Celiac.com 03/04/2009 - Millions of people currently suffer from a potentially deadly condition that can have little or no symptoms, but is easily diagnosed and treated. The condition is called celiac disease, and it is caused by an adverse autoimmune reaction to gliadin (found in wheat gluten), secalin (found in rye gluten), or horedin (found in barley gluten). Because of the broad range of symptoms that celiac disease can present, and the fact that many people will have no symptoms at all, it can often be very difficult for those who do have it to get properly screened for the disease.

According to Dr. Alessio Fasano, medical director of the Center for Celiac Research, 2.5 million to 3 million people in the USA have celiac disease—it is twice as common as Crohn’s disease, ulceric colitis and cystic fibrosis combined—yet, to date, no more than 150,000 of them have been diagnosed. This means that a full 2.35 to 2.85 million people in the USA have not been diagnosed and treated.

Gluten-Free GirlThe symptoms of the disease can range from no symptoms at all, to mild weakness, bone pain, aphthous stomatitis (canker sores), chronic diarrhea, abdominal bloating, and progressive weight loss. If people with celiac disease continue to eat gluten, studies show that their risk of gastrointestinal cancer increases by a factor of 40 to 100 times over the general population. Further, gastrointestinal carcinoma or lymphoma develops in up to 15 percent of patients with untreated or refractory celiac disease. It is thus essential that the disease be quickly diagnosed and treated.

The last decade has seen an explosion in the understanding and awareness of celiac disease and in higher standards and increased availability of gluten-free foods.

To help us better appreciate the dramatic changes and developments that have taken place, Celiac.com has put together a list of historical landmarks in the understanding and treatment of celiac disease. A glance at the time line will show that it really has taken centuries just to recognize and diagnose celiac disease, with the greatest strides being made in the last fifty years, and especially in the last decade.

A Celiac Disease / Gluten-Free Diet Historical Timeline:

  • 100 A.D.—The first written account of celiac symptoms in western medicine occurs when the Greek Physician, Aretaeus the Cappadocean, known as Galen, describes the characteristic stool, noting that the disease was more common in women than men and that children can also be affected.
  • 1669—The Dutch physician Vincent Ketelaer publishes a book that contains an account of a diarrheal illness in which he notes feces so voluminous that, "several basins or pots scarcely hold these accumulations."
  • 1737—John Bricknell writes of patients who suffer from what he terms the "white flux.” Both Ketelaer and Bricknell were likely describing celiac disease, though that name would not be attached it for another century and a half.
  • 1887—Dr. Samuel Gee ushers in the modern era of celiac disease, when he drew attention to the disorder in a lecture delivered at the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street, London.
  • 1888—Dr. Gee publishes his classic paper, "On the Coeliac Affection,” in which he describes aspects of the celiac disease with great accuracy and suggests that, "if the patient can be cured at all, it must be by means of diet.” He experimented with various diets and noted that children who were fed a quart of the best Dutch mussels daily, throve splendidly, but relapsed when the season for mussels ended.
  • 1889—R.A. Gibbons, MD., M.R.C.P. publishes The Celiac Affection in Children in the Edinburgh Medical. Journal.
  • 1908—British Physician Christian Herter becomes the first to discover that celiac disease can cause stunted growth, especially among children in their middle years.
  • 1921—British Physician John Howland devises the healthy, three-stage diet for celiac patients known as the milk/protein diet.
  • 1932—Danish physician Thorwald Thaysen provides the first clinical explanation of celiac disease in adults, though he lacks detailed knowledge on intestinal pathology for a full understanding of the disease.
  • 1936—Dutch pediatrician Willem Karel Dicke isolates cereal grains as the factor in aggravating the symptoms of celiac disease, especially in children, and begins treating children with the gluten-free diet. Afterwards his Ph.D. thesis was published and he was laughed out of the NYC gastroenterology meeting in 1950 and vowed not to return to the USA.
  • 1954—Experimenting with surgical biopsy material, Doctor J. W. Paulley makes the first discovery of the intestinal lesions caused by celiac disease in patients.
  • 1955—Margo Shiner invents the tiny biopsy tube that is still used today for confirming the presence of celiac disease in the small intestines. The important celiac disease discoveries of Paulley and Shiner meant that, from the mid 1950s onwards, doctors had a means by which to reliably diagnose the disease. Their discoveries gave rise to an explosion in the understanding of celiac disease that continues to this day.
  • 1965—Dermatologists recognize that people suffering from the itchy skin rash, dermatitis herpetiformis, have an abnormal