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Etymology of asthma

The word ‘asthma’ has a long history and originally the word was used to describe laboured breathing and was not associated with disease (Netuveli, Hurwitz, & Sheikh, 2007).  Given this, it would be beneficial to explore the history of this word and how its form and meaning has changed over time.  It is believed that most old medical words originate from Greek, and the word ‘asthma’ is equally historically embedded.  Firstly, however, whilst the term ‘asthma’ was not used until Greek times, in 10,000BC asthma-like symptoms were being described in ancient societies in Egypt, China, Korea, India, Greece and Rome (Frea, 2011).  In 1862BC, a 20m, 100 page, scroll was discovered between the legs of a mummy in Thebes, which was written in Hieroglyphics and was then translated and transcribed (Frea, 2011).  This Medical Papyri became the oldest preserved medical document of all time (Frea, 2011).  Whilst various terms were used to describe respiratory ailments, most 

societies during these times believed that the disease was caused by an imbalance of bodily humors or phlegm that caused a seizure of the lungs resulting in various respiratory symptoms such as foaming at the mouth, cough, dyspnea (shortness of breath) and wheezes (Frea, 2011). Remedies (700 found on the Papyrus Eber), such as improving diet and getting lots of exercise and sleep, were attempts to balance these humors (Frea, 2011). The myth of humoral causes of the disease continued through the years and it was not until the 19th century that it finally left the medical profession (Frea, 2011).Following on, it was the Greeks who identified the condition with the term, aazein, which meant ‘sharp breath’ referring to breathing-in as a ‘taking in’ of something, as in, ‘I perceive’ (Saunders, 1993). Asthma (aasein) can be traced back in the literature initially to the Illiad by Homer who used the term ‘pant’ to describe extremely breathless battle weary heroes (Saunders, 1993). Specifically, he described the “glorious Hektor” after his near defeat by Ajax (Illiad, 1967, book 15, line 241-242, p.315) and Ajax himself, during his last battle with the Trojans as breathless (Illiad, 1967, book 16, line 109-111, p.333). It was only used to describe what we have come to identify as the medical condition ‘asthma’ around 450 BC by Hippocrates referring to a condition of laboured breathing and related breathing difficulties and spasms to autumn and middle age (Gregerson, 2003). Much was initially learnt through personal asthmatic narratives, which continued to inform medical practitioners. By the first century, asthma was used to describe a state of sickness; the word then referring to laboured, rapid, and putrid breathing of the afflicted Herod (Saunders, 1993). Asthma was described as ‘noisy breathing’, ‘making a blowing noise’, ‘panting’ or ‘groaning’ and did not originally mean ‘wheeze’ (Netuveli et al., 2007). The way asthma was described through bodily sounds is worthy of note here. In the 12th century, a comprehensive account was written in Arabic by Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides, 1138-1204). Thus, up until the 16th century various observers of the disease (e.g., Galen, 129-199AD) contributed to a treatise on the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of asthma (moderation in food, drink, sleep, sexual activity; avoiding polluted city environments; specific remedy of chicken soup) (Gregerson, 2003).It was in the 17th century, ‘an asthma’, was viewed as a condition in its own right, in part, due to the pivotal piece of work in 1698 by John Floyer (1649-1734), an English physician. He published the first book in English on the symptoms, causes, and treatment of asthma. It was Floyer’s treatise that constituted a central point of reference to subsequent authors and clinical practice (Jackson, 2008). These early medical texts included accounts of the author’s own pain and suffering and continued to shape clinical initiatives and medical writing (Jackson, 2008). Additionally, Hyde Salter (1823-71) wrote one of the most influential 19th century texts on asthma in 1860, based on his account on the disease on his own patients as well as those of his patients (Jackson, 2008). Lord Limerick and Arthur Hurst were among others who also contributed personal accounts of the disease. However, clinical reliance on personal observations and personal accounts of individual suffering started to recede (Jackson, 2008). Whilst during the early 1800s asthma was rarely mentioned in medical literature, during the 19th and 20th centuries, personal narratives of disease and the sense of identity and meaning often previously shared by doctor and patient were increasingly marginalised and have been noted as increasingly lacking (Jackson, 2008; Netuveli et al., 2007).


(Cited in Owton, H., 2012. ‘A breath of fresh air’: breathing stories of the lived experiences of asthma and sporting embodiment. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Exeter, p.12-14).

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