Breathing Space


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How Allergies Shape Our Lives and Landscapes

Gregg Mitman

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Why our efforts to eliminate asthma and hay fever have not just failed but have reshaped American life and spurred the dramatic growth of allergic diseases

Allergy is the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the United States. More than fifty million Americans suffer from allergies, and they spend an estimated $18 billion coping with them. Yet despite advances in biomedicine and enormous investment in research over the past fifty years, the burden of allergic disease continues to grow. Why have we failed to reverse this trend?
Breathing Space offers an intimate portrait of how allergic disease has shaped American culture, landscape, and life. Drawing on environmental, medical, and cultural history and the life stories of people, plants, and insects, Mitman traces how America’s changing environment from the late 1800s to the present day has led to the epidemic growth of allergic disease. We have seen a never-ending stream of solutions to combat allergies, from hay fever resorts, herbicides, and air-conditioned homes to numerous potions and pills. But, as Mitman shows, despite the quest for a magic bullet, none of the attempted solutions has succeeded. Until we address how our changing environment—physical, biological, social, and economic—has helped to create America’s allergic landscape, that hoped-for success will continue to elude us.

Gregg Mitman is William Coleman Professor of the History of Science and professor of medical history and science and technology studies, University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is the author of two award-winning books and many journal and scholarly articles on history of science topics. He lives in Madison.

Listen to Mitman's recent interview on The Diane Rehm Show on WAMU 88.5 FM, American University Radio.

Download The Journal of American Medical Association's recent review of Breathing Space and coverage from The New England Journal of Medicine.

"This is a pioneering text."—Robert Fisher, University of  Connecticut

“Mitman has a knack for identifying subjects that link the cultural and scientific. He presents asthma as a kind of indicator or sampling device for ideas about nature and society. Intriguing.”—Charles E. Rosenberg, Harvard University

“This nuanced exploration of allergy and asthma elegantly combines environmental history, history of science, and history of medicine. Mitman charts important new territory.”—John Harley Warner, Yale University School of Medicine

“This book makes a strikingly original contribution to social, environmental, and medical history. Mitman challenges Americans to rethink environmental, medical, and public health policies.”—Gerald Markowitz, CUNY

“Gregg Mitman’s Breathing Space offers a critically important analysis of the emergence of allergies as strikingly common and increasingly serious health maladies. But it does much more: by systematically linking environmental and medical history, Mitman offers a powerful argument against biomedical reductionism. In this pathbreaking book, he vividly shows how our bodies, our environment, and our health are indivisible.”—Allan M. Brandt, Kass Professor of the History of Medicine, Harvard University

"Studying both the history and business of allergies, Mitman . . . traces hay fever from its first (erroneous) identification as an ailment of the wealthy in the 19th century up to the modern, booming antihistamine market. . . . As Mitman demonstrates, Americans seeking relief have changed where they live, what they build their homes with, what they buy, what activities they participate in and even the chemistry of their own bodies—but still all you hear every spring is sneezes. In clear and detailed prose, Mitman offers a wide-ranging history of this ongoing struggle that's as much about 20th century American consumerism as it is about allergies."—Publishers Weekly

“Mitman directs steely, twenty-twenty insight at popular misapprehensions, past and present, of the causes and cures of allergies, hay fever and asthma, in particular. . . . Full of the wisdom of lessons learned as well as of noted authorities, Mitman’s thoughtful presentation is nothing to sneeze at.”—Booklist 

"[A] fascinating book. . . . The overarching revelation of the book is that allergies are not simply linked to cat hair or playroom dust or a type of weed. Instead, allergies tend to follow their sufferers, because their causes are linked to the quality of the air, the quality of the water and the overall environment (both human-made and nature-made)."—Steve Weinberg, Seattle Times

"A combination of scholarly and engaging history, Breathing Space offers an alluring account of how allergies shape people and the environment. Mitman's historical research, archive work, and methodology are rigorous. His account is also witty and moving."—Peder Anker, Science

"This book is a masterful recounting of society's struggles with allergy, and Mitman tells the story with a powerful emphasis on the social and personal factors that influenced the outcomes. . . . The lessons learned from the history and the richness of the exposition make this book a must-read for all serious students of allergy and allergic respiratory diseases. The story not only is interesting but also is told with such panache that it is a page turner and at times even a whodunit."—Gerald J. Gleich, New England Journal of Medicine

"In six highly detailed and entertaining chapters, the author offers readers an overview of the disease, from the development of resorts for the rich to escape their yearly bout of 'hay fever' to the present direction of attacking allergies with a wide spectrum of drugs that provide some degree of relief. The illustrations are wonderful, as is the clear, concise writing. . . . This book will greatly benefit not only health care professionals but also those who fight allergies each day. Highly recommended."—Choice

"This is a suprisingly good read. . . . Gregg Mitman has turned out a very informative and helpful book for anyone interested in health and the environment. . . . Mr. Mitman engages the reader right from the outset. This well-written book provides a rational scientific basis for the explosion of allergic diseases in the past 150 years and how society has adapted with the times. . . . The book provides a rich and interesting history of allergic diseases in the U.S. and the role that we have all played in its evolution. It will be of interest to health care workers and allergy patients alike."—William J. Martin II, EcoHealth

"Important. . . . In making allergic disease 'not a thing but a relation,' Mitman opens new territory for historians to explore."—Susan D. Jones, The Journal of American History

"[A] highly intelligent and accessible history of allergy in America. . . . Breathing Space is a beautifully written and rigorously researched account of how allergies shape our lives and landscapes. In it, Mitman is deeply concerned with those who suffer and those who benefit from the complex ecology of allergy in modern America."—Kathryn Milun, Environmental Justice

"Groundbreaking."—Cynthia Melendy, RedOrbit News

"This is an important story, and Mitman tells it brilliantly."—Stephen Bocking, Isis

"Mitman's book is very well organized and provides a provocative and interesting read on the links between environment and health. . . . Drawing on examples from over the last 200 years, Mitman weaves an important history that demonstrates the pivotal role of place in understanding and preventing allergies. . . . This book is a must read for anyone with interests in history, geography, environment, health, or political economy."—Kathi Wilson, Annals of the Association of American Geographers and The Professional Geographer

Recognized for Outstanding Achievement by the Wisconsin Library Association Literary Awards Committee.

Selected as a 2008 AAUP University Press Book for Public and Secondary School Libraries.

Finalist for the 2008 Cundill International Prize in History, given by the Cundill Foundation at McGill University.

Winner of the 2012 William H. Welch Medal given by the American Association for the History of Medicine
ISBN: 9780300143157
Publication Date: August 5, 2008
336 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
48 b/w illus