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The dawn of allergies

Infections are known since antiquity. The discovery of particular pathogens causing diseases led to a better understanding of immune processes and, in turn, to the development of vaccinations. By exact observations this ultimately resulted in the discovery and definition of a new phenomenon – the manifold allergic reactions and diseases.

‘Ring-a-round the rosies,
A pocket full of posies,
Ashes! Ashes!
We all fall down.’

Some scholars suggest that this well-known nursery rhyme might refer to the plague and describes the red swellings and purulent lesions (the ‘posies’). Others believe it is a reminiscence to smallpox, describing the central blisters later turning purulent (‘posies’), surrounded by a red aura (‘ring-a-round the rosies’), and often leading to death (‘ashes, we all fall down’).

For centuries in human history, infectious diseases were among the most common causes of death. Some infections – such as anthrax, rabies, gangrene, or tetanus – were continuously present menaces. Others typically spread from one individual to another and caused devastating epidemics. Among these were the plague, syphilis, smallpox, cholera, tuberculosis, and – more recently – influenza. This overview offers abridged historical information about some of these diseases.

In the 19th century, the investigation and identification of the manifestations and causes of infections lead to an increasing understanding of the complex mechanisms of the immune system. It allowed to develop vaccinations, ie preventing the diseases and saving millions of lives. Untoward reactions to vaccines, in turn, lead to the discovery of previously unknown phenomena – hypersensitivities, later called allergies. The investigation and description of such problems laid the basis for a new clinical discipline – allergology.

Some people say that allergies are the epidemics of the 21st century (D’Amato et al. 2015; Ober & Yao 2011). Do you think this assertion is accurate? Please leave a comment in the section below and share your reasoning.

Additionally, we would like to invite you to a rather playful approach that we have nicknamed ‘Catch an Allergy’: think of images that you associate with allergies – plants, animals, or food causing reaction etc. Take a photograph or make a scribble and share it on this Padlet with your explanation. Please make sure that you do not infringe any copyrights or personal rights with your contribution. We look forward to your arguments and creative output!


D’Amato et al. (2015). Meteorological conditions, climate change, new emerging factors, and asthma and related allergic disorders: A statement of the World Allergy Organization. World Allergy Organization Journal, 8(25), 1-52. DOI: 10.1186/s40413-015-0073-0

Ober, C. & Yao, T. (2011). The genetics of asthma and allergic disease: a 21st century perspective. Immunological Reviews Special Issue – Allergic Responses, 242(1), 10-30. DOI: 10.1111/j.1600-065X.2011.01029.x

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This article is from the free online course:

Allergies: When the Immune System Backfires

University of Basel