Technology is revolutionizing medicine so that we can make discoveries regarding treatments, data collection, symptoms, diseases, and cures. More importantly, it has made medicine accessible to people. Each revolutionary medical discovery has brought us a crucial step closer to understanding the complex mysteries of disease and medicine. As a result, we have been able to develop medicines and treatments that have been instrumental in saving millions of lives. But it took decades of innovation and inventions to come this far. Since the 1950s, there have been inventions that are now an integral part of healthcare and allow us to discover and treat even more illnesses in our bodies.
Beginning with an attempt by Edward Jenner in 1796 to use inoculations to tame the infamous smallpox virus, the usefulness and popularity of vaccines grew very quickly. Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, various vaccinations were created to combat some of the world’s deadliest diseases, including smallpox, rabies, tuberculosis, and cholera.
In 1846, William T. G. Morton successfully used ether as an anesthetic during surgery. Soon after, a faster-acting substance called chloroform became widely used but was considered high-risk. Since the 1800s, safer anesthetics have been developed.
1861: Germ theory
Before the ‘germ’ theory came about, physicians of the time thought that disease could appear out of thin air rather than being air-borne or transferred via skin-to-skin contact. In 1861, French microbiologist Louis Pasteur proved that infectious disease was a result of an invasion of specific microscopic organisms - also known as pathogens - into living hosts. This new understanding marked a significant turning point in how diseases were treated, controlled, and prevented.
1895: Medical imaging
The X-ray, a form of electromagnetic radiation, was ‘accidentally’ invented in 1895 by German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Rӧntgen when he was experimenting with electrical currents through glass cathode-ray tubes. In 1955, the use of ultrasound evolved. In 1967, the computed tomography (CT) scanner was created. The next major medical imaging technology was discovered in 1973 when Paul Lauterbur produced the first magnetic resonance image (MRI).
The Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered the anti-bacterial ‘mold’ in a petri dish in 1928. This mold was penicillin, the world’s first antibiotic.
1954: Organ transplants
In December 1954, the first successful kidney transplant was carried out by Dr. Joseph Murray and Dr. David Hume in Boston, USA. In 1963, the first lung transplant was carried out, followed by a pancreas/kidney in 1966 and a liver and heart in 1967. Transplant procedures have become increasingly innovative and complex, with doctors successfully completing the first hand transplant in 1998 and full-face transplant in 2010.
The 1970s: Stem cell therapy
The potential of stem cells was discovered in the late 1970s, when they were found inside human cord blood. Stem cell therapy was considered remarkable for 2 reasons: they are unspecialized cells that can renew themselves through cell division and can be used to make any type of human cell. The discovery of stem cell therapy has been used to treat leukemia and other blood disorders, as well as in bone marrow transplantation.
The 2000s: Artificial intelligence
Artificial intelligence has produced impressive technologies that have significantly altered the healthcare landscape. Life science companies and research institutions are inventing smarter and faster ways to deal with diseases. These innovative technologies range from diagnostic tools that can detect malignant tumours invisible to the naked eye to cognitive computing systems that produce tailored treatment plans for cancer patients.
Article author: Gurdial Gill
Article editors: Sherilyn Wen, Victoria Huang