The History of Celiac Disease

I’ve often wondered how it was discovered that gluten can do so much damage to the human body. I have my theory on why humans have trouble digesting wheat (celiac or not). It’s a simple theory. There was famine and known food sources were scarce. Someone saw a plant growing in a field and thought, huh, I wonder if I could eat that. They ate it and were not poisoned. They then decided to try cooking it, but that wasn’t very tasty. Then someone suggested grinding it into a powder and voila wheat flour was invented. Little did they know humans didn’t have the ability to properly digest this plant. Many had no symptoms, many had some symptoms but it was chalked up to something else. This went on for centuries until someone smart figured it out. Yep, that’s my theory.

I thought it would be cool to do some research and find out when it was first discovered as a disease.

I found this short article interesting because it seems to credit the name celiac to a Greek physician from the 2nd Century. It is neat how the translation from one language to another can give a name to a disease that has been affecting humans since the cultivation of wheat

“In the second century AD, a Greek physician known as Aretaeus of Cappadocia wrote what is thought to be an early description of this illness. In this account, he referred to a condition involving a number of signs and symptoms, including bellyache that afflicted some children of his time. Some 1,700 years later, these writings were translated to English, and the Greek word for “bellyache” was anglicized to “Celiac,” which has since been used to describe the condition.”  Source: The History of Celiac Disease – Celiac Disease (

Ah-ha, I found a timeline for the discovery of celiac disease on the UCLA Health website History of Celiac Disease – UCLA Digestive Diseases Celiac Disease Program – Los Angeles, CA (

In summary, It starts back with our Greek physician in the 2nd century, which I learned about 5 minutes ago. Then it jumps to 1888 where Samuel Gee (English pediatrician) describes the affliction in children and believes that the cure would be through diet. In 1924 American pediatrician Sidney Haas determines the chronic indigestion is from carbohydrates. In this article, they reference the name celiac disease in 1924 as if the name already existed. I’m still trying to pinpoint when the disease was officially given its name. A Dutch pediatrician, William Dicke, determines the carbohydrate to be wheat. Now I am wondering when they discovered Rye and Barley were also to blame. I am also finding it interesting that so far, all of these physicians have been pediatric. Is it possible back then, it affected children more than adults, or did adults simply not complain about having a terrible stomach ache? In the 1950s Margot Shiner (pediatric gastroenterologist), developed the biopsy technique. In the 1980s Celiac was associated with other autoimmune diseases. So, not sure when they realized it was autoimmune… Then in the 1990s scientists (it doesn’t say who) were able to identify the genetic markers. My summary leaves out some of the details, so I do recommend you read the article (link provided above).

Updated Info on the Greek Physician!

I just found some more information on our Greek physician. This guy was smart, totally ignored, but smart! It also identifies him as being from the 1st century and not the 2nd as mentioned above, but I found this elaboration to fill in some of the holes in what I knew 6 minutes ago and makes me want to delete what I wrote 15 minutes ago, but I will leave it alone so you can see how facts get changed over centuries. They can’t both be right, although, they could both be wrong…

8,000 years after its inception, celiac disease was identified by Aretaeus of Cappadocia, a Greek physician living in the first century AD. He originally named the disease as ‘koiliakos’ after the word ‘koelia’, meaning abdomen. In his own words, “If the stomach be irretentive of the food and if it pass through undigested and crude, and nothing ascends into the body, we call such persons coeliacs.” 17 centuries later, Dr Mathew Baillie published his own observations relating to diarrhea in adults, causing malnutrition due to a gas-distended abdomen. Baillie suggested his own stance on treatment through diet, writing, “some patients have appeared to derive considerable advantage from living almost entirely upon rice.” Source: imaware website, link The History Of Celiac Disease: Quick Guide | imaware™

The full article on the imaware website also elaborates more on the 20th-century discoveries I mentioned above. You have to read it, The banana diet “cure” floored me!

I hope you can take the time to go through this, especially the imaware article. I encourage you all to keep researching, keep learning, and of course, keep eating gluten free:)

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