From the notion of germ theory to medical imaging, organ transplants and life-saving vaccines, medical breakthroughs across the centuries mean we now live much longer and have a better chance of recovery from life-threatening illnesses and injuries.
Many of these amazing medical advances were either discovered or developed by unsung heroes – scientists, doctors and healthcare professionals working tirelessly to benefit mankind.
Here we take a look at 8 amazing medical discoveries that have literally changed the world we live in.
It might seem strange to us in the 21st century, but the ability to see inside the human body without dissecting it is a relatively recent scientific breakthrough. X-Rays were invented by accident at the turn of the 20th century by Wilhelm Conrad Rӧntgen, a German physicist. It wasn’t until 1955 that we got ultrasound and the Computer Tomography (CT) scanner wasn’t invented until 1967.
Now we also have medical imaging techniques such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), an indispensable diagnostic tool that gives us highly detailed images of tumours, brain damage and spinal cord injuries. The profound effect that this has had on medical diagnosis and accurate surgical interventions cannot be underestimated.
Vaccines have been around longer than medical imaging. They began to appear throughout the 19th and 20th centuries as our understanding of infection began to develop.
Smallpox, tuberculosis, measles, cholera and rabies have all been reduced because of the development of effective vaccines. Without most of us being aware of it, they save millions of lives around the world each year.
Surgery was once only used when there was no other option. Even then it had to be performed very quickly. That was, of course, until we began to use a medical breakthrough called anaesthesia. Not only do today’s anaesthetics mean patients can be operated on for hours on end but it’s use also led to a revolution in surgical procedures.
In short, we wouldn’t have the amazing surgeons and technical procedures we have today without anesthesia. We’d still be in an age where an amputation had to be carried out in a few minutes rather than several hours and heart surgery was unheard of.
Infection after an injury or surgical procedure is a constant risk. Prior to the 1940s, mortality rates were incredibly high. Better hygiene standards and Alexander Fleming’s chance discovery of penicillin in a petri dish have saved millions of lives over the last 80 years, despite major challenges with bacteria that are becoming antibiotic resistant.
The first kidney transplant was carried out in the mid-1950s. This was a treatment breakthrough that had to overcome a number of technical and medical challenges, not least how to reattach arteries and how to prevent a host body’s immune system from rejecting the new organ. By 1967, the first liver and heart transplant had been performed successfully.
While bacteria proved a little easier to tackle with antibiotic drugs, viruses such as influenza and hepatitis have always proved more difficult.
Viruses are difficult to kill off, mainly because of the protective layer they have around them and the fact they reproduce inside cells. The challenge for scientists is to kill the virus without killing the cells themselves. Antiviral drugs today are used to treat dangerous diseases such as Ebola and HIV/AIDS.
Medical treatment isn’t all about producing different techniques or drugs. Much comes from increasing our understanding of what is happening when someone suffers from an injury or contracts a disease. Prior to the 1860s, it was thought that diseases occurred spontaneously.
That was when Louis Pasteur discovered that infection came from an outside pathogen invading the body. This led to germ theory which increased our knowledge of how disease can be prevented and controlled by, for example, better hygiene and clean water.
In the last 50 years, for example, the prognosis following a severe spinal cord injury has improved dramatically as has our knowledge of the mechanism of the brain and nervous system. Fewer of us die from dangerous diseases such as tuberculosis and cancer is not the death sentence that it used to be. Without these incredible treatment breakthroughs, it’s almost impossible to gauge how many lives would not have been saved over the centuries.
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