« Return to this article

Know the West

The hidden history of a sneeze


In 1966, a severely asthmatic child named Gregg Mitman was one of an estimated 12.6 million allergy sufferers in the United States. Today, allergic asthma and hay fever affect more than 50 million Americans - roughly 20 percent of the population. In Breathing Space, Mitman, now a medical historian, traces the causes and effects of this national allergy boom. 

His fascinating history shows how the evolution of modern life exacerbated allergies: As people moved from country to city, developed pollution-spewing industries, and spent more time indoors, allergy, once thought to be a rarefied affliction of the upper classes, became a clearly democratic disease. 

While civilization fosters allergies, Mitman writes, allergies also shape the society that breeds them. His entertaining history of hay fever documents how, beginning in the late 1800s, the disease drove a resort craze, helping turn the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the shores of Lake Michigan into posh getaways where the rich could breathe free. When allergy sufferers turned to the Rockies and the Southwest, ill newcomers fueled the development of several hospitals and treatment centers in Denver - by 1920, cure-seekers made up an estimated 40 percent of the city's population- and kicked off a similar building boom in Tucson. Allergy sufferers such as writer Joseph Wood Krutch, who moved to Tucson in the 1950s to cure his asthma, were especially sensitive to the natural assets of the West, and were among the region's first conservationists. But in the West, as in the East, modern life soon intruded, bringing ornamental trees, pollution, and other allergens into once-pristine climes. 

With the development of antihistamines and other drugs, Mitman argues, the complex environmental causes of allergies were pushed aside, while the social injustices of allergy treatment endured. Today, pricey asthma drugs are just as inaccessible to the poor as a hay-fever holiday in New Hampshire or Colorado. "We can continue to grope at individual causes and remedies, one after another, hoping to fortify our bodies against an ever-changing environment with an ever-changing barrage of drugs," Mitman concludes. "Or we can learn from history and do better." 


Breathing Space: How Allergies Shape Our Lives and Landscapes Gregg Mitman 312 pages, hardcover: $30.

Yale University Press, 2007