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historic figures of COPD and asthma

A Pithy History Of COPD?

Shortness of breath was noted in ancient documents. In the year 2,697, it was described by Nei Ching Su Wen in his book, “Classics on Internal Medicine.” This was long before terms like Asthma and COPD even existed.

No offense here, but asthma came first. It was an ancient Greek term meaning to take short, panting breaths. Homer was the first to use this term in his book The Illiad (2). He used it to describe shortness of breath after running a long distance. He also used it to describe the feeling of shortness of breath after being wounded in battle. This would have been sometime around 800 B.C.

Fast forward 400 years and we meet a famous Greek physician named Hippocrates.

He wrote a medical book called The Hippocratic Corpus. In it, he used the term “dyspnea” to describe shortness of breath (3). He used the term “asthma” to describe severe shortness of breath. This was how asthma was introduced to the medical community. Hippocrates was a very famous doctor. So, his book was the Bible of medicine for the next 2,000 plus years. So, the term “asthma” survived through time.

But, there have been lots of changes since then. For instance, for most of history, your symptom WAS your disease. For instance, if you had the symptoms shortness of breath, you were diagnosed with asthma. Okay? It was that simple. Nothing really changed until 1448. This was when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press (11). This allowed people to print books. Before this time, people had to write them out by hand. So, it was hard to make copies. Now it was easy. Another significant event was in 1537. Andreas Vesalius became a professor at the University of Padua.

One thing I forgot to tell you: It was considered sacrosanct (illegal) to dissect bodies in the ancient world. If you did it, you risked your life. Sure, Hippocrates might have had a student steal a body from a cemetery. This is how he knew what he did. But, it was rare this was done.

Things changed in the 16th century that allowed physicians to dissect bodies.

Vesalius must have been so curious. He personally dissected bodies. And, in 1543, he published a book called The Fabric of the Human Body. It was a 700-page book and the first accurate book of anatomy.

What does this have to do with COPD?

Well, this book inspired many physicians to do their own autopsies. They studied the human body. They dissected the lungs of people with asthma. Their goal was to match the symptoms in life to what changes had occurred inside the lungs.

In 1679, Theophile Bonet described a disease called “voluminous lungs” (8). Later physicians referred to this disease as emphysema. This term was used to describe air trapping due to loss of lung tissue. As physicians learned more, emphysema became its own disease with its own treatments. It was removed from the umbrella term asthma.

In 1814, Charles Badham was the first physician to describe bronchitis (8). This term was used to describe inflamed air passages. Over time physicians learned more. Bronchitis became it’s own disease with its own treatments. It was removed from the umbrella term asthma.

In 1819, Rene Laennec invented the stethoscope (12). Using this new tool he was able to listen to lung sounds. He used it to distinguish between asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema. He was the first to describe bronchitis and emphysema as similar diseases.

In 1948, American and British physicians got together. They described a condition called Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. This was a key moment in our COPD history. Before this time, our disease was described differently by different doctors. Now, for the first time, all physicians were on the same page.

This is a brief history of our disease. Chances are, our disease existed in 2,697 B.C. It existed in 400 B.C. But, it was only recently defined for the medical community. So, this should help you understand why so little is known about our disease. Now the race is on to learn more about it.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

  1. Sigerist, Henry E, "A History of Medicine," Volume II, 1961, Oxford University Press, New York, pages 19-20
  2. Jackson, Mark, "Asthma: The Biography," 2009, Oxford University Press, pages 10-11.  Note:  While Mark Jackson is not the only person to acknowledge the Iliad as the first reference to the term asthma, I still want to give him credit here.  
  3. Withington, Edward, "Medical History from the earliest times," 1894, London, page 38
  4. Buck, Albert Henry, Williams Memorial Public Funds, "The growth of medicine from the earliest times to about 1800," 1917, London, Oxford University Press
  5. Shute, D. Kerfoot, "The life and works of ndreas Vesalius," Old dominion journal of medicine and surgery, Tomkin, Beverly R. Tucker, Douglas Vanderhoof, Murat Willis, R.H. Wright, editors, 1910, Richmond Virginia, The Old Dominion Publishing Corporation, pages 195-211
  6. Qutayba Hamid, Joanne Shannon, James Martin, "Physiologic Basis of Respiratory Disease," 2005, Montreal, page 85-99
  7. Bhatia, K. Sujata, "Biomaterials for Clinical Application," 2010, London, page 100
  8. Petty, Thomas L, "The History of COPD,"Int. J. Chron. Obstruct. Pulmon. Dis., 2006, March; 1(1): 3-14
  9. Crellin, J. M.D., "Selected Items from the history of pathology," Am J Pathol. 1980 January; 98(1): 212.
  10. Forbes, John, The life of the author, translator of "A treaties on the diseases of the chest, and on mediate auscultation," a book written by Rene Theophile Hyacinthe Laennec, 1838, New York, Philadelphia, Samuel S., pages xix-xxiii
  11. Haven, Kendall F, "One hundred greatest inventions of all time," 2006, U.S., Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., pages 96-98
  12. "Now I hear:  The history of the stethoscope,", 1998-2011, accessed 12/28/13
  13. Laennec, Rene Theophile Hyacinthe, "A treaties on the diseases of the chest, and on mediate auscultation," translated by John Forbes, notes by Dr. M. Andral, 4th edition, 1838, New York, Philadelphia, Samuel S. and William Wood, Thomas Cowperthwaite and Company
  14. Barchers,Suzanne, "I've Discovered Sound," Brainworks, 2009, Leopard, page 9
  15. Camman, Donald M, "Historical Sketch: Stethoscopes," A Reference Handbook for Medical Sciences, edited by Albert Henry Buck, by various writers, volume VI, 1888, New York, William Wood and Company, 626-628