Target Health Blog


April 29, 2019

History of Medicine

Ebers Papyrus detailing treatment of asthma. Ebers Papyrus from National Library of Medicine, was found in Egypt in the 1870s. The Ebers Papyrus contains prescriptions written in hieroglyphics for over seven hundred remedies. This prescription for an asthma remedy is to be prepared as a mixture of herbs heated on a brick so that the sufferer could inhale their fumes. Date c. 1550 BCE.
Graphic source: Wikipedia Public domain;;
1907 advertisement for Grimault's Indian Cigarettes, promoted as a means of relieving asthma. They contained belladonna and cannabis
Graphic source: Unknown - Ceylon Standard 190706.08, Public Domain,

Asthma was recognized in ancient Egypt and was treated by drinking an incense mixture known as kyphi. Asthma was officially named as a specific respiratory problem by Hippocrates(c. 450 BCE), with the Greek word for “panting“ forming the basis of our modern name. In 200 BCE, asthma was believed to be at least partly related to the emotions. In the 12th century the Jewish physician-philosopher Maimonides wrote a treatise on asthma in Arabic, based partly on Arabic sources, in which he discussed the symptoms, proposed various dietary and other means of treatment, and emphasized the importance of climate and clean air.

In 1873, one of the first papers in modern medicine on the subject tried to explain the pathophysiology of the disease while one in 1872, concluded that asthma can be cured by rubbing the chest with chloroform liniment. Medical treatment in 1880 included the use of intravenous doses of a drug called pilocarpine. In 1886, F. H. Bosworth theorized a connection between asthma and hay fever. Epinephrine was first referred to in the treatment of asthma in 1905. Oral corticosteroids began to be used for this condition in the 1950s while inhaled corticosteroids and selective short acting beta agonist came into wide use in the 1960s.

A notable and well-documented case in the 19th century was that of young Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919). At that time there was no effective treatment. Roosevelt's youth was in large part shaped by his poor health partly related to his asthma. He experienced recurring nighttime asthma attacks that caused the experience of being smothered to death, terrifying the boy and his parents. Another well-known historic figure, with chronic asthma was Antonio Lucio Vivaldi, (1678-1741), enormously prolific, Italian composer and violinist who left a decisive mark on the form of the concerto and the style of late Baroque instrumental music. Vivaldi was born in Venice, the capital of the Venetian Republic, and is regarded as one of the greatest Baroque composers. Vivaldi's influence during his lifetime was widespread across Europe. He composed many instrumental concertos, for the violin and a variety of other instruments, as well as sacred choral works and more than forty operas. His best-known work is a series of violin concertos known as the Four Seasons.

Vivaldi's health was problematic. One of his symptoms, strettezza di petto (“tightness of the chest“), has been interpreted as a form of asthma. This did not prevent him from learning to play the violin, composing, or taking part in musical activities, although it did stop him from playing wind instruments. Vivaldi's violinist father taught him to play the violin at an early age. At thirteen, he created the liturgical work Laetatus sum (RV Anh 31), written in 1691. In 1693, at the age of fifteen, Vivaldi began studying to become a priest. He was ordained in 1703, aged 25, and was soon nicknamed il Prete Rosso, “The Red Priest“. (Rosso is Italian for “red“, and would have referred to the color of his hair, a family trait.) In September 1703, Vivaldi became maestro di violino (master of violin) at an orphanage called the Pio Ospedale della Pieta (Devout Hospital of Mercy) in Venice. While Vivaldi is most famous as a composer, he was regarded as an exceptional technical violinist as well. The German architect Johann Friedrich Armand von Uffenbach referred to Vivaldi as :

“the famous composer and violinist“ and said that “Vivaldi played a solo accompaniment excellently, and at the conclusion he added a free fantasy [an improvised cadenza] which absolutely astounded me, for it is hardly possible that anyone has ever played, or ever will play, in such a fashion.“

Not long after his ordination, in 1704, Vivaldi was given a dispensation from celebrating Mass because of his ill health. Vivaldi said Mass as a priest only a few times, and appeared to have withdrawn from liturgical duties, though he formally remained a member of the priesthood. Relieved of priestly duties, Vivaldi was free to utilize his time composing. It's possible that if it weren't for his asthma, Vivaldi might not have become one of the greatest Baroque musicians and composers. Over the next thirty years he composed most of his major works while working at the orphanage, whose purpose was to give shelter and education to children who were abandoned or orphaned, or whose families could not support them. They were financed by funds provided by the Republic. The boys learned a trade and had to leave when they reached the age of fifteen. The girls received a musical education, and the most talented among them stayed and became members of the Ospedale's renowned orchestra and choir. Shortly after Vivaldi's appointment, the orphans began to gain appreciation and esteem abroad, too. Vivaldi wrote concertos, cantatas and sacred vocal music for them. These sacred works, which number over 60, are varied: they included solo motets and large-scale choral works for soloists, double chorus, and orchestra. In 1704, the position of teacher of viola all'inglese was added to his duties as violin instructor. The position of maestro di coro, which was at one time filled by Vivaldi, required a lot of time and work. He had to compose an oratorio or concerto at every feast and teach the orphans both music theory and how to play certain instruments. Vivaldi became responsible for all of the musical activity of the institution when he was promoted to maestro de' concerti (music director) in 1716.

At the height of his career, Vivaldi received commissions from European nobility and royalty. Vivaldi's Opus 9, La cetra, was dedicated to Emperor Charles VI, who gave Vivaldi the title of knight, a gold medal and an invitation to Vienna. Vivaldi gave Charles a manuscript copy of La cetra, a set of concerti almost completely different from the set of the same title published as Opus 9. After the success of his meeting with Emperor Charles VI, Vivaldi wished to take up the position of a composer in the imperial court and to stag operas, which were the most popular musical form at this time. Shortly after his arrival in Vienna, Charles VI died, which left the Vivaldi without any royal protection or a steady source of income. Soon afterwards, Vivaldi became impoverished and died during the night of 27 July 1741, aged 63, of “internal infection.“ On 28 July, Vivaldi was buried in a simple grave in a burial ground that was owned by the public hospital fund. His modest funeral took place at St. Stephen's Cathedral, where no music was performed.

Since readers are probably familiar with the Four Seasons, below for your listening pleasure are five other (of my) favorite Vivaldi pieces. The first two are from Vivaldi operas.

“Sposa, son disprezzata“ Bajazet - Vivaldi, Sung by the great coloratura, Montserrat Caballe

Vivaldi's Most Beautiful Aria, “Sovente il sole,“ Andromeda Liberata, sung by a perfect voice for Baroque, Anne Sophie Von Otter

A. VIVALDI: Concerto for 2 Violins and Cello in D minor Op. 3/11 RV 565, Akademie fur Alte Musik

VIVALDI - A Rain of Tears - ANDERSON & ROE (tears fall down the face of one of the pianists)

A. VIVALDI: Viola d'amore Concerto in A minor RV 397, Accademia Bizantina

All this divine music, (perhaps) because Vivaldi had chronic asthma.

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