Asthma has been described since ancient times
Hippocrates outlined the symptoms of asthma, before the Roman leader Pliny the Elder linked pollen and breathing difficulties. Figures of history including Beethoven, Dylan Thomas, Marcel Proust and Edith Wharton were said to have lived with asthma.
Author John Updike said: “An asthma attack feels like two walls drawn closer and closer, until they are pressed together.”
Asthma Australia has been helping people to breathe since the mid 1900’s.
We know now that asthma is a serious lifelong medical condition that affects people of all ages and stages. We educate the community that although it is serious, people with asthma can live a full life.
Today we can take steps to prevent and treat asthma flare-ups. There is ongoing research to determine underlying triggers and causes of asthma. Australia is among the world leaders when it comes to asthma research. But it was a very different time when Asthma Foundations were starting in Australia in the 1960s.
Little was known about asthma and how to control it
There were few options for treatment and prevention. Some children were given a “parentectomy” – removed from their parents into hospital – in the mistaken belief emotional trauma and environmental conditions were fuelling their asthma.
People with asthma were given adrenalin to control their flare-ups. Some people smoked “asthma cigarettes” in an attempt to prevent attacks. Doctors also advised avoidance of allergens and special exercises, including blowing up balloons.
One of the champions of Australia’s 1954 swimming team, considered the “Golden Age of Australian swimming”, Cyrus Weld, took up swimming as a nine-year-old to assist his asthma. It worked and he went on to compete and win gold for Australia.
But there was no formal education and little assistance for people with asthma or the people who loved and cared for them. One of our Asthma Foundation founders, Mickie Halliday, was told her two daughters’ asthma was due to her being “over anxious” and her “spoiling her child”.
“They ignored it as much as they could and ignored the mothers,” she said.
“The doctors in the 1950s came out of the universities as doctors without any real knowledge about asthma. I felt that nobody cared.”
There was no official research into asthma.
Asthma Foundations open across Australia
But the late 1950s and 1960s was a time of great momentum and community support for people with asthma and their carers. In an Australian-first, in 1960 Dr Cyril Piper led the establishment of Asthmatic Children’s Aid in South Australia to improve the lives of young people with asthma.
Across the country in NSW in 1962, Mrs Halliday and the mother of a boy with asthma, Leila Schmidt, opened the doors to the Asthma Foundation of New South Wales. Under the 1962 newspaper headline, “Asthma Sufferers Take Notice”, people were invited to attend the Bond Street, Sydney headquarters of the Asthma Foundation.
“Many people do not realise the high incidence of Asthma in the community and the hardship it inflicts,” the article said.
“Families are often broken up, and children sent to boarding school or to live with relatives in the hope that a change of climate will benefit them. Fathers change their positions for the same reason – often to no avail.
“The cost to the community in terms of persons unable to work, premature invalidism and expensive drugs medicine, is staggering.”
Asthma Foundations grow and researchers make breakthroughs
The Asthma Foundation NSW objective was to raise 250,000 pounds – equivalent to more than $7 million in today’s money. It was the biggest fundraiser in Australia.
That year six Sydney hospitals each made a bed available for research into why people developed asthma, factors precipitating attacks, and “the possibility of an inheritance factor”.
The Asthma Foundation worked with eminent asthma scientist Professor John Read to channel funding to asthma research. Within four years, there were six state-based organisations and a federal council.
Throughout the 1960s to the 1980s, asthma mortality increased due to the overuse of some medications from the era. This spurred new research into the airway condition. It led to a time of discovery as well.
From the 1980s, researchers have linked inflammation to asthma and increased our understanding of the immunobiology of asthma.
More effective treatments have been devised, including preventative inhalers. However, the search for a cure continues. Asthma Australia supports research in these vital areas.
1954 – Cortison approved for use in asthma under the Australian Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme
1960 – Dr Cyril Piper led the establishment of Asthmatic Children’s Aid in South Australia
1960 – Sydney mothers of children with asthma Mickie Halliday and Leila Schmidt met in a park. They started talking.
1962 – The Asthma Foundation New South Wales opened. It began fundraising for research and later opened the Paton Asthma Centre for children aged between five and 12 to rehabilitate in home-like surroundings.
1962 – The Asthma Welfare Society was formed, within the Foundation, to provide community services. In the 1960s it trialled swimming classes for children with asthma.
1963 – Victoria’s Asthma Foundation established. Its outreach activities later include opening the Asthma Advisory Centre, featuring a medical officer and social worker.
1963 – The body previously known as the Asthmatic Children’s Aid Incorporated was re-established as the Asthma Foundation South Australia. Their inspiration came from Dr Cyril Piper who was a pioneer treating children with asthma in the era. Alexander Ramsay, CBE, was the first Chair.
1964 – The Asthma Foundation NSW research program commenced. Within five years, more than $125,000 was allocated to research priorities at the University of Sydney, the University of New South Wales, teaching hospitals and the Red Cross Blood Service.
1964 – The Asthma Foundation of WA, led by Judith Barton, opened with the aim of providing support for people impacted by asthma.
1965 – The Asthma Foundation of Tasmania was formed. The founding president was Lord Mayor of Hobart, Basil Osborne, and the patron was Governor His Excellency Sir Charles Gardiner.
1965 – The Queensland Foundation was launched with a public appeal “Operation Breathe Easy”.
1965 – National body, the Federal Council of Asthma Foundations, was formed to ensure information share and liaison with the Commonwealth Government. Research priorities were made nationally.
Late 1960s – Removing children with asthma from their parents to hospital was discontinued.
1986 – First bans on smoking in public places enacted in Australia, other controls were rolled out until the 2010s.
2005 – National Service Improvement Framework for Asthma released.
2009 – All state-based Foundations agreed to work together through the national body Asthma Australia Inc.
2012 – Foundations agree to establish National Research Fund (TBC)
2015 – Asthma Foundations of Queensland and New South Wales merge.
2016 – Researchers link insufficient Vitamin D with asthma.
2017 – Asthma Australia became a national body, in partnership with the Asthma Foundations of Western Australia and Northern Territory.
2018 – Asthma Australia and the Asthma Foundation of Tasmania unify.