Writing for The Boston Globe, Neil Swidey makes a compelling case for how the rising tide of food allergy fakers may endanger actual sufferers, as restaurants begin to take “allergy” requests less seriously. But his piece is more than just an anti-faker missive, it’s also a fascinating history of food allergies in America, and their place in the restaurant world. Much of the history is interesting, but I was most surprised by the very newness of the term “allergy,” which is barely a century old:
The word “allergy” has been around only since 1906, when Austrian pediatrician Clemens von Pirquet coined it to describe altered biological reactivity. It didn’t gain traction until the mid-1920s, when it took on a big-tent definition describing reactions to everything from food and insect stings to mold and hay fever, says medical historian Matthew Smith, author of the new book Another Person’s Poison: A History of Food Allergy. For most of the 20th century, research-focused “orthodox” allergists, who insisted on a definition requiring a measurable immune reaction, battled with more flexible food allergists, whose main focus was bringing relief to their patients’ hypersensitivities.
So how did Pirquet coin the term? For this, we look beyond the Globe story to a medical textbook called History of Allergy. According to the book, Pirquet was an eager doctor and researcher who was known for drawing conclusions from sickbed-observations. He first became aware of allergies around 1902, when he observed extreme non-disease related side effects in some children suffering from diphtheria (they’d been treated with a horse serum antitoxin). Four years later, Pirquet took to the July 24, 1906 issue of Münchener Medizinische Wochenschrif to publish his findings:
We need a new… word for the altered state which the organism finds out by the acquaintance with any organic, living or lifeless poison… For this general concept of altered responsiveness, I suggest the term allergy.
The word itself has its roots in Greek, with allos meaning “other” and ergon meaning “reaction.”