If we really think about it, modern medicine has reached a stage where it can’t be distinguished from magic. It’s now entirely possible to take an organ from one person and stick it on to someone else, remotely perform surgery sitting in a totally different part of the world, artificially grow cells inside a laboratory as easily as cooking, and much more.
While it’s all quite awesome and cool, admittedly, it’s important to remember that these futuristic, almost-god-like medical procedures have been a long time in the making. The history of medicine is full of breakthrough moments that have all come together to shape the field as we know it today, thanks to the efforts of countless researchers and medical experts that didn’t give up.
Salicylic acid, a natural substance found in plants like willow and meadowsweet, has been used in medicinal purposes since ancient times. Reverend Edward Stone, an English clergyman, conducted the first scientific study on the benefits of willow’s bark in 1763. In 1859, Hermann Kolbe identified the chemical structure of the chemical, though the unpleasant taste and side effects like irritation in the stomach limited its use.
It was a German chemist, Felix Hoffmann, working at the Friedrich Bayer and Co that first synthesized aspirin in 1897. Not just aspirin, it was the first synthetic drug ever made, giving birth to the pharmaceutical industry as we know it.
Aspirin isn’t just a pain-reliever, it has vast uses in other fields, too, especially heart disease. It remains the most widely used drug in cases of cardiovascular disease, and many studies have proven its effectiveness in the prevention of cardiovascular events, and even colorectal cancer.
9. Magnetic Resonance Imaging
MRI – or Magnetic Resonance Imaging – is one of the most commonly-used imaging techniques for medical procedures today. Its development could be credited to multiple physicists, doctors and other experts working throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, like Sir Peter Mansfield, Edward Purcell, Raymond Damadian, and Felix Bloch, among others.
It began with the study of magnetic resonance, as researchers examined how electrons and atomic nuclei respond to magnetism. In the 1930s, I.I. Rabi developed a method to study magnetic properties and sodium movement, laying the foundation for nuclear magnetic resonance – or NMR – imaging. In the 1940s, Felix Bloch and Edward Purcell came up with their own technique to use water content in the body to generate magnetic resonance images.
In 1969, Raymond Damadian proposed the use of magnetic resonance to differentiate cancer cells from healthy tissue. By 1974, he had successfully designed the first full-body MRI machine, changing the world of medical imaging forever.
8. DNA’s Double-Helix Structure
The 1953 discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick transformed the worlds of biology and medicine. Before, scientists and medical professionals lacked a detailed understanding of how genetic information was stored and transmitted inside the cells. Their work led to a better understanding of how genes control chemical processes within our cells, paving the way for advancements in genetic research and other fields that continue to this day.
Since the discovery, biology has evolved into a global industry, with DNA being its primary product. Today, fields like genetic fingerprinting, modern forensics, mapping of the human genome, gene therapy, and many others depend on the knowledge of the base structure of the human DNA.
7. Organ Transplants
Organ transplantation has gone through many important steps in its history. Breakthroughs in tissue typing and drugs against organ rejection – notably Jean Borel’s discovery of Cyclosporine in the mid-1970s – have greatly improved the success rate and longevity of organ transplants. According to an estimate, modern advances in the effectiveness of kidney transplant medicine save the lives of about 74 patients every day.
Today, organs like kidneys, liver, heart, and even arms, can be successfully transplanted, though it has applications in other fields too, like its many potential uses in immunology. While the demand for organs continues to exceed supply worldwide – as about 17 people die waiting for new organs every day – the higher number of organ donors compared to the past have resulted in more transplant patients living healthier lives every year.
6. Cardiac Surgery
In the early twentieth century, the idea of safely operating on the human heart seemed impossible. The breakthrough came in May 1953, when John Gibbon successfully performed the first open-heart surgery using his own design for a heart-lung machine. It was developed with the help of his wife and research partner, Mary Hopkinson, and consisted of components like a blood reservoir, an oxygenator, a temperature regulation system, and a pump.
The creation of the heart-lung machine ultimately allowed the repair of previously fatal congenital and acquired heart diseases. All modern surgical procedures related to the heart – like bypass grafting, valvular replacement, congenital defect correction, and heart transplantation – have been possible because of that invention. It also gave rise to an entirely new type of health professional called cardiovascular perfusionist.
The concept of immunization dates back hundreds, or even thousands, of years. Perhaps the most important breakthrough in the field, however, came when Edward Jenner, a country physician, tested a new method using material from cowpox blisters and inoculated it into a person’s skin in 1796, which proved effective against smallpox.
This marked a turning point in the history of vaccination, and by the late 1940s, scientific advancements allowed other, more advanced vaccines to show up on the market. Vaccines have since had a profound impact on public health, saving millions of lives and providing a potent tool against some of the deadliest diseases we know of. Thanks to Jenner’s vaccine, smallpox became the first and only disease to have been completely eradicated in May 1980.
4. Germ Theory
It’s now common knowledge that many diseases are caused by harmful pathogens, though that hasn’t always been the case. Germ theory, or the idea that specific microscopic organisms are responsible for specific diseases, emerged between 1850 and 1920, and transformed the field of medicine.
Germ theory originally gained traction due to its compatibility with the prevailing theories of medicine at the time, and it was slowly perfected by many names. There was Joseph Lister, who introduced antiseptic surgical techniques that vastly reduced infection mortality rates. Or Robert Koch, who proved that specific germs cause anthrax, cholera, and tuberculosis, establishing the basic principles of germ theory. Another important figure was Louis Pasteur, who created the first lab vaccines for diseases like cholera, anthrax, and rabies.
3. Artificial Intelligence
The development of modern artificial intelligence has been a breakthrough event in the history of medicine. One of its many applications is in the field of diagnosis, where AI systems have achieved accuracy rates comparable to human experts. Another area is drug discovery and the ongoing proliferation of personalized treatment options, as machine-learning algorithms are being applied to analyze genomic data and identify drugs for certain types of diseases.
Most importantly, AI models are now capable of predicting diseases just by analyzing data, leading to early identification of preventable risks. It’s particularly good at detecting diseases by interpreting sets of medical images.
While experimenting with the influenza virus in 1928, a Scottish bacteriologist, Alexander Fleming, stumbled upon one of the most important discoveries in modern medicine. He was working with a type of fungus, and during one of his experiments, noticed that it didn’t grow near a specific type of mold that had grown on the plate. He realized that the mold – found to be from the Penicillium family of bacteria – has its own antibacterial properties that could counter the harmful effects of certain types of pathogens.
Penicillin was the first known antibiotic in history, and since then, antibiotics have played an important role in modern medicine. During the Second World War, it was an irreplaceable tool to save lives on the battlefield, as many of the deaths in previous wars could be attributed to disease. The discovery of Penicillin led to other breakthrough discoveries in medicine, particularly in the treatment of other serious diseases caused by pathogens like meningitis, pneumonia, gonorrhea, and syphilis.
While places dedicated to amputations, births, wartime injuries, and other medical procedures have always existed in one form or another in most countries, the modern hospital could be directly traced back to the time of Roman Emperor Constantine I – or Constantine The Great – in the fourth century AD. By the later part of that century, hospitals had started showing up across the eastern part of the empire, as it was inherently tied to the Christian idea of caring for the sick.
The modern hospital would go through many transformations in the years since. Hospitals of various forms cropped up across Europe and the Middle East throughout the Middle Ages – especially in the 12th century. Soon, the institution would be inherently tied to the larger idea of public services, as hospitals and clinics became a regular part of city infrastructure around the world.