'Trouble from within': Allergy, autoimmunity, and pathology in the first half of the twentieth century

Ohad Parnes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Traditionally, autoimmune disease has been considered to be a case of false recognition; the immune system mistakenly identifies 'self' tissues as foreign, attacking them thus causing damage and malady. Accordingly, the history of autoimmunity is usually told as part ot the history of immunology, that is, of theories and experiments relating to the ability of the immune system to discriminate between self and nonself. This paper challenges this view, claiming that the emergence of the notion of autoimmunity in the 1950s must be considered as part of a long develolpment in thought about pathology throughout the twentieth century, namely the conceptualisaiton of disease as a reactive and self-destructive process. During the first part of the twentieth century this notion became one of the cornerstones of pathology and was increasingly employed for the explanation of the non-infections, slow-burning diseases. Thus, the category of chronic disease had been defined anew, now encompassing all those diseases characterised by a persistent inflammatory process. Inflammation, in turn, was conceived as double-eged physiological mechanism, which was usually the direct mediator of damage, of the essence of disease. The paper also shows how this kind of analysis could emable a unified historical discussion of autoimmunity and allergy, hitherto considered to have distinct conceptual origins.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)425-454
Number of pages30
JournalStudies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2003
Externally publishedYes


  • Autoimmune disease
  • Chronic disease 20th century
  • Inflammation
  • Reactivity
  • Rheumatoid arthritis


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