Celiac.com 04/29/2010 - May is designated as National Celiac Awareness Month. As such, I thought it would be a great opportunity to explore the history of celiac disease. Most people think of celiac disease as a modern day ailment, which predominantly affects those of European descent and in Westernized societies. However in my research, I found that the best place to start when referencing the history of celiac disease, is actually the beginning of humans.
In the beginning of humans, known as the Neolithic Period, humans were hunters and gatherers and primarily survived on fruits, nuts, and meat when available. During the Neolithic Period, humans evolved and began cultivating plants which quickly led to the agricultural revolution.
In the first century A.D., Aretaeus documented information about, “The Coeliac Affection.” He named celiac disease, “koiliakos” derived from the Greek word for “abdomen”. In his descriptions of celiac Aretaeus stated, “If the stomach be irretentive of food and if it pass through undigested and crude, and nothing ascends into the body, we call such persons coeliacs”. While a name had been given to the disease, people with celiac still had no idea how to heal from the condition, and were still vastly unaware of the cause for their ailments.
It wasn't until the early 19th Century that Dr. Mathew Baillie published his observations on celiac disease which he sited as, 'chronic diarrheal disorder causing malnutrition and characterized by a gas-distended abdomen'. In his observations, Dr. Baillie documented that some of his patients appeared to benefit from eating only rice.
However important Dr. Baillie's findings were, they still went largely unnoticed by the medical community until 75 years later when an English doctor known as Dr. Samuel Gee, came into the scene. In 1888 Dr. Gee was working for the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in the United Kingdom when he demonstrated a set of clinical trials performed on children and adults with celiac disease. Dr. Gee was quoted as saying, “To regulate the food is the main part of treatment. The allowance of farinaceous foods must be small, but if the patient can be cured at all, it must be by means of diet.” As an example he sited a very sick child that was fed the best Dutch mussels every day during mussel season. The child thrived during mussel season, but as soon as the season was over, the child regressed and died before the next mussel season.
In the 1920's, Sidney Hass presented the “Banana diet”. Sydney successfully treated 8 out of 10 children suffering with celiac disease using the banana diet. He claimed to have cured the 8 children that were on the banana diet, but the other 2 children not on the banana diet, died. The banana diet included the elimination of all bread, crackers, potatoes and cereals and for several decades, the banana diet was the only cure for celiac disease.
Another important marker in the history of celiac disease were the findings by Dutch pediatrician, Dr. Willem Karel Dicke. In 1953 Dr. Dicke wrote his doctoral thesis for the University of Utrecht based on his observations that the ingestion of wheat proteins specifically, and not carbohydrates in general, were the cause of celiac disease. He was able to exemplify his findings based on bread shortages in the Netherlands during World War II. During the bread shortages, he found that the health of children with celiac improved tremendously. However, when the allied planes began dropping bread to the Netherlands, the same children quickly deteriorated.
In the 1960's, it became evident that the best method for testing for celiac disease was to perform a biopsy. However, doctors were urged not to diagnose people as having celiac disease until it was proven that gluten was the cause for the damage. To determine if a patient had celiac disease, a biopsy would be performed to evaluate the damage done to the intestines. The patient would then be put on a gluten-free diet. Another biopsy would then be preformed to determine improvement in the intestines. After improvement the patient would be put back on a gluten diet, and another (3rd) biopsy would be preformed to determine reoccurring damages to the intestine, and thus the presence of celiac disease. This method was used for over 20 years as the best method for testing for celiac disease.
Then in the 1980's studies by Dr. Stefano Guandalini, showed that the presence of celiac could be found in 95% of celiac cases by performing a single biopsy. In 1990 these findings helped create the new guidelines for celiac testing which were approved by ESPGHAN (European Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology). Also during this time, professionals starting recognizing celiac as an autoimmune disease and also began recognizing the correlation between gluten sensitivity and other autoimmune diseases.
Here we are now in the year 2010; thirty years after the medical profession has successfully established the causes, tests and treatments for celiac disease, and thousands of years since celiac first made it's debut. Yet, as far as early diagnosis is concerned, we are still living in the dark ages. In this day and age, knowing what we know about celiac disease, childhood screening for celiac should already be mandatory. It's almost as if, when doctors were told in the 1960's to hold off on celiac diagnosis until they knew undoubtably that gluten was the cause for damage to intestines, they were never told, 'okay, now it's safe to diagnose for celiac'. Unfortunately, many (if not most) doctors still don't know how to appropriately diagnose patients for celiac disease, and therefor they continue to 'hold off' making celiac diagnoses, or misdiagnose regularly. Enforcing mandatory celiac screening in school age children has potential to eliminate the unnecessary suffering of millions of children and adults worldwide. My dearest hope is that we all get to see mandatory celiac testing in this lifetime.
If you would like more information on “Celiac Awareness Month,” please check out the links below. The following links are trusted sites that also provide suggestions on how you can get involved and contribute to celiac awareness in your community.
- Agricultural Revolution - celiac disease is born
- 1st Century A.D.- Aretaeus named celiac, “ koiliakos”
- 1st Century A. D.- Aretaeus documented“The Coeliac Affection.”
- 19th Century- Dr. Mathew Baillie published his observations on celiac
- 1888- Dr. Gee established the correlation between celiac and diet
- 1920's - Sydney Hass successfully treated celiac patients with “the banana diet”
- 1953 - Dr. Willem Karel Dicke confirmed wheat protein to be the cause for celiac disease
- 1960's - Biopsy established as the most accurate test for celiac
- 1980's - Dr. Stefano Guandalini established a single biopsy test for celiac
- 1990 - ESPGHAN established new guidelines for celiac biopsy testing