Medical science is amazing – a quick glance at and appreciation of history

One of my simple pleasures each week is reading the New England Journal of Medicine, published every Thursday. I love seeing the new science, information, and technologies that are brought to light.

The NEJM has recently published a 200-year anniversary issue (the Journal was first published in January 1812). If you have any interest in the science of medicine or in history, it is well worth taking a few minutes to enjoy.

Among the things that were part of this issue, the Journal asked readers to vote on the most significant story in the history of it’s publication. The winner was discovery of anesthesia (the actual article is titled: Insensibility during Surgical Operations Produced by Inhalation, published in 1846), which allowed for the advent of surgery. (Candidly, voting was very sparse, with the winning article receiving a grand total of 139 votes. I guess doctors are passive absorbers of information when it comes to the NEJM).

On the NEJM website, there is a wonderful interactive timeline. The Journal has highlighted articles of significance going back from the January 1812 inaugural edition to present day. The earliest story that made it into in the timeline, published in 1816, describes the invention of the stethoscope. The timeline is here: http://nejm200.nejm.org/timeline/. There is also an extremely well done video on the history of medicine, with three segments that focus on surgery, cancer, and AIDS. I highly recommend taking a look at both the video and the timeline.

It’s worth noting that the NEJM has also discussed social and political change from time to time, sometimes as an observer and sometimes as an advocate. Two interesting articles that call attention to gender inequality include “Female medical students at Harvard” (1878) and, surprisingly recently “Practice of medicine by married women” (1954).

This anniversary edition of the NEJM led me to spend a minute thinking about some of the remarkable scientific advances that have been made in medicine. I put together a short list (below). This is off the top of my head and is certain to be woefully incomplete (were I to try to be even slightly comprehensive, this blog post would quickly become an encyclopedia-length dissertation).

  • vaccines
  • antibiotics
  • X-rays (and, more recently, CT and MRI scanning)
  • aseptic (sterile) surgical technique (author note: this may seem obvious but this was one of the most important recognitions in practicing medicine. This change of behavior was nothing less than transformative.)
  • aspirin (both for pain control and heart attack prevention)
  • insulin
  • medicines for high blood pressure and cholesterol
  • cardiac catheterization
  • description of HIV and the discovery of medicines to treat it
  • radiation therapy for cancer
  • blood typing and the ability to give transfusions
  • organ transplant (kidney, liver, heart/lung, cornea, bone marrow, etc)
  • oxygenation of blood outside the body, allowing for open heart surgery
  • dialysis
  • cancer chemotherapy
  • advances in obstetrics, infant delivery, and neonatal care

Wonderful, fascinating, incredible stuff!

source: NEJM 200-year anniversary issue

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