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History of Emphysema

22 Jan 2015
| Under COPD, Emphysema | Posted by | 2 Comments
History of Emphysema Lung Institute

At the start of the 20th century, we turned our sights to innovative fields of industry and embarked on a new quest into the realm of technology. Along the way, we discovered medicines that helped cure impossible diseases and treatments that expanded the average life span of an individual, but did you know that much of these very same conditions have a history of their own? Emphysema, for example, can be found chronicled by doctors from hundreds of years ago. So let’s get into our high velocity, stylish Delorean and travel back to the history of emphysema!

In the Beginning

It should probably be noted that there really isn’t a direct date as to when emphysema started. Recorded texts are our best bet at understanding how long researchers and doctors have been studying this chronic lung disease, which takes us to the earliest account that we know of. A Greek physician named Hippocrates discussed what many considered to be asthma. This condition included dyspnea or shortness of breath. At the time, he did not know about the different causes for asthma, thus any condition resembling shortness of breath was included under asthma.

Fast forward almost 2,000 years to the 17th century; this century is well known as a time where doctors were becoming fascinated in how the human body worked and even more importantly, how people lived with different medical conditions. It was during this era that a Swiss physician by the name of Theophile Bonet described emphysema as a separate medical disease. Having performed over 3,000 autopsies on his patients, Bonet first described the effects of emphysema on the lungs. He noted that lungs were larger in patients with emphysema and believed that this was the cause for shortness of breath.

During the 17th and 19th Centuries

Moving ahead a few decades, we come to Matthew Ballie. Ballie, a British physician who inherited his father’s anatomy school, documented emphysema in detail and with pictures. He found that the “enlarged air spaces” within the lungs that did not collapse properly. From 1793 to 1807, Ballie researched emphysema to the best of his abilities and published his findings in his book, “The Morbid Anatomy of Some of the Most Important Parts of the Human Body.”

In 1814, British Physician Charles Badham became the first to use the term “bronchitis” to denote “inflammatory changes in the mucous membrane.” This changed the way that doctors viewed a variety of medical conditions. Moving ahead to 1821, Dr. Rene Laennec, known as the father of chest medicine thanks in part to his invention of the stethoscope, accurately discovered the relationship between emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Laennec became the first to connect emphysema to aging, and he was the first to define emphysema as tissue damage in the peripheral air passages. To him, emphysema was a breakdown of tissue in the parenchyma of the lungs as opposed to air trapped in the alveoli due to an obstruction such as occurs in asthma and chronic bronchitis.

Enter John Hutchinson in 1846, the very man that invented the spirometer. Despite believing that his device was limited in its use, it became (and still is!) the prominent tool used in diagnosing and treating many lung diseases. Many more doctors went on to describe the effects of emphysema leading us right back to the 20th century.

20th Century and More

By 1898, the air sacs in the lungs were no longer called “cells;” they were referred to as alveoli in books and magazines. Emphysema was now clearly defined as “dilation of the alveoli of the lungs and atrophy of the alveolar walls.” During the 1930s and 40s, researchers discovered even more information about the lungs and the role of emphysema. In 1933, Ronald V. Christie, a professor of medicine at the University of London who specialized in emphysema, performed a study that showed the relationship between loss of lung elasticity and airflow limitations. Christie said that emphysema could possibly be found from different symptoms, which included shortness of breath and coughing.

By the 1950s, physicians had learned so much about the lungs. True emphysema was now be considered air in the interstitial spaces due to breakdown of parenchymal lung tissue such as the walls of the alveoli. From the 1960s on, pulmonary function testing was used with increased frequency to study lung diseases, and it was during this era that the term FEV1 was first used to measure expiratory flow. This test made it possible to differentiate asthma from chronic bronchitis, emphysema and other lung diseases.

As you can probably tell, there is quite a bit of history involved with emphysema. A number of doctors and researchers have adapted over time to understand this disease more clearly. Now there are treatments available to help relieve the symptoms of emphysema. There is a wealth of information available out there if you would like to know more about emphysema.

Contact the Lung Institute to learn more about how to bring your life back within reach by calling (800) 729-3065.


  1. glen tipping

    6 months ago

    nice work keep it up

  2. harry

    6 months ago

    nice information

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