Enhancing understanding of allergic diseases

This project has enhanced understanding of the determinants of allergic diseases. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Professor Mark Jackson’s research on the history of allergy and asthma, carried out in the Centre for Medical History, University of Exeter, has enhanced clinical, commercial and policy understandings of the social, political and cultural, as well as biological, determinants of allergic diseases in the modern world.

Asthma and allergy constitute a major health problem. The World Health Organization estimates that 235 million people suffer from asthma and over 20 per cent of the world’s population suffer from allergic diseases.

Drawing on his qualifications as an immunologist and clinician as well as on his expertise in the history of modern medicine, Professor Jackson’s research explores the global history of allergic diseases such as hay fever, asthma, eczema and food sensitivities. His research findings demonstrate that modern attitudes towards, and patient experiences of allergies, need to be understood within a broad historical and socio-cultural context.

By examining historical links between asthma and indoor and outdoor air pollution and by analysing the continuing popularity of particular remedies, such as medicated cigarettes, this research has also raised questions about how modern populations evaluate the environmental determinants of health and how assessments of risk can shape individual behaviours and patterns of disease.

History and culture

The research demonstrates historical and cultural differences in approaches to illnesses and their treatment, provides a vehicle for assessing knowledge claims about individual and social responsibility for health, and encourages patients and their doctors to re-evaluate the relationship between illness and identity.

His research has also helped raise public and patient awareness of historical trends in asthma and allergies and to increase public understanding of evolving methods of diagnosis, prevention and treatment through focused collaboration with the charity Asthma UK as well as through various outreach and engagement activities.

Professor Jackson’s research has generated information and advice for the media, charities and commercial marketing companies. He has worked with clinicians and policymakers to influence how they conceptualise the historical epidemiology of allergic diseases through engagement activities.


In 2010 his research was used by Asthma UK, a charity dedicated to improving the lives of people affected by asthma, to produce an award-winning educational ‘Asthma Timeline’ which charted the history of asthma and was created to complement the charity’s online research pages. The website attracted nearly 4,000 visitors who were introduced to key features of the history of the disease, including how and when novel therapies were introduced such as ‘asthma cigarettes’.

The impact of this research has extended into the commercial sector, contributing to the branding process for a major global pharmaceutical organisation. It has also been presented to clinical and policy groups. In 2008, Professor Jackson participated in a seminar series hosted by the World Health Organization that brings together policy-makers, scientists and clinicians to discuss global health issues.

In November 2012 he organised a debating competition for Year 11 students at Colyton Grammar School, Devon; designed to deepen students’ understanding of the recent history of asthma, pollution and social policy, raise their awareness of methods in the humanities and social sciences, and introduce them to the challenges of creating evidence-based arguments. The event successfully promoted deeper awareness of research methods and a greater understanding of asthma amongst all students and teachers participating in the debate.