The elder Provosts (my parents) came up to visit this weekend to celebrate my birthday a few days early. They really are the best parents. In addition to a free meal and their lovely company, I got a Kindle. Gluten-free Girl‘s book is already on it, along with about 35 others neatly organized in a list that should last me through grad school and far beyond.
After a glass of wine or two in downtown Gainesville, the elder Provosts and I decided to take advantage of the beautiful Florida weather and visit a local nature center/living history farm, Morningside Nature Center on E. University Ave.
As a kind man (dressed like he’d always wanted to work at Colonial Williamsburg but never had the chance) offered my father fresh biscuits and explained how they would have been baked on the old cast-iron stove and sweetened with cane juice, I wondered what a person like me, a person who couldn’t eat the fresh biscuits, but probably couldn’t afford not to in those days, would go about daily life in the days of yore. Did they have a name for Celiac Disease before the days of GI docs?
The history of Celiac Disease is oddly fascinating. According to Dr. Stefano Guandalini of the University of Chicago’s Celiac Disease Center, CD has been affecting people for over 8,000 years!
…A clever Greek physician named Aretaeus of Cappadocia, living in the first century AD, wrote about “The Coeliac Affection.” In fact, he named it “koiliakos” after the Greek word “koelia” (abdomen). His description: “If the stomach be irretentive of the food and if it pass through undigested and crude, and nothing ascends into the body, we call such persons coeliacs”.
Well, that’s kind of a gross description isn’t it? Still, pretty apt for a Greek physician from, like, 19 centuries ago. And then no one mentioned it again until the 1800s when a man named Dr. Mathew Baillie brought up the “celiac affection” again and even diagnosed a dietary treatment of it. He was pretty much ignored though. Then 75 years later a man name Benjamin Gee gave “the milestone description of this disorder in modern times.”
Like Baillie, Gee sensed that “if the patient can be cured at all, it must be by means of diet.” He added that “the allowance of farinaceous food must be small”, and also described “a child who was fed upon a quart of the best Dutch mussels daily, throve wonderfully, but relapsed when the season for mussels was over; next season he could not be prevailed upon to take them.” Thus he documents the improvement following the introduction of a gluten-free diet, and the relapse after reintroduction of gluten.
What this means is the gluten free diet has been around way longer than I gave it credit for, although it has gone through a few strange incarnations. In the 1920s, the it-treatment for Celiacs was something called the Banana Diet.
In 1924 Sidney Haas described his successful treatment of eight children whom he had diagnosed with celiac disease. Based on his previous success in treating a case of anorexia with a banana diet, he elected to try to experiment with the same diet in these eight children who were also anorexic. He published ten cases, eight of them treated (“clinically cured”) with the banana diet, whilst the two untreated died…The diet specifically excluded bread, crackers, potatoes and all cereals, and it’s easy to argue that its success was based on the elimination of gluten-containing grains.
The problem was that Haas was convinced it was the removal of carbohydrates that made the diet effective. While he was being too stubborn to acknowledge other viewpoints, a Dutchman named Dicke had identified that wheat protein, not simply starch, was the culprit. This discovery would eventually, decades later, lead to the identification of gluten being the true cause of Celiac Disease.
By the 1960s, we already knew that gluten was the triggering agent in CD and that a gluten-free diet was an acceptable treatment. From there, the discoveries just kept on coming. Knowing that just makes me even more amazed how far we’ve come in the products offered for those restricted to a gluten-free diet. What took people so long??