By Jessica Scott
I have long had a fascination with the history of medicine. I can’t tell you why or when it started but I can tell you I read far more biographies of Florence Nightingale than the average 11-year-old. Perhaps it’s something about looking back on how far we have come, that we've moved past miasmas and bloodletting to antibiotics and chemotherapy. Science and research are things that we can tangibly work on and develop to make the world a better place, and that's something we can all be excited about.
The important thing to remember about all that research and investigation is that it's spurned on by humans, by people interested in solving a problem, about caring for their fellow human and bringing hope to thousands if not millions of people. So in that spirit, I present five doctors who have made your life better without you even knowing it.
Born in 129 CE he’s considered the father of “modern” medicine and was basically a medical rock star in ancient Rome because of his work with injured Gladiators. Galen focused most of his research on anatomy. He figured out how kidneys worked, and what role muscles and tendons play in movement, and he recognized that the brain was a key organ for bodily control.
Welcome to 1628 England, where William Harvey introduces pulmonary circulation, the concept that the heart pumps blood from the right to the left, via the lungs and then through the body. Considering that previously held beliefs involved blood originating in the liver or stomach, Harvey made a huge step in the right direction. This discovery came after years of dissection and experimentation. It put us on the path to better understanding the heart and blood circulation as they relate to gangrene, infection and organ health.
Think vaccination is a controversial topic now? Imagine how hard it would've been to convince people (who didn’t know germs existed) to be given a disease in the hopes it would prevent future illness!
That convincing is exactly what Edward Jenner did in the 1790s, when he figured out that milk maids who caught cowpox never caught the far deadlier smallpox. It was one of the first serious forays into vaccination and helped make the future case for investigation into immunity.
Cholera was (and unfortunately, some places in the world, still is) one of the deadliest bacteria in world. Thanks to Snow’s steadfast epidemiological approach to an epidemic in London in 1854 he was able to help prove that cholera was transmitted from infected water and was not the result of the “miasmas” of the day.
This in itself is reason enough to put Snow's name on the list. But his process of mapping the spread of the epidemic, and the scientific logic to locating the originating source, also created the foundation of modern disease communication research.
Not the easiest name to say three times fast! But he was a key player in propagating the idea of germ theory and the importance of sanitary conditions in hospitals. It's now shocking to think there was a time when doctors didn’t wear gloves, but Semmelweis worked at a time where doctors barely washed their hands. He made the connection between maternal deaths in the obstetrics ward and “particles” from cadavers in the morgue (germs weren’t a proven thing yet).
After instituting standardized handwashing with a more intensive product than soap he was able to drop infection rates dramatically. So, if you're glad the operating room is sanitary and your doctor wears latex gloves, thank Semmelweis!
Jessica Scott works in Marketing for Knopf Canada and Random House of Canada. She is delighted that Medicine: The Definitive Illustrated History has so many detailed historic images and photos to give context to the history she knows and loves.
Medicine: The Definitive Illustrated History tells the fascinating story of the discipline, from ancient times to the present day, charting developments in healing, diagnosis, surgery, and drugs in a vividly visual and accessible format. Follow the gory pitfalls and the miraculous breakthroughs of medical history from trepanning, bloodletting, and body snatching to the latest developments in IVF and gene therapy.