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Swallows and Amazons and asthma

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Swallows and AmazonsThe toothpick plant, Ammi visnaga, is a member of the Umbelliferae (Apiaceae) found in Europe, Asia and North Africa. In the Middle East it is known as khella, and an active ingredient, khellin, yielded by its fruit, was traditionally used as a smooth muscle relaxant to treat renal colic.

Just over 50 years ago Roger Altounyan, a Syrian-born physician, included khellin in his research into asthma remedies. He tested many potential drugs by exposing himself to an extract of guinea pig hair which he knew would exacerbate his own asthma, then monitoring his lung function before and after inhaling the compound under investigation. Between 1957 and 1965 he is said to have self-induced over 600 such asthma attacks, some of which were frighteningly severe.

Altounyan’s work on khellin led directly to the development of sodium cromoglicate and its widespread use as Intal for asthma prophylaxis. He also invented the Spinhaler device used to deliver the drug, the inspiration for which is said to have been the vibration of the propellers of the aircraft he flew during the 1939–45 war.

However, Dr Altounyan has another claim to fame — in the literary world. His father Ernest had Armenian and Irish parents but was educated in England and often spent vacations with a school friend at Coniston in the Lake District. Later, in 1915, Ernest married his friend’s sister Dora Collingwood, winning her hand in competition with another family friend, the journalist and author Arthur Ransome.

Ernest and Dora went to Syria to run a hospital, and Roger, the fourth of their five children, was born there in 1922. The family periodically returned to Lake District, where Ernest renewed his friendship with Ransome. Together they taught the children to sail in two small boats, Swallow and Mavis, on Coniston Water.

Arthur Ransome wrote a story for the children which combined their exploits with his own childhood adventures. In 1930 this was published as ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (presumably Mavis did not sound adventurous enough). The Walker family, who crewed Swallow, were based on the Altounyan children, with Roger Walker as the ship’s boy.

We should be grateful that his namesake grew up to achieve so much at such risk to his own health. We can only speculate how much those bronchial challenges contributed to the deterioration in lung function that led to his death in 1987.

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