5 Historic Medical Milestones | History Hit

5 Historic Medical Milestones

Sophie Gee

18 Mar 2020

Today, General Practitioners provide over 300 million appointments per year, and the A&E is visited around 23 million times.

What are the key medical achievements which have given medicine such a key role in our health?

Here are 5 breakthroughs which achieved great progress for the health and standard of living of humanity.

1. Antibiotics

Often appearing more difficult to avoid than the bacteria it treats, penicillin is the most widely used antibiotic in the world, to the tune of 15 million kgs produced each year; but it was also the first.

What makes penicillin’s history more impressive is that its discovery is reported to have been an accident.

Penicillin was discovered in 1929 by Scottish Researcher Alexander Fleming. After returning to work at St. Mary’s Hospital in London, following two weeks off, he found mould preventing the growth of bacteria in his petri dish. This mould was the antibiotic.

Alexander Fleming

Professor Alexander Fleming, holder of the Chair of Bacteriology at London University, who first discovered the mould Penicillin Notatum. Here in his laboratory at St Mary’s, Paddington, London (1943). (Credit: Public Domain).

Penicillin was developed by Oxford scientists Ernst Chain and Howard Florey when Fleming ran out of resources.

When the Second World War began, effective antibiotics were crucial for treating deep wounds, but not nearly enough penicillin was being produced. Also, while it had been proven to work on live subjects… those subjects were mice.

The first successful use of Penicillin on a human was the treatment of Anne Miller in New Haven, USA. She had developed a severe infection following a miscarriage in 1942.

By 1945 the US army was administering around two million doses per month.

Antibiotics have saved an estimated 200 million lives.

Veteran. Hero. Guinea Pig. Dan Snow chats to Jan Stangreciuk, one of the last surviving members of pioneering surgeon Archibald McIndoe's Guinea Pig Club.
Watch Now

2. Vaccines

A common occurrence in the lives of babies, toddlers and intrepid explorers, vaccines are used to build up active immunity to infectious diseases and grew from a process used in China as early as the 15th century.

Variolation, the inhalation of dried smallpox scabs taken from a person with a mild infection so that they contracted the mild strain, was practised to protect against severe smallpox, which could have mortality rates reaching 35%.

Later practices were less invasive, sharing cloths instead of old scabs, but variolation has been reported to have caused death in 2-3% of its subjects and variolated individuals could be contagious.


The smallpox vaccine diluent in a syringe along side a vial of dried smallpox vaccine. (Public Domain)

Vaccines as we now know them were developed by Edward Jenner, who successfully injected cowpox material into eight-year-old James Phipps, with the result of smallpox immunity in 1796. His biographer wrote that the idea of using cowpox came from a milkmaid.

Despite this success, smallpox was not eradicated until 1980.

The process has since developed for safer use against a long list of deadly diseases: Cholera, Measles, Hepatitis and Typhoid included. Vaccines were estimated to have saved 10 million lives between 2010 and 2015.

3. Blood transfusions

Blood donation centres are regular yet unassuming sights to city dwellers. Blood transfusion cannot, however, be overlooked as a medical achievement, having saved an estimated one billion lives since 1913.

Transfusions are necessary when a person has lost large amounts of blood or produces insufficient red blood cells.

After some earlier attempts, the first successful recorded transfusion was performed in 1665 by English Physician Richard Lower, when he transfused blood between two dogs.

Ensuing attempts by Lower and Edmund King in England, and Jean-Baptiste Denys in France, involved the transfusion of sheep blood into humans.

In a rumoured sabotage by influential members of the Paris Faculty of Medicine, one of Denis’ patients died after a transfusion, and the process was effectively banned in 1670.

The first human to human transfusion did not take place until 1818, when British obstetrician James Blundell treated a postpartum haemorrhage.

James Blundell

James Blundell c.1820, engraving by John Cochran (Credit: Public Domain).

After the first three blood groups were identified in 1901 by Austrian Pathologist Dr Karl Landsteiner the process became more organised, with cross-matching between the donor and patient.

The world’s first blood bank was started in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War after a method of storing blood for three weeks was found in 1932.

During the Second World War the Red Cross collected over 13 million pints in a campaign for the military, in the face of huge numbers of injuries.

In Britain, the Ministry of Health took control of the Blood Transfusion Service in 1946. The process has since developed to include testing donated blood for HIV and AIDS in 1986, and Hepatitis C in 1991.

Laurence Brockliss talks to us about the Norman Conquest and how the events of 1066 impacted on Britain's EU referendum. Discussing Hereward the Wake and his resistance to the Normans, what can we learn about the flow of modern politics from the actions of this rogue?
Watch Now

4. Medical Imaging

How better to work out what is wrong inside the body than being able to see inside the body.

The first method of medical imaging was the X-ray, invented in Germany in 1895 by Physics professor Wilhelm Rontgen. Rontgen’s labs were burned at his request when he died, so the actual circumstances of his discovery is a mystery.

Within a year there was a radiology department in Glasgow, but tests on a machine of Rontgen’s era revealed that the radiation dose of the first X-ray machines was 1,500 times greater than today’s.

x ray

Hand mit Ringen (Hand with Rings). Print of Wilhelm Röntgen’s first “medical” X-ray, of his wife’s hand, taken on 22 December 1895 and presented to Ludwig Zehnder of the Physik Institut, University of Freiburg, on 1 January 1896 Credit: Public Domain)

X-ray machines were followed in the 1950s when researchers found a way to monitor biological processes by introducing radioactive particles to the blood stream and locating them to see which organs were undertaking the most activity.

Computed Tomography or CT scans, and Magnetic Resonance Imaging or MRI scans were then introduced in the 1970s.

Now taking up a whole department of most hospitals, radiology is instrumental in both diagnosis and treatment.

5. The Pill

Whilst not having the same life-saving record as the other medical achievements on this list, the female contraceptive pill was an achievement in giving women, and their partners, the freedom to make choices about when or whether they have a child.

Previous methods of contraception; abstinence, withdrawal, condoms and diaphragms; had varying success rates.

But Russell Marker’s discovery in 1939 of a method of synthesising the hormone Progesterone began the process toward no physical barrier being necessary to prevent pregnancy.

In this podcast, Virginia Nicolson talks about attitudes to sexuality during the rapid cultural change of the 1960s.
Listen Now

The pill was first introduced in Britain in 1961 as a prescription to older women who had already had children. The government, not wanting to encourage promiscuity, did not allow its prescription to single women until 1974.

It is estimated that 70% of women in Britain have used the pill at some stage.


Sophie Gee