This collection of clinical findings was unknown until the explanation of the sickle cells in 1904 by the Chicago cardiologist and professor of medicine James B. Herrick (1861-1954), whose intern Ernest Edward Irons (1877-1959) found "peculiar elongated and sickle-shaped" cells in the blood of Walter Clement Noel, a 20-year-old first-year dental student from Grenada, after Noel was admitted to the Chicago Presbyterian Hospital in December 1904 suffering from anaemia.
Noel was readmitted several times over the next three years for "muscular rheumatism" and "bilious attacks". Noel completed his studies and returned to the capital of Grenada (St. George's) to practice dentistry. He died of pneumonia in 1916 and is buried in the Catholic cemetery at Sauteurs in the north of Grenada.
The disease was named "sickle-cell anaemia" by Vernon Mason in 1922. However, some elements of the disease had been recognized earlier: A paper in the ''Southern Journal of Medical Pharmacology'' in 1846 described the absence of a spleen in the autopsy of a runaway slave. The African medical literature reported this condition in the 1870s, when it was known locally as ''ogbanjes'' ("children who come and go") because of the very high infant mortality rate caused by this condition. A history of the condition tracked reports back to 1670 in one Ghanaian family. Also, the practice of using tar soap to cover blemishes caused by sickle-cell sores was prevalent in the black community.
Linus Pauling and colleagues were the first, in 1949, to demonstrate that sickle-cell disease occurs as a result of an abnormality in the haemoglobin molecule. This was the first time a genetic disease was linked to a mutation of a specific protein, a milestone in the history of molecular biology, and it was published in their paper "Sickle Cell Anemia".
The origin of the mutation that led to the sickle-cell gene was initially thought to be in the Arabian peninsula, spreading to Asia and Africa. It is now known, from evaluation of chromosome structures, that there have been at least four independent mutational events, three in Africa and a fourth in either Saudi Arabia or central India. These independent events occurred between 3,000 and 6,000 generations ago, approximately 70-150,000 years.
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Last Updated: Feb 1, 2011