasons.

Likewise, while many of the substances did not cause hay fever symptoms, some of them did cause symptoms that were quite unpleasant.  For instance, when he and his friends were sitting in a room inhaling the odors of Chamomilla metricaria, he started to feel...
...severe aching pain across the forehead, with nausea, dizziness, and pain at the epigastrium... and these became so unpleasant on the second day after the plant had been placed in the room that I was glad to have it removed.  (1, page 57)
Occasional set backs like this would delay further experimentation until he was feeling better. All in all, it took fourteen years for him to conclude his experiments and finish writing his book. (2, page 9)

Blackley was initially criticized for his work.  However, his book was so well written, and his experiments so well performed, that the criticism was not long lasting.

  1. "Charles Harrison Blackley, 1820-1900," The University of Manchester: The John Ryland University Library: Manchester Medical Collection,, accessed 9/13/14
  2. Blackley, Charles Harrison, "Experimental Researches on the Causes and Nature," 1873, London, Bailliere, Tindall, and Cox
  3. Waite, K.J., "Blackley and the development of hay fever as a disease of civilization in the nineteenth century," Medical History, April, 1995, 39 (2), pages 186-196,, accessed 9/14/14
  4. Smith, William Abbotts, "On Hay-Fever, Hay-Asthma, or Summer Catarrh," 1867, London, Henry Renshaw, pages 17-24.
  5. Blackley, Charles Harrison, "Hay Fever: It's causes, treatment and effective prevention," 2nd edition, 1880, London, Bailliere, Tindall, & Cox

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