From the archives: When food allergies were ‘strange pranks’ for scientists to decipher

A November 1936 Popular Science article presented the available data on food allergies, albeit limited.
A collage of images from the Popular Science article “Food or Poison? … Strange Pranks of a Medical Mystery” (Frederic Damrau, M.D., November 1936)
“Food or Poison? … Strange Pranks of a Medical Mystery” (Frederic Damrau, M.D., November 1936) Popular Science

To mark our 150th year, we’re revisiting the Popular Science stories (both hits and misses) that helped define scientific progress, understanding, and innovation—with an added hint of modern context. Explore the entire From the Archives series and check out all our anniversary coverage here.

When Popular Science ran the article “Food or Poison?” in November 1936, it would be more than 30 years before Kimishige Ishikaka and his wife Teruko would discover Immunoglobulin E or IgE, the antibody responsible for allergic reactions. But, even in 1936, the hunt for clues that would identify and explain food allergies had been underway for decades. 

German dermatologist Josef Jadasshon may have been the first to devise a test for diagnosing such sensitivities in 1896. Known as the patch test, Jadasshon would bind a swatch infused with the prospective allergen to skin to see if a rash developed. In 1912, American pediatrician Oscar Menderson Schloss was the first to use a skin prick test, which is still in use today. Nearly half a century before the IgE discovery, Carl Pausnitz and Heinz Kustner identified the role of antibodies in producing allergic reaction, then known as “reagins.”

Frederic Damrau, the MD who penned Popular Science’s 1936 story, describes a new test developed by American allergist Warren Vaughan that detected a “noticeable decrease in the number of white corpuscles [platelets] in the blood” when patients were fed allergy-triggering foods—a tantalizing clue implicating antibodies. Damrau’s account is filled with humorous and alarming anecdotes, illuminated by illustrations from artist Benjamin Goodwin Seielstad. 

Today, food allergies have been on the rise for decades, primarily in industrialized countries. And, despite considerable diagnostic progress over the last century, there is no cure for food allergies, a malady that affects 1 in 13 children in the US.

“Food or Poison? … Strange Pranks of a Medical Mystery” (Frederic Damrau, M.D., November 1936)

Not long ago, a man arrived at the famous Mayo Clinic, at Rochester, Minn. This was his curious story: Every morning at eleven o’clock, no matter whether he was in a business conference or driving his car, he dropped asleep!

Dr. Walter Alvarez, oi the clinic, followed clew after clew. Finally, he traced the ailment back to the man’s breakfast, to his cup of coffee, and even to the cream in his morning beverage. When the patient eliminated cream from his coffee, the trouble disappeared!

Just as amazing are thousands of other instances of that strange and often fantastic disorder known as allergy. Victims are upset when they eat, breathe, or touch substances which are harmless to the average person. Literally, what is meat for millions is poison for them.

If eggs make you break out in a rash, if strawberries give you hives, if cats set you sneezing, you are allergic. Between l0,000,000 and 15,000,000 Americans, it is estimated, are allergic to something.

Every time a boy who lives in Brooklyn, N. Y., chews gum, he starts to cough and sneeze. He is sensitive to chicles. Every time a girl in Chicago, Ill., smells chrysanthemums, her eyes puff up. She is allergic to the flower’s pollen. Every time a man in the South puts catchup on his steak, he chokes and gasps for breath. He is affected by tomatoes in any form. Every time a woman in St. Louis, Mo., eats an onion, she gets blue spots on her skin. Every time-—but the list goes on, indefinitely.

I have known people allergic to such familiar things as wallpaper, Christmas trees, sauerkraut, rubber, red plums, seed corn, asters, rice, dates, ginger ale, flyspecks, corn silk. I have heard of a butcher allergic to mutton; a florist sensitive to primroses; a carpenter affected by wood dust. And medical research is continually adding new trouble makers to the list

At a recent meeting of the American Medical Association, the noted Kansas City, Mo., specialist, Dr. William W. Duke, reported a case of “scratch allergy.” The patient was hypersensitive to mechanical irritation. Even a scratch might prove fatal, not from infection but from the shock of the tiny injury.

Some months ago, a physician friend of mine discovered what he thought was “aunt allergy.” Each time a particular aunt visited a six-year-old child, the boy broke out in a rash resembling measles!

In the end, however, the doctor discovered that the youngster was violently allergic to eggs. The aunt invariably had bacon and eggs for breakfast and when she kissed her nephew traces remaining on her lips were sufficient to upset him!

Even more astonishing cases are familiar to medical men. Several patients have proved so sensitive to eggs that meat from a hen caused them to break out in a rash while meat from a rooster gave them no trouble. Infinitesimal traces of egg in the hen’s meat were responsible. Likewise, meat from a cow may upset a patient violently allergic to milk, while beef from a steer proves harmless.

So sensitive was one patient to buckwheat that a single drop of honey made by bees after visiting buckwheat flowers would produce severe abdominal pains. It was not the sugar content of the honey that caused the trouble. It was the remnants of buckwheat. In the laboratory, if you remove the water and sugar from honey by dialysis, or the use of special membranes, virtually nothing remains behind. Yet, it was this “nothing” which brought on the attack!

When a physician encounters an allergic patient, his work more than ever resembles that of a detective. He hunts clews; he eliminates suspects; he traces effect back to cause. The commonest method of tracking down an outlaw substance is known as the “scratch test.” How it works is illustrated by a mystifying case reported from the Middle West.

One day, an elderly man licked the flap of an envelope in sealing a letter. A few minutes later, he began to tingle from head to foot. Then, his face grew purple, his breath came in gasps, and he dropped to the floor, unconscious. It was fifteen minutes before he came to. But in half an hour he was as well as ever. On another occasion, he tried on a pair of shoes that had just come back from the cobbler’s. Hardly could he tear them from his feet before he fainted. What was the secret of the strange attacks?

His physician suspected that the root of the trouble was allergy. Making tiny scratches on the patient’s arm, he bound various substances tightly against the skin. In this test, harmless substances produce no effect; harmful ones cause a rash on the skin or react in some other way. Almost the instant that fish glue touched his arm, the patient started, and began to gasp for breath. This glue was a violent poison to his system and he had encountered it on both the insoles of the shoes and the flap of the envelope.

By means of the scratch test, one doctor found that an unfortunate four-year-old child was allergic to twenty-eight different things. She suffered from hay fever, asthma, hives, and a constantly upset stomach, all caused by the everyday substances that were poison to her system. They included potatoes, eggs, salmon, cod fish, mustard, green peppers. black pepper, Chicken feathers, cattle hair, ragweed pollen. cockleburs, and aspirin.

Recently, the famous Richmond, Va., allergist. Dr. Warren T. Vaughan, announced a new and more sensitive test for foods that cause trouble, based on the pioneer work of the French scientist, Dr. F. Widal. After a twelve-hour fast, the patient dines on the suspected food. Then, blood samples, taken at half-hour intervals, go under the microscope. If the food is the trouble maker, there will be a noticeable decrease in the number of white corpuscles in the blood.

Only a few weeks after the new test was made public, it gave dramatic proof of its value. For eight years. a patient had been confined in a middle western sanitarium with a persistent fever. Doctors diagnosed her condition as tuberculosis. Using the Vaughan test, a physician proved that she was suffering from allergy and was continually being upset by the very foods she was being fed to make her well! When these foods were eliminated, the fever subsided and she was able to leave the sanitarium where she had spent nearly a decade.

Strangely enough, it is often the most wholesome foods that cause the most trouble. Eggs, wheat, and milk are, in that order, first on the list of troublemakers. Also, the allergy victim rarely dislikes the food that makes him sick—and oftentimes it is his favorite dish!

If you ask a specialist to explain just what such a food does in the system, he will be hard put to answer. Someone once asked Thomas A. Edison for the definition of electricity. He replied that any schoolboy could give as good a definition as he could. He knew what electricity does but not what it is. So with allergy. We know its effects, but much concerning how the effects are produced is shrouded in mystery. Two national groups, the Association for the Study of Allergy and the Society for the Study of Asthma and Allied Conditions, are now seeking to penetrate these mysteries.

One widely accepted theory is that the reaction is caused by foreign substances reaching the bloodstream. The patient’s system has built up a standing army of tiny bodies in the blood to fight this particular substance. When more of it is introduced, many specialists believe, these bodies go into action so quickly that the health of the patient is upset.

This theory that the reaction takes place in the blood stream would explain an occurrence in an eastern hospital that reads, at first glance, like a page from some Baron Munchausen of medicine.

In an emergency, a patient received a blood transfusion that saved his life. But, shortly afterwards, he began to sneeze repeatedly. Investigation showed that the donor of the blood was allergic to chicken feathers and that the allergy had been transferred temporarily to the patient, who was immediately affected by the feathers in his pillow!

Another curious instance of temporary allergy was reported to the American Medical Association. After an abdominal operation, a woman developed symptoms of hay fever. Her physician discovered that she was allergic to the catgut used in sewing up the incision. It had been treated to last forty days. At the end of that time, when the catgut had been absorbed by the body, the “hay fever” disappeared.

Occasionally, some common drug, such as quinine or aspirin, will produce an unexpected result because the patient is allergic to it. One man, in the South, who was dying of diabetes, could not take insulin. A girl who had an infected hand made matters worse by putting on a flaxseed poultice. She was allergic to flaxseed.

Cosmetics—face powders, lip sticks, perfumes, hair lotions, soaps—often act as poisons to sensitive persons. I remember one case in which a wealthy woman traveled thousands of miles—to California, Florida, Africa— in search of a climate that would relieve her asthma. Then, she found she was carrying her asthma wherever she went—in her powder compact. She was allergic to orris root, one of the ingredients in the powder she used.

That recalls one of the funniest cases I ever encountered. A young man found that whenever he kissed his sweetheart he began to wheeze and sniffle. A special brand of face powder was the explanation.

Again, there is the record of a sea captain who had an attack of asthma whenever he came into port but who was free from the disorder at sea. Investigation showed that he was sensitive to orris root in face powder. At sea, where there were no women and no face powder, his asthma disappeared.

To aid thousands of persons who are allergic to orris root, a Chicago manufacturer has put on the market a powder free from the troublesome substance. This same company is turning out a complete line of nonallergic cosmetics which are sold from coast to coast.

Other concerns are catering to the trade of those sensitive to various foods and dusts. A milk substitute made from soybeans which can be digested by patients who are upset by ordinary milk is now on the market and a process recently patented by an Ohio inventor will make it possible for allergic people to drink cows’ milk without ill effects. Special heating chambers remove the objectionable elements. Incidentally, it is rarely the milk itself that causes trouble. Rather it is the traces of something the cow has eaten, such as bran, weeds, or various flowers.

In Massachusetts, a large furniture factory is doing a flourishing business supplying special chairs, beds, and sofas to buyers who are allergic to feathers and animal hairs. Large department stores throughout the United States are also selling specially designed covers that slip on over chairs and sofas to prevent dust from the interior from reaching the air.

Of course, the commonest form of allergy due to floating particles is hay fever. Hundreds of thousands of people travel millions of miles a year to escape the air-borne pollen which causes them misery. That it is not necessary even to swallow or breathe a substance to have it upset you is illustrated by a host of curious cases in the records of allergy. Here are two with a humorous twist.

A New York woman went to an oculist to be fitted with new glasses. On her way home, she noticed that people were turning and staring at her as they went by. When she glanced in the mirror, she understood the reason. Across each cheek was a huge cherry-red welt. The composition used in the frames of the spectacles evidently contained some element to which her system was allergic.

Imagine the amazement of another eastern woman when her upper lip began to swell as soon as she started playing the flute in an orchestra of which she was a member! By the end of the concert, it was puffed up as though a bee had stung it. That night, the swelling went down. But the next day, when she started to practice, it puffed up again. Every time she put the flute to her mouth, her upper lip began to swell!

She took the instrument and her weird story to her family physician. He made tests and learned that a new mouthpiece recently placed on the flute was made of wood to which the woman was highly sensitive. When another mouthpiece replaced it, her mystifying disorder was ended.

In conclusion, here is the question which is most commonly asked me about allergy. Is it inherited? If your father is upset by milk or eggs or primrose pollen, does that mean you will be too?

Science can give a definite answer. It is: No. After studying the family histories of 250 allergic children and 315 normal ones, Dr. Bret Ratner, professor of children’s diseases at New York University College of Medicine, recently reported that he found no more allergic parents in the first group than in the second.

However, it is known that a tendency to be sensitive to something often is handed down from father to son. For example, I know a man who can ride horseback all day long, while his son begins to sneeze if he comes within half a block of a horse. But, the same son can eat walnuts whenever he wants while the slightest taste makes his father break out with hives!

In this strange world of idiosyncrasies, laws of which we know little are constantly at work. And, in their functioning, they produce some of the most fascinating, as well as bewildering, pages in the story of medicine.

The cover of Popular Science‘s November 1936 issue featuring breakthrough inventions and early DIY tips.

Some text has been edited to match contemporary standards and style.