Greatest Discoveries in the Field of Medicine

Human Anatomy (1530s)

Belgian physician Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) was able to correct millennia-old established but erroneous medical theories of Hippocrates (ca. 460 BC-ca. 370 BC) and Galen (ca. AD 129-200) through human cadaver dissection, a technique not generally accepted at the time, revealing very thorough information concerning human anatomy. His most famous work, “De Humani Corporis Fabrica” (On the Workings of the Human Body) (1543), provided fairly detailed illustrations and discussions of the musculosketetal system, cardiovascular system, nerves and internal organs. This pioneering book drastically transformed the subject of anatomy to whole new level, particularly in the present technological advanced age when devices such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Computed Axial Tomography Scanners (CAT Scans) have made it possible for researchers to examine the organs of both living and dead people.

Blood Circulation (1620s)

William Harvey, English physician, was the first to correctly explain in detail the circulation of blood through the body and that the heart as the organ that pumps the blood. He advanced his discovery through his 1628 groundbreaking book “Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus” (An Anatomical Essay on the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals), setting down the basis of modern physiology.

Vaccination (1790s)

Edward Jenner, an English doctor, performs the first vaccination against smallpox, after having repeatedly observed that milkmaids who had gotten blisters from cowpox were not stricken with smallpox even when an outbreak devastated the countryside. Vaccination is an immunization method that involves the administration of weakened or dead microorganisms to a person or animal for the purpose of stimulating an immune response that will create immunity against a related infectious disease like measles, mumps and polio.

Anesthesia (1830s-1840s)

Anesthetic agents as nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and ether were used mainly by dentists and surgeons during the nineteenth century. Anesthetic drugs come mainly in two forms: local anesthetics (e.g.: cocaine and lidocaine); and general anesthetics (e.g.: isoflurane and propofol). The discovery that certain chemical compounds can be employed as anesthetics has made it possible to perform or undergo surgery without the distress of feeling pain that would otherwise be experienced.

Germ Theory (1860s)

At an era when diseases were believed to be spontaneously generated within the body, French microbiologist and chemist Louis Pasteur’s numerous experiments resulted in overwhelming evidence to support the germ theory of disease, that is, certain microorganisms are disease-causing agents, consequently contributing to the significant advancements in disease prevention. He is most notable for creating a method to prevent dairy products and wine from spoiling, a process called pasteurization; and was the first to create vaccine for rabies. His pioneering work led to an entirely new field of scientific study–bacteriology.

X-rays (1890s)

German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen discovered X-rays by chance as he was investigating the effects of cathode rays (electrons) passing through on some specialized types of vacuum tube equipment, and observed how the invisible rays penetrated the black cardboard encircling the tube causing a fluorescent effect on a nearby bench. For the discovery of the X-rays that would revolutionize the field of medicine and physics, Röntgen was awarded the very first Nobel Prize in Physics in 1901.

Blood Groups (1900s)

Austrian biologists Karl Landsteiner (1868-1943) developed the modern system of blood classification of four different types (A, B, AB and O). Knowledge of blood types is essential as blood samples must be checked for compatibilty prior to performing blood transfusions, a widely accepted medical practice today.

Vitamins (early 1900s)

Through various feeding experiments, English biochemist Frederick Hopkins and Dutch physician and pathologist Christiaan Eijkman were able to link some diseases to deficiencies of certain nutrients, which would eventually be known as vitamins. They postulated that aside from carbohydrates, proteins and fats, some foods possess “accessory factors” that are necessary for the proper functioning of the body.

Penicillin (1920s-1930s)

English biologist Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928 completely by accident when he observed that mold had inhibited bacterial growth in a culture dish he left in the sink of his laboratory; and was able to isolate the substance. The subsequent research and controlled experimentation of cure for some bacterial infections by Australian pharmacologist Howard Walter Florey and British biochemist Ernst Boris Chain not only made possible the efficient extraction of penicillin in sufficient amounts for commercial use by the 1940s but also completely transformed the world of modern medicine establishing an age of antibiotics that continues to save lives to this very day.

Insulin (1920s)

Canadian medical scientists Frederick Banting and Charles Best discovered the role of insulin, which is a pancreatic hormone that is used to treat patients with diabetes, a disease characterized by the body’s inability to metabolize blood sugar often resulting in numerous severe complications such as kidney failure, nerve damage, coma, blindness and many cardiovascular disorders. Prior to the discovery of insulin, being diagnosed with diabetes meant a slow certain death, but today, the quality of life of diabetics has dramatically improved as complications have become less common.

Oncogenes (1970s)

One of the greatest advancements in the field of cancer research is the discovery of oncogenes by American doctors Harold Varmus and John Michael Bishop. Oncogenes are genes that regulate the growth and prevent DNA damage of every living cell, but if mutated or present in unusually high quantities can increase the likelihood of normal cells being converted into cancerous ones. Varmus and Bishop made their studies based on the assumption that cancerous growths do not occur as a consequence of microbial invasion but as a consequence of genetic mutations worsened by environmental factors as radiation, chemicals and viral infections. More than a dozen oncogenes in human cancer have been identified so far since the 1970s; with many new cancer treatments being formulated to target these DNA sequences gone haywire and their by-products.

Human Immunodeficiency Virus or HIV (1980s)

American biomedical researcher Robert Gallo and French virologist Luc Montagnier discovered, independently of each other, a new retrovirus that would become known as HIV and correctly identified it as the infectious agent that causes AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome). AIDS is a disease characterized by a group of infections or symptoms resulting from a compromised immune system due to the presence of HIV, and is transmissible through direct contact of mucous membranes or transfer of bodily fluids contaminated with HIV such as blood, semen and breast milk. The discovery of the HIV has spurred large scale funding for AIDS research projects in the hope of finding a cure or vaccine.

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