Though May is Celiac Awareness month, just how aware is the population of the origins and development of knowledge surrounding this disease? Believe it or not, it has not developed out of the widespread use of wheat in commercialized products or the drastic change in diet in the United States. Celiac started as soon as the hunters and gatherers in Earth’s earliest history settled down and started to grow and harvest grains in the Triticeae family. From that moment on, doctors and writers have been slowly connecting the dots and only in recent history has the truth been narrowed down enough to take action against it.
It took us a few thousand years to find the proof, but archeologists finally did. A skeleton was found in Cosa, a southwestern region of Italy, that dated back to around 100 BC. The ancient body belonged to a woman whose age was estimated to between 18-20. Not only was there evidence of infertility and malnutrition, but scientists also found HLA-DQ2, one of the two genetic cell surface proteins that is present in all people who suffer from Celiac Disease.
Flashforward in history to the dominating Greeks, who at one point owned most of the fertile crescent and had genetically mingled with the world they had conquered. In 250 AD, a greek doctor by the name of Aretaeus of Cappadocia wrote in detail of a plight overtaking many of his patients. It included stomach pains and diarrhea, weakness, pale skin and crippling enough to make the patient unable to work. He also mentioned that it seemed chronic. At that time, he pondered if the problem was due to the stomach not being able to heat up enough to digest the food properly, naming it “koiliakos,” which meant “suffering in the bowels.” At the time, he wrote that it never affected children and most often formed in older women.
Writer Francis Adams later brought the writings of Aretaeus to the Sydenham Society in 1856, where the documents were stored and studied for decades by doctors and others interested in ailments of the body.
About 30 years later, a well respected pediatrician by the name of Samual Gee came forward with the most modern description of Celiac after years of studying children with milk intolerance and stomach resistance in starchy foods. Gee spoke in London at the Hospital for Sick Children on Great Ormond Street in 1887, quoting Aretaeus and adopting his term to name the disease: Coeliac. He stated a solid truth: “If the patient can be cured at all, it must be by means of diet.” Some of his understudies dubbed the condition Gee-her disease.
The news continued to spread, going to the new world and eventually becoming a publication topic for American Doctor Christian Archibald Herter in 1908. Like Gee, his studies and findings centered around children, so he called the disease “intestinal infantilism.” He noted that fat was better stomached than carbohydrates.
Another American doctor, Pediatrician Sidney V. Haas, studied more upon Celiac and followed his predicessors’ lead in testing and studying different diets on children that suffered from it. In 1924, He conveyed moderate success with a banana-only meal routine. The high “cure” rate kept this concept as a standard until the actual cause was discovered.
Even though strides were being made in America, it was Dutch pediatrician Dr. Willem Karel Dicke who finally made the wheat connection of celiac in the 1940s. Major improvements in his patients during the Dutch famine during World War II (1944) that he picked up on it. During that year, bread was scarce and the death rate of children drastically dropped. But as soon as bread returned to the region, those numbers soared.
The final understanding of the wheat and Celiac connection came in the 1950s. A team lead by British physician John W. Paulley took samples during intestinal surgeries in 1954. He revealed that the tentacles lining the internal sides of the small intestines had eroded away to leave a flat, dysfunctional surface.
A decade later and throughout the 1960s, the genetic trend of Celiac disease was discovered. It’s estimated that about 95% of celiac sufferers have a form of the cell protein receptors DQ2 or DQ8. The skin rash caused by gluten sensitivity, called dermatitis herpetiformis, was finally recognized as a symptom in 1966 as well.