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How Anaphylaxis got its Name

The word ‘anaphylaxis’ was coined over 100 years ago by a French scientist called Charles Richet. Caroline Wood delves into the history books.

AnaphylaxisThe phenomenon of anaphylaxis has been around since ancient times and was described in ancient Greek and Chinese medical literature. It is said that the first documented case was pharaoh Menes, who died in 2640 BC from a wasp sting. According to hieroglyphs on his sarcophagus and tomb, a wasp can be seen near the fallen pharaoh (LA Waddell, 1930).

The word ‘anaphylaxis’ has its origins in more modern times. To understand how ‘anaphylaxis’ came to mean a severe or fatal allergic reaction, we need to go back more than a century. In 1901 a French scientist called Charles Richet was asked to join a cruise on board a yacht, which was owned by Prince Albert of Monaco. The Prince asked Richet and his friends Paul Portier and Georges Richard to study the poison of the Physalia (the Portugese man-of-war jellyfish). This work was to lead Richet to the most important scientific discovery of his lifetime.

On board the yacht, Richet successfully isolated the toxin from Physalia and by dissolving it in glycerol found he could inject it and reproduce the symptoms of someone stung by the jellyfish. On Richet’s return home, he ran out of Physalia poison and decided to continue his work using a closely-related toxin from Actinia sulcata, a sea anemone. He wanted to determine the lethal dose of the toxin in dogs. Some of the dogs survived the experiments.

Richet decided to use the same dogs for a new experiment. He thought they would be protectively immunised by their previous exposure to the poison but was surprised when subsequent injections led to sudden fatal reactions. As he describes in his Nobel Lecture, in December 1913:

“An unexpected phenomenon arose, which we thought extraordinary. A dog when injected previously, even with the smallest dose, say of 0.005 liquid per kilo, immediately showed serious symptoms: vomiting, blood diarrhoea, syncope, unconsciousness, asphyxia and death.”

Richet proposed the term aphylaxis indicating a lack of protection from the immunisation with the toxin. He later changed it to anaphylaxis, because it sounded better and was easier to pronounce.

“This neologism I invented 12 years ago on the assumption...that a new idea calls for a new word in the name of scientific precision of language,” Richet explained.

“Phylaxis, a word seldom used, stands in the Greek for protection. Anaphylaxis will thus stand for the opposite. Anaphylaxis, from its Greek etymological source, therefore means that state of an organism in which it is rendered hypersensitive, instead of being protected.”

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Issue: Spring 2013