COPD Before Modern Medicine: How COPD Healthcare Progressed to Where it is Today


For many people, it's difficult to imagine a world before modern medicine, even though such a world existed in the not-so-distant past. Even diseases like COPD, which we now know to be very common, were barely understood just a few generations ago.


In fact, the name “Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease” is a fairly new term that wasn't used until the 1960's, which was only shortly after experts first decided on how to define the disease. That means that many people living with COPD living today were born before the disease even had a formal name!


Fortunately, the past several decades have brought huge advancements in respiratory medicine that have allowed more people than ever before to get diagnosed and treated for COPD. Getting to this point was no simple process, however; it took a concerted, multi-generational, and international effort to lay the foundation for COPD healthcare as we know it today.




In this post, we're going to take a closer look at COPD's storied history to see how COPD medicine has changed and improved over time. We'll discuss everything from centuries-old COPD studies to modern breakthroughs in COPD treatment, tracing the major events and turning points that happened along the way.


The history of COPD medicine is full of fascinating discoveries and brilliant minds working together to uncover the secrets of this complex disease. Throughout this guide, you'll learn about ancient physicians, misguided 19th-century COPD treatments, and how 20th-century innovations revolutionized healthcare for COPD.


Learning the tale of COPD's past can help us better understand the current state of COPD medicine and even gain some insight into the future of COPD care. Whether you have COPD yourself or are simply interested in the evolution of COPD medicine, the information in this guide will give you a new appreciation for the modern standard of COPD healthcare that millions of patients across the world rely upon every day.


COPD in Ancient Times: Early Discoveries and Interpretations





It's impossible to pinpoint an exact moment that COPD was “discovered,” since it was a gradual process that led researchers and physicians to recognize the disease. Until very recently, knowledge of lung diseases was very limited, and even the most expert physicians couldn't reliably tell the difference between different types of lung disease.


The earliest-known mentions of diseases that resemble COPD as we know it today go back all the way to the 1600's. However, it wasn't until the last century that it became possible to clearly define and diagnose COPD.


In the next sections, we're going to trace the origin of medical knowledge about COPD in pre-modern times up through the age of modern medicine. This will help us better understand how knowledge, perceptions, and theories about the COPD and respiratory medicine have gradually changed and grown more sophisticated over time.



A Quick Note on COPD Terminology: Respiratory Disease Definitions Then and Now

It's important to note that, up until the mid to late 1900's, definitions for chronic respiratory conditions were different than they are today. Back then, physicians and researchers tended to use terms like bronchitis and emphysema more loosely as the medical community hadn't yet established clear, universally-agreed-upon definitions for the conditions.


Additionally, emphysema and chronic bronchitis were treated as separate diseases for decades before the two conditions were finally brought together under the umbrella term “COPD.” Now-a-days, we know that most people with COPD have both emphysema and chronic bronchitis, and they are recognized as separate lung conditions that are part of a single disease (COPD).


In modern medical terms, emphysema refers specifically the destruction of the tiny air sacs in the lungs. Chronic bronchitis, on the other hand, refers to COPD symptoms related to excess mucus production, namely chronic coughing and expectoration (coughing up sputum).


Both conditions are caused by long-term exposure to respiratory irritants like air pollution and tobacco smoke, and both cause many of the same respiratory and non-respiratory symptoms, including shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, and fatigue. If you'd like to learn more about the differences between emphysema and chronic bronchitis, or the role that they play in COPD, check out our guide on the topic here.



Earliest Recorded Mentions of COPD (From B.C. times to 1700 A.D.)






The first known records of a COPD-like disease are found in the oldest medical document ever discovered: an ancient Chinese text known as the Nei Ching Su Wen (Classics on Internal Medicine) dating back to 2697 B.C. However, this text (like other B.C.-era documents) only references general symptoms (like shortness of breath) that could be attributable to asthma or another respiratory disease.


The first specific mentions come from the mid-1600's A.D, right around the time that autopsies were becoming acceptable in medical practice. This is when physicians appear to have first discovered the condition that we now refer to as enlarged or hyper-inflated” lungs, which is a common characteristic of COPD.


The earliest of these references came from Swiss physician Theophile Bonet, who in 1679 described finding “voluminous” lungs in autopsies of patients who had suffered from shortness of breath. He was one of the first to recognize this trait as a distinct characteristic of a specific kind of respiratory disease (which would later be known as COPD).


Discovering the Role of Lung Inflammation in Respiratory Disease (The Late 1700's to Early 1800's)


Nearly a century after Bonet's original discovery of hyper-inflated lungs, influential Italian anatomical researcher Giovoanni Morgagni found additional evidence to corroborate Bonet's findings. In his 1796 book “The Seats and Causes of Diseases” Morgagni reported observing 19 separate instances of lungs that were “turgid”(or distended) with air (PDF link).


Around the same time, two separate autopsies of a physician known as Dr. Samuel Johnson revealed that he had “enlarged air spaces” in his lungs, which researchers at the time assumed was caused by asthma. However, later researchers who studied the published descriptions and illustrations of Dr. Johnson's lungs determined that the damage was actually the result of emphysema, a condition that was not known by physicians at the time.





At this point in history (the 1700's), medical researchers were only just barely beginning to understand chronic respiratory conditions and the effects they have on the lungs. However, these early discoveries set the stage for the research that continued throughout the 1800's, when doctors first began to understand the concept of lung inflammation—a critical biological mechanism in COPD.





For many years, lung inflammation was primarily associated with the term “bronchitis,” which was first used by Charles Badham 1814. Badham defined bronchitis as chronic coughing and excess mucus production which he (correctly) determined was caused by inflammation in the mucus membranes lining the lungs.


Five years later, French physician Rene Laennec built on this concept by describing the role that lung inflammation plays in a wide variety of respiratory conditions. He was one of the first to recognize that hyper-inflated lungs were caused by damaged air sacs (emphysema) and to differentiate bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma as separate conditions (they were often lumped together at the time).


Laennec also invented the stethoscope, which allowed him to study respiration more closely and produce the first detailed descriptions of abnormal breathing sounds caused by lung diseases. Today, stethoscopes are still used to check for breathing problems and monitor the condition of the heart and lungs in people with COPD.


By drawing important connections between lung anatomy and respiratory function, both Badham and Laennec played a major role in furthering medical understanding of respiratory diseases. In particular, they helped to explain the nature of lung inflammation and bronchitis, which was a major step toward understanding chronic bronchitis and its role in COPD.






Though concepts like lung inflammation might seem obvious today, these discoveries were impressive advancements considering the relative ignorance of medical practice at the time. To put it into context, neither “germ theory” (the fundamental concept that microorganisms like bacteria and viruses can cause disease) nor the use of antiseptics for sterilization were widely accepted until the 1890's.


Defining and Differentiating Different Types of Lung Diseases (The Mid-to-Late 1800's)





The term “chronic bronchitis” first appeared in 1837, when Dr. William Stokes first defined it as persistent lung inflammation that caused excess mucus production and a chronic cough. He was also the first to describe how changes in sputum color and texture related to respiratory illnesses—a concept that's still used to evaluate COPD symptoms today.


Stokes was one of the first to acknowledge the relationship lung inflammation and emphysema, observing that people often suffered from emphysema and chronic bronchitis at the same time. However, Stokes misinterpreted this as a causal relationship, believing (incorrectly) that chronic bronchitis could cause emphysema over time.


The next big leap in respiratory medicine came in 1846 when physician John Hutchinson invented the spirometer, a device designed to measure the volume of the lungs. Though Hutchinson's spirometer wasn't very sophisticated, it introduced the concept of using lung volumes and exhaled air to evaluate respiratory conditions. Later improvements to the spirometer would allow it to measure airflow in addition to lung volume, making it into one of the most important tools for diagnosing COPD and other respiratory diseases.





Respiratory medicine continued to progress steadily through the end of the century, though the next major breakthroughs wouldn't come until the 1900's. Improvement mostly came in the form of better anatomical knowledge and more specific terminology (e.g. using the term “alveoli” instead of simply “cells” to describe the air sacs in the lungs).


By the late 1800's, the medical community was largely aware of most of the individual mechanisms underlying COPD, including lung inflammation, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and hyperinflated lungs. However, doctors and researchers didn't fully understand how all of those mechanisms worked together, nor did they have tools to effectively define or differentiate between different types of respiratory diseases.


This was also the time that researchers first began to recognize that inhaling toxic particles from the environment (such as coal dust and air pollution) likely played a role in lung health and lung diseases. This, along with the more nuanced understanding of respiratory disease mechanisms, set the stage for the improved lung disease diagnostics and treatment methods that would be developed throughout the following century.


COPD Enters Contemporary Medicine: Formally Defining the Nature, Scope and Causes of COPD


The 20th century was a period of unprecedented progress in COPD healthcare and in medicine as a whole. It brought enormous advancements in disease diagnosis and treatment, including countless new medicines, therapies, and diagnostic tools. It's also during this time that modern theories, definitions, and treatment approaches to COPD really started to take shape.


Improving Testing & Diagnostics for COPD: Measuring Airway Obstruction





In the early 1900's, the medical community lacked both the tools and the knowledge to consistently and reliably diagnose COPD. Most people were diagnosed based only on symptoms (e.g. chronic cough, shortness of breath, and excess mucus) and a basic physical examination (e.g. checking for enlarged chest and abnormal breathing sounds).


One of the biggest leaps in COPD diagnostics came when researchers began using spirometer data as an objective measure of respiratory function. This became possible in 1950, when French physician Dr. Tiffeneau developed a new method—known now as FEV1—for measuring airway obstruction using a spirometer.


This method was based on the discovery that airway diseases could be separated into two main categories: restrictive (diseases that that make it difficult for the lungs to fill up with air all the way) versus obstructive (diseases that make it difficult to empty air out of the lungs fully). COPD and asthma are both obstructive lung diseases.


Thus Tiffeneau came up with idea for the FEV1 (forced expiratory volume in 1 second), which is essentially a measurement of how quickly you can push all of the air out of your lungs. A low FEV1 can indicate that the airways are obstructed, which is a sign of an obstructive lung condition like asthma or COPD.





This measure not only helped to differentiate restrictive lung diseases from obstructive lung diseases, but was also useful for measuring degrees of airway obstruction. Today, the FEV1 remains a vital tool for COPD diagnosis and is one of the primary methods used to measure the severity of the disease.


Naming COPD: Defining the Disease and Determining Criteria for Diagnosis


COPD as a disease in and of itself was still a muddy concept in the early 1900's; it still didn't have an “official” name nor a clear and consistent medical definition. Doctors and researchers at the time usually referred to the disease as simply “emphysema” (especially in the US) or “bronchitis” (especially in Britain). Some used descriptive terms like “chronic airflow obstruction” or “chronic obstructive lung disease,” names that are still used in some parts of the world today.


The well-structured definition of COPD that we are familiar with today is based on the definition created in 1959, when medical professionals congregated at the Ciba Guest Symposium to devise the first set of specific criteria for defining and diagnosing COPD (PDF link). The term COPD came into use just a handful of years later, when Dr. William Briscoe first used it 1965.






These were critical steps toward advancing COPD research and providing a higher standard of healthcare for people with COPD. With the name and the specific criteria for COPD now established, doctors and researchers now had the ability to diagnose, assess, and study the disease in a much more consistent and accurate way.


This step couldn't have come a moment too soon, as the number of COPD cases began to skyrocket in the mid-1900's. As it became clear that COPD was no longer a rare illness, but a growing public health crisis, there was more pressure than ever on researchers to investigate the disease's origins and come up with a coherent explanation for what causes COPD.


Discovering the Main Causes of COPD: Smoking, Air Pollution, and other Environmental Hazards





Though some early 19th century researchers noted a possible connection between COPD and respiratory irritants like air pollution and coal dust, this theory didn't receive much attention at the time. It wasn't until the mid-1900's—when exposure to environmental hazards like smoking and air pollution was much more widespread—that researchers began to seriously investigate the link between environmental hazards and COPD.


The most popular theory throughout the 1800's and early 1900's was that coughing itself was the cause of COPD. Many researchers believed that coughing (and other activities like glass-blowing or playing a wind instrument) could cause emphysema and lung hyper-inflation by putting excessive stress and pressure on the air sacs in the lungs.


This theory was mostly put to rest in the 1930's, when it was contradicted by modern research indicating that inflammation was at the root of chronic lung disease. However, experts still didn't have enough information to form a cohesive theory about the causes of COPD or the lung inflammation associated with the disease.


Unfortunately, at the time that scholars were still trying to sort this out, most of the western world was seeing an unprecedented increase in the popularity of smoking. This was shortly followed by a dramatic and unprecedented increase in prevalence of COPD and lung cancer in the mid-late 1900's.


Even then, however, it took many years for researchers to interpret this phenomenon and realize that there was a causal relationship between smoking and COPD. It took even longer for this conclusion to gain widespread acceptance due to industry push-back and general public denial.


The first clues came from studies on lung cancer and smoking in the 1940's-1950's, which established that smoking could cause long-term damage to the lungs. This naturally led some to wonder if there might be a similar connection between smoking and COPD, a suspicion that further research quickly confirmed.





This research was led by Dr. Charles Fletcher (PDF link), a leading researcher in the rapidly-expanding field of COPD research in the mid-late 1900's. Dr. Fletcher was one of the first to study the connection between air pollution, smoking, and chronic lung disease, and played an instrumental role in organizing the CIBA guest symposium that first defined the medical criteria for COPD.


At the time of Dr. Fletcher's research, the most prominent theory about COPD was the so-called “British hypothesis” (PDF link), which claimed that repeated respiratory infections were the primary cause of COPD. This theory was based primarily on observation; doctors saw that people with COPD got frequent respiratory infections, and believed that respiratory infections were the cause of the disease.


While there is a grain of truth to this idea (frequent and severe respiratory infections, especially in early childhood, are a known risk factor for COPD), it was a classic case of mixing up cause and effect. The respiratory infections doctors observed were actually a symptom of COPD, not the cause.


Dr. Fletcher would eventually prove this by designing a high-quality prospective study that examined how the early stages of the disease developed in healthy adults. This not only made it clear that the respiratory infections happened after (rather than before) the disease's onset, but also that smokers were vastly more likely than non-smokers to develop COPD.


This study and others that followed formed the basis of Fletcher's theory that respiratory irritants, especially air pollution and smoking, were the primary cause of COPD. This theory has been confirmed by many studies since (PDF link), and today it is still the most widely-accepted explanation of the natural origins of COPD.


Fletcher's research also helped to clarify the relationship between emphysema (lung tissue damage) and chronic bronchitis (excess mucus production). He determined that one did not cause the other, but were separate processes with a common cause: lung inflammation caused by exposure to tobacco smoke, air pollution, and other respiratory irritants that cause COPD.


COPD Becomes More Common Than Ever Before


Before the 1900's, COPD was considered to be a relatively rare disease, though it was likely more common than it was thought to be at the time. By the end of the century, however, COPD would be one of the leading causes of death in the US and the fifth leading cause of death worldwide (PDF link).


This dramatic increase in COPD cases was largely due to an equally dramatic increase in smoking, which is the number one cause of COPD (by far) across the world. Consider that average per capita cigarette consumption in the US increased by more than 80,000 percent between 1900 and 1963, while COPD cases more than doubled in the following decades.





This increase in smoking was largely driven by the advent of cigarette manufacturing in the 1880's, which made smoking tobacco more convenient, affordable, and popular than ever before. But because most people don't develop COPD until older adulthood, the consequences of this didn't become obvious until the first generation of heavy smokers began to reach old age—which was around the mid-1990's.


Other environmental hazards also played a role in the massive increase in COPD cases, though a much smaller role than the increase in smoking. The 1900's saw increases in air pollution, noxious commercial chemicals, and occupational exposure to

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