15 Innovators That Modernized the Medical Field

Julielynn Wong

The modern healthcare industry is one of the most technologically advanced industries in the world, but it was actually a fairly underdeveloped field until the 19th century.

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It has only reached the level it is at today thanks to the genius of a few key individuals who helped lead the revolution in health innovation.

From Arthur C. Clarke, sci-fi author and futurist, to Edward Jenner, inventor of the smallpox vaccine, here are 15 of the top contributors to modern healthcare’s success.

Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke

Despite being best known for his seemingly outlandish science fiction works, British author Arthur C. Clark was an accomplished student of physics and mathematics, and his predictions of future technologies actually helped shaped the notion of many inventions.

He is famous for his suggestion in 1945 that space stations that maintain a geostationary orbit above the Earth would allow for a worldwide communications network.

Remember, this is 1945 – televisions are not even in widespread usage and Sputnik is still twelve years away from igniting the space race. Later, in 1964, Clarke remarked to a BBC program that doctors may one day utilize wireless communication to operate on patients via remotely controlled robots.

This has since become a reality, and allowed the world’s best surgeons to provide much needed surgeries around the world.

Henry Heimlich and Paul Winchell

Henry Heimlich and Paul Winchell

The partnership of Henry Heimlich, the namesake of the world-famous Heimlich manuever, and Paul Winchell, a famous American ventriloquist, seemed very unlikely, but Winchell’s innate interest in the medical field helped spur their joint invention of the world’s first mechanical heart.

Following their introduction at a dinner party, Winchell wondered aloud to Heimlich if an artificial heart could be used to temporarily keep patients alive during crucial heart surgery and while they wait for heart transplants and Heimlich immediately recognized the genius of Winchell’s idea.

Within a few years they had the first patent for the artificial heart which has since saved countless lives.

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Viktor Zhdanov

Viktor Zhdanov
Viktor Zhdanov (1914-1987). Portrait of the Soviet virologist Viktor Zhdanov. In 1958, Zhdanov, as Deputy Minister of Health for the Soviet Union, called on the World Health Assembly to undertake a global initiative to eradicate smallpox. The proposal (Resolution WHA11.54) was accepted in 1959. He also chaired the Soviet Union’s Interagency Science and Technology Council on Molecular Biology and Genetics, which directed the Soviet biological weapons program.

The truly marvelous thing about Vikor Zhdanov‘s story is that he helped rally two bitter enemies, the United States and the USSR during the height of the Cold War, to work together to eradicate smallpox.

To put the disease in perspective, it is estimated that smallpox killed up to 500 million people during the 20th century and was one of the most aggressive and devastating illnesses in human history.

Zhdanov suggested in 1958 that the governing World Health Assembly work to eradicate smallpox completely; one year later his plan was approved and doctors scoured the most remote corners of the earth to vaccinate people against smallpox.

Finally, in 1977 the last ever case of smallpox was recorded and today’s children will never know of the disease that once made living to adulthood a slim chance.

Jonas Salk

Jonas Salk

Virologist Jonas Salk helped change the world forever when he developed a safe and effective vaccine for polio, which was ravaging the United States following the end of World War II. He also shocked the world when he refused to benefit financially from his vaccine.

In the post-war United States, when polio was wreaking havoc and there was no cure in sight, Jonas Salk assembled a research team that was able to develop a vaccine after years of arduous work.

He then released the vaccine free of charge and refused to patent it, allowing laboratories worldwide to synthesize the vaccine without having pay royalties. All in all, Forbes has estimated today that Salk’s patent could have been worth $7 billion today, making Salk a truly inspirational story of altruism.

Edward Jenner

Edward Jenner
Edward Jenner (1749-1823). Engraved by E.Scriven and published in The Gallery Of Portraits With Memoirs encyclopedia, United Kingdom, 1837.

Despite the recent sensationalism surrounded vaccinations and their supposed health risks, the discovery of the vaccination process is one of the most pivotal moments in both medical and human history, and has led to hundreds of millions of lives being saved.

Edward Jenner was a British physician who lived in the 18th century. During his lifetime the best method of protecting oneself from smallpox was called “inoculation,” which involved introducing smallpox to a patient’s skin in order to infect them with the disease and build immunity to it. However, this led to many different health conditions.

Jenner discovered that another disease, called cowpox, was very similar to smallpox but was much less harmful, and when the body was exposed to cowpox it also built an immunity to smallpox.

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Jenner’s successful development of a smallpox vaccine helped drastically reduce the prevalence of the disease and the set the stage for its ultimate demise over one hundred years later.

Galileo Galilei, Thermometer

Galileo Galilei

Thermometers are so common today, yet there is yet to be a concrete pointer to who exactly is behind its invention.

Gabriel Fahrenheit was the first person to invent the mercury thermometer in the year 1714, and it has remained in constant usage today, but the first instance of a device used for measuring temperature was created by Galileo in the later part of the 1500s.

The invention was based on the standard that the density of a liquid changes according to its temperature. However, at present, the mercury thermometer is being displaced in favour of the digital thermometer mainly because it poses a risk of mercury poisoning.

René Laënnec , The stethoscope

Before the invention of the stethoscope, doctors could only listen to the heartbeat of a patient’s heartbeats by placing their ear on to the person’s chests, an inefficient and very crude method.

For example, if there was a considerable amount of insulation between the exterior part of the chest and the actual heart in the form of fat, this method always failed.

Exactly, one of such unfortunate situation was faced by the French physician René Laënnec, when he could not accurately measure the heart rate of one of his patients because of a thick layer of body fat between the patient’s chest and heart.

Out of necessity, he created the ‘stethoscope’ as a wooden tube instrument shaped like a trumpet that helped to amplify sounds that came from the heart and lungs. Till today, the principle of sound amplification remains the same.

Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, X-ray

It is difficult to imagine adequate and correct diagnosis or even treatment of injuries like fractures in the absence of an X-ray imaging technology.

X-rays were discovered accidentally when a German physicist named Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen was doing a study on the process of how electric current passes through a gas of extremely low pressure.

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Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen observed that in a dark room, the with barium platinocyanide covering the cathode ray tube, there was a fluorescent effect. Since there is no such thing as visible cathode rays, he didn’t know what exactly the rays were and tagged it X-radiation because of its unknown nature.

For his accidental discovery, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen won the very first Nobel Prize in Physics in the year 1901. However, at the initial stage of his discovery, he dealt with hostility and mockery.

In fact, a New York Times journalist called his findings “an alleged discovery of a method to photograph the invisible”.

Alfred Bertheim and Paul Ehrlich, Antibiotics

Paul Ehrlich
Paul Ehrlich

People mostly associate the discovery of antibiotics with the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming. In actuality, the inception of antibiotics was in 1907 with the making of Salvarsan by Alfred Bertheim and Paul Ehrlich.

Salvarsan is known today as Arsphenamine. The drug became the first to counter the Syphilis disease and marked the start of anti-bacterial treatment.

Alexander Fleming, Penicillin

Alexander Fleming
Sir Alexander Fleming, (6 August 1881 – 11 March 1955) was a Scottish biologist, pharmacologist and botanist who discovered Penicillin. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

The discovery of Penicillium Notatum’s Anti-bacteria properties in 1928 was when the official mass attention that antibiotics enjoy today started. In modern medicine, antibiotics have revolutionized the way infections and diseases are treated.

When combined with vaccines, antibiotics have helped in managing and almost eradicating diseases such as tuberculosis.

Hypodermic needle, Charles Pravaz and Alexander Wood

Charles Pravaz
Charles Pravaz. Portrait of Charles Gabriel Pravaz (1791-1853), French engineer, surgeon and claimed inventor of the hypodermic needle. The equipment consisted of a hollow needle and a syringe for delivering drugs under the skin. It was thought that Pravaz had invented the needle in 1853 but it now seems likely that Scotsman Alexander Wood had independently devised it before him in the same year.

The hypodermic needle has an austere appearance and a straightforward working principle was invented only about a century and a half ago.

Before its birth, in ancient Greece and Rome, physicians had to use thin hollow tools for injecting fluids into the body of patients. In 1656, a dog who was being treated by Christopher Wren needed an intravenous injection and got one via a goose quill.

Alexander Wood
Alexander Wood

The hypodermic needle we know in modern medicine was invented by Charles Pravaz and Alexander Wood around the mid-1800s. Today, the Hypodermic needles are used to deliver the accurate dosage of drugs in treatment and to extract body fluids with less pain and minimal risk of contamination.

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Mark C. Hill and Edgar H. Booth, The peacemaker

This huge invention was the outcome of an unprecedented situation faced by two Australian scientists’ labour, Mark C. Hill and physicist Edgar H. Booth in the year 1926.

The prototype of the peacemaker was a portable set up made up of two poles, one connected to a needle that was inserted into the patient heart chamber, and the other with a salt solution soaked skin pad.

Regardless of how crude the design was, both doctors successfully brought a stillborn baby to life. Today the pacemakers have become much more sophisticated, and come with an average battery life of two decades.

Dr Godfrey Hounsfield CT Scanner

Dr Godfrey Hounsfield
British scientist Sir Godfrey Hounsfield (1919 – 2004), 1979 joint Nobel Laureate in Medicine for his work in the development of computer assisted tomography (CAT scanning). (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The discovery of X-Ray led to a rise in the efforts to search for new methods to access greater details without needing to cut open a body. This journey by scientists subsequently led to the birth of the CT scanner.

The commercial version, which is available in all parts of the world, was invented by Dr Godfrey Hounsfield, who was given a Nobel Prize for medicine in the year 1979. With this device, it was possible to view several layers within multiple X-ray images.

Rachel Schneerson, Haemophilus influenzae type b vaccine

Rachel Schneerson

Schneerson and John Robbins, are the brains behind the development of a vaccine against Haemophilus influenzae type b (commonly called Hib).

The bacterium was a popular one that was responsible for causing about 20,000 cases of Hib every year in the US, mostly in young kids under the age of 5, and it was a major cause of bacterial meningitis in children.

Despite the use of antibiotics, the bacteria led to the death of between 3 to 6% of those who got infected—roughly 1,000 kids per year. Of those who had meningitis and survived, 15 to 30% of them suffered a hearing or neurological damage due to the infection.

Schneerson’s vaccine was introduced in the 1980s; there was a recorded drop in the number of recorded Hib cases by more than 99%.

Julielynn Wong, 3D Printing

Julielynn Wong

Leveraging both her technological training and clinical expertise, she designed a 3D printer system powered by solar energy. The printer was so compact that it could fit in a normal-sized carry-on bag.

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This invention made it possible to print medical supplies in areas that are hard-to-reach around the globe or also in space.

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