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INFO VINE * The History of Medicine *

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Post by Paul Thu 8 Feb 2024 - 5:25

The History of Medicine

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Medicine has come a long way over the last several thousands of years. While our ancestors used to rely on plants and herbs to treat their maladies, we are now relying on stem cells, transplants, and other innovative techniques.

How did medicine evolve into what it is today? Where did medicine begin? Read on to learn about the history of medicine. 

Medicine in the Stone Age 

While historians can’t pinpoint the origin of medicine, we do know that medicine was used in some form during the Stone Age. Scientists believe that humans during the Stone Age used herbs to treat their maladies, although they’re not certain of all of the herbs that were used.  

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However, an archeological site in Iraq found evidence that prehistoric humans were using mallow and yarrow around 60,000 years ago. Yarrow is a type of astringent that can help reduce bleeding, whereas mallow is an herb that has colon-cleansing properties. 

Prehistoric Herbs 

In addition to mallow and yarrow, there’s evidence that humans used other herbs in prehistoric times as medicine. It is thought that birch, which is commonly found in the European Alps, was used as a laxative. There’s also evidence that rosemary was used in several parts of the world as a medicinal herb. 

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Archeologists and scientists also agree that women were the ones who were gathering the herbs as well as creating and administering herbal remedies. As humans did not read or write during prehistoric times, medicinal knowledge would have been passed down by word of mouth. 

Prehistoric Practice of Geophagy

There’s also evidence that prehistoric humans performed “medical procedures” on one another, and that they had certain medical practices to get “healthier”. For example, there is evidence that prehistoric humans engaged in the practice of geophagy. This is the practice of eating earthy substances, such as dirt or clay. 

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It’s likely that humans observed animals experiencing healing properties after ingesting clay, and so they attempted to do the same. In some modern societies, clay is still used externally and internally to heal cuts and wounds. 

Prehistoric Practice of Trepanning 

Another medicinal practice that existed during prehistoric times was called trepanning. This practice involved treating health problems by drilling a hole into the human skull. Archeologists have uncovered evidence that suggests humans have been drilling holes into skulls since the Neolithic era. 

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It’s believed that humans drilled holes into skulls as an attempt to cure diseases as well as to free the victims of evil spirits. From looking at cave paintings, many anthropologists believe that early humans used trepanning to cure mental disorders, epileptic seizures, and migraines. There is also evidence that trepanning was used to treat fractured skulls. 

Shaman or Medicine Men 

A shaman, also known as a medicine man, is still an important figure in many cultures and religious groups. There is evidence to suggest that shamans have been around since prehistoric times. They were likely in charge of the tribe’s health as well as gathering plants for medicine. 

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Shamans were also responsible for carrying out basic surgeries, casting spells and charms, and identifying herbs and roots. Tribespeople would also go to the shaman for medical advice during prehistoric times. 

 Prehistoric Diseases and Conditions 

Many of the diseases and conditions that plague us today also plagued the earliest of humans. Forensic anthropologists are able to look at the bone structures of early humans to determine what diseases they may have suffered from. 

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It’s likely that many early humans suffered from osteoarthritis, which makes sense, as early humans had to lift and carry heavy objects all on their own. It’s also likely that early humans suffered from microfractures in their spines, hyperextension of the lower back, and rickets due to low levels of vitamin C and D. 

Life Expectancy in Prehistoric Times 

It’s believed that the average life expectancy in prehistoric times was somewhere between 20 and 40 years old, although archeologists are unable to determine an exact number. Rarely have archeologists uncovered bones of someone who lived past 40. 

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Nowadays, women outlive men in almost every part of the world. In prehistoric times, however, men outlived women, which was likely due to the fact that the men were the hunters. This means that they had access to the kills before the women did, so they probably ate some of the best parts of the meat before sharing. Women's’ lifespans were shorter also because of mortality due to childbirth. 

The Origins of Ayurveda 

Ayurveda is a type of holistic medicine that originated in what is now India around 3000 BC. Ayurveda is a Sanskrit word that translates to “the science of life.” Today, Ayurvedic medicinal techniques are still used in many Eastern cultures, and Ayurveda has even started to gain traction in Western societies. 

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Originally shared through oral tradition, Ayurvedic techniques were recorded thousands of years ago in Sanskrit in the four sacred Hindu texts called the Vedas. According to Ayurvedic theory, life impacts one’s health, so this form of medicine also included astrology, spirituality, art, politics, and human behavior. 

 Imhotep “The First Physician” 

While Hippocrates is considered to be the Father of Modern Medicine, a man by the name of Imhotep was writing and practicing medicine long before Hippocrates came along (around 2600 BC). Imhotep was an Egyptian priest, physician, and polymath who was later deified as the Egyptian god of medicine. 

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Archeologists give credit to Imhotep as being the author of the Edwin Smith Papyrus, which is an Egyptian medical text that contains nearly 100 medical terms and describes the treatment for 48 different injuries. The Edwin Smith Papyrus is named after the collector who purchased it from an antique dealer in 1862 AD. The work stands out due to its modern approach to treating injuries. 

Surviving Medical Records Discovered 

Between the years 1900 and 1600 BC, ancient humans from Mesopotamia would inscribe medical records into clay tablets. Archeologists uncovered medical records from King Ashurbanipal’s library in Nineveh. Ashurbanipal was the king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire during the Sargonid dynasty. 

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These tablets weren’t discovered until the 19th century, but due to difficulties with the language, scholars have only been able to decipher the texts. The medical texts contained treatments for fevers, worms, skin lesions, and neurological disorders. 

Code of Hammurabi 

Paying for medicine is a concept that dates back to ancient times. Around 1800 BC, the Code of Hammurabi dictated that one must pay a fee for surgery. This code also dictated punishments for medical malpractice. 

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For large incisions with an operating knife, one had to pay a surgeon ten shekels. For veterinary surgery on an ox, the owner had to pay one-sixth of a shekel. If a surgeon were to make a large incision on someone with an operating knife and accidentally kill him, then the surgeon would have to have his hand chopped off!

The Origins of Gynecology

Gynecology is a type of medical practice that deals with the female reproductive system. The oldest medical text on gynecology dates back to 1800 BC. The Kahun Gynecological Papyrus is a medical text from ancient Egypt that details fertility, contraception, pregnancy, and other women’s health issues. 

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The text was discovered by Flinders Petrie, an English Egyptologist, in 1889. The text is divided into 34 sections, and each section deals with a specific medical problem as well as diagnosis and treatment information. 

Hearst Papyrus 

The Hearst Papyrus is another famous medical text from ancient Egypt. It’s named after Phoebe Hearst, an American philanthropist, and feminist. The text contains 18 pages of medical prescriptions written in hieratic Egyptian. 

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The Hearst Papyrus focuses on problems related to the blood, hair, and urinary system. The papyrus contains 260 paragraphs of medical prescriptions. Topics in the text range from how to deal with a tooth that has fallen out to what to do for an ailing lung. 

Ebers Papyrus

Ebers Papyrus is another ancient Egyptian medical text that dates back to 1550 BC. While it was written in 1500 BC, many archeologists believe that it was a copy of earlier texts that didn’t survive. The scroll is 110 pages long and about 20 meters in length. 

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The Ebers Papyrus contains around 700 folk remedies and magic formulas for treating a variety of ailments. Many of the incantations in the scroll are directed at “disease-causing demons”. It also includes a lot of information about the heart and notes stating that the heart is the center of blood supply. The text also covers mental disorders such as depression and dementia. 

Earliest Medical School

The earliest medical school known to archeologists was in the Greek city of Cnidus. The medical school emerged around 700 BC. Alcmaeon, who wrote the first anatomical compilation, worked at this school. 

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The ancient Greeks believed that health was affected by social class, beliefs, trauma, diet, and mindset. They also believed that illnesses and diseases were “divine punishments” from the gods and that healing was a gift from the gods. 

The Four Humors 

Alcmaeon, along with other Greek physicians of the time, wrote extensively about the humors. Ancient Greek physicians believed that one’s health was affected by the humors. The humors include vital bodily fluids, such as blood, phlegm, and bile. 

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Some archeologists believe that the Egyptians came up with the concept of the humors, although the Greeks were the ones to write about them and systemize them. Ancient Greeks believed that the humors were responsible for causing both pain and healing in the body. They believed that an imbalance in the humors could directly cause disease. 

Alcmaeon of Croton 

While Alcmaeon’s writings on humorism may not be a part of today’s medical cannon, he was the first physician to note the difference between veins and arteries. He was also the first known person to conduct a human dissection. 

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Alcmaeon was born in Croton around 510 BC. While he primarily wrote about medicine, he also wrote about astrology and meteorology. Some scientists believe that he was a pupil of Pythagoras. 

The Origin of Acupuncture

Acupuncture is a medical technique that involves inserting tiny needles into specific points on the body to ease pain and treat a variety of other ailments. Bien Que was the earliest known physician to use acupuncture around the year 500 BC. 

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Bian Que was a Chinese physician who attended to the lord of state and was an advocate of the “four-step diagnosis”. This involved listening to a patient’s voice and breathing patterns, taking a patient’s pulse, inquiring about a patient’s symptoms, and looking at the patient’s outside appearance. 

Sushruta Samhita Published 

Around 500 BC, the Sushruta Samhita was published. This text laid out the framework for Ayurvedic medicine. The text plays a very important role in the history of medicine, as it included information about surgical training, procedures, and instruments, and it helped lay the foundation for modern surgery. 

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The Sushruta Samhita is 186 chapters, and it contains descriptions of over 700 medicinal plants, 1,120 illnesses, 64 treatments from mineral sources, and 57 treatments from animal sources. It’s also one of the earliest texts to list physical exercise as a means for disease prevention. 

Birth of Hippocrates

Around 460 BC, Hippocrates, the Greek Father of Medicine, was born. Hippocrates and his followers wrote a large body of medical literature, and he is credited for having systematized medicine. He was regarded as the greatest physician of his time, and he based his medical practice on studying and observing the human body. 

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Hippocrates did not believe that illnesses stemmed from the gods or anything spiritually related. Rather, he believed that all illnesses and diseases had a physical, rational explanation. Hippocrates founded a medical school in Kos, Greece, where he lectured about his philosophies on medicine. 

Hippocratic Oath 

Hippocrates greatest legacy is the Hippocratic Oath. This oath set forward an ethical standard for physicians to follow, and it is still used to this day. While the exact text of the oath has changed throughout the years, the basic concept is that physicians swear to “do no harm” to their patients. 

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The Hippocratic Oath is one of the most widely-known texts from ancient Greece. While the oath is attributed to Hippocrates, most modern scholars believe that some form of the oath existed before he was even born. This is largely due to the fact that the original oath had strong religious elements, and Hippocrates did not believe in mixing religion with medicine. 

First Known Anatomy Book Written by Diocles

Diocles, a philosopher and medical pioneer, wrote the first known anatomy book around 300 BC. According to a number of scholarly sources, Diocles was the first person to use the word anatomy. The textbook he wrote focused on the anatomy of animals, although he also focused on diet and nutrition. 

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While little is known of Diocles' life, we do know that he lived and worked in Athens, and he likely wrote the first medical treatise of Attic. He studies anatomy through the dissection of animals, and he also wrote textbooks based on Hippocrates’ medical philosophies. 

Herophilus and the Nervous System

Around the same time, Diocles was studying anatomy, Herophilus was studying the nervous system. Herophilus was a Greek physician who spent the majority of his life in Alexandria. He is credited as having been the first person to perform dissections on human cadavers. 

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He is also believed to be the first person to realize that nerves are different from tendons and blood vessels. He also studies the salivary glands, and he was the first person to name a part of the small intestine. He also wrote the first accurate description of the liver.

Huangfu Mi writes the Zhenjiu Jiayijing 

Around 270 BC, Huangfu Mi wrote the Zhenjiu Jiayijing. This was the first textbook that focused solely on acupuncture. The book consisted of 186 chapters split amongst 12 volumes. The book also talked about moxibustion, which is the burning of dried mugworts on certain spots of the body. Moxibustion was a big part of ancient Chinese medicine. 

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Acupuncture continued to be codified in texts and developed over the next few centuries. Today, it’s still a very important part of Chinese medicine, and you can even find acupuncture clinics in Western societies. 

Erasistratus Studies the Brain

Erasistratus was a Greek physician and anatomist who founded a school of anatomy in Alexandria alongside Herophilus. He was also credited as having founded a school of medicine in Alexandria that opposed the humoral teachings of Hippocrates. 

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He is credited for having created a detailed description of the heart valves. Erasistratus was also the first person to distinguish the cerebellum from the cerebrum in the brain. He also very nearly discovered the circulation of blood. 

Birth of Galen

Born in Pergamon, Turkey around 130 AD, Galen was another important figure in the history of medicine. He created a large body of anatomical reports that were mainly based on the dissection of monkeys. He eventually switched to dissecting pigs, as he found that monkeys' facial expressions were too similar to humans, and human dissection was strictly prohibited at the time. 

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Galen was also a teacher of medicine, and to get his students better acquainted with the human body, he would encourage them to go look at dead gladiators or washed up bodies. His work influenced the medical community for more than 1,300 years after his death. 

De Materia Médica

Around 60 AD, Pedanius Dioscorides wrote the De Materia Medica, which translates to “On Medical Material”. This book describes hundreds of medicinal plants and the medicine that can be obtained from them. It is one of the longest-lasting natural history books, and it was widely read for more than 1,500 years. 

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The book describes many plants that are still known to be effective, including aloe vera, aconite, opium, and henbane. In total, the book discusses over 600 plants and over 1,000 medications that you can create from these plants. The book also talks about how to identify plants and use them in culinary dishes. 

Smallpox Identified by Persian Physician

Around 910 AD, the Persian physician Rhazes identified smallpox. Smallpox was a deadly, contagious virus that was around for at least 3,000 years. Smallpox caused a rash over the whole body that usually resulted in scars. 

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Around 30 percent of people who suffered from smallpox died from it, and a significant portion of sufferers were left blind. There were several outbreaks of smallpox during the Middle Ages in Europe. Rhazes provided one of the most detailed descriptions of smallpox, and he was the first person to distinguish smallpox from chickenpox and measles. 

The Book of Healing and The Canon of Medicine

Around 1010 AD, Avicenna wrote The Book of Healing and The Canon of Medicine. Avicenna was a polymath, astronomer, and physician. He is regarded as one of the most influential thinkers of the Islamic Golden Age. 

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The Book of Healing was a scientific and philosophical encyclopedia. The book is divided into four parts: mathematics, metaphysics, natural science, and logic. The Canon of Medicine was a medical encyclopedia that became a standard medical text in many universities during the Middle Ages. 

Roger Bacon Invents Spectacles

Roger Bacon was a Franciscan Friar and English philosopher. While magnifying glasses were in use for hundreds of years before he came around, he is credited as having made the first drawings of modern-day spectacles. He outlined the scientific principles behind the use of corrective lenses in his book Opus Majus. 

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Roger Bacon is considered to be the forerunner of modern experimental science. He made lists of over 300 possible inventions. In addition to spectacles, he also wrote about airplanes, motorized ships, and gunpowder long before they were officially invented. 

Louis IX Established Les Quinze-vingt

In 1260, King Louis IX established Les Quinze-vingt. This building served as a refuge for the blind. Today, the hospital is a pioneer in the field of optometry and ophthalmology. 

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The name Quinze-vingt means 300. This was a reference to the number of hospital beds the building housed. In 1779, the hospital was transferred to its current location on rue de Charenton. 

Zacharias Janssen Invents the Microscope 

Even if you’re not a scientist or doctor, you likely used a microscope in your science classes growing up. We owe the invention of the microscope to Zacharias Janssen. With the help of his son, Zacharias Janssen invented the microscope in 1590. 

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Janssen invented the optical microscope, which is a type of microscope that uses lenses to refract visible light. Later improvements were made to the microscope by Galileo Galilei and English scientist Robert Hooke. There is some controversy as to whether or not Janssen was the true inventor of the microscope, as his son gave conflicting testimony of the invention process. 

 An Anatomical Study of the Motion of the Heart

In 1628, William Harvey published An Anatomical Study of the Motion of the Heart and of the Blood of Animals. This book formed the basis for future research on the heart, arteries, and blood vessels. Harvey was an English physician who was the first known person to describe the circulatory system in detail.

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In addition to being a respected physician, Harvey was also a prominent skeptic of the witchcraft trials and allegations going on at the time. In 1634, four women were accused of witchcraft in Lancashire, and Harvey was one of the physicians to examine them. His testimony helped these women get acquitted.  

Discovery of Blood Cells

In 1670, Anton van Leeuwenhoek discovered blood cells. While he was not the first person to observe red particles in the blood, he was the first person to create detailed records of his observations. A Dutch microscopist, he was also the first person to observe bacteria and protozoa. 

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Leeuwenhoek also studied animals, and he was one of the first prominent scientists to refute the theory of spontaneous generation. This theory stated that living matter could sprout from nonliving matter. The observations Leeuwenhoek made laid the foundation for protozoology and bacteriology. 

Edward Jenner Develops the First Vaccination Process

In 1796, Edward Jenner developed the process for the smallpox vaccination. This was the first vaccine for any disease, and it laid the foundation for the many vaccines that were to follow in the 19th and 20th centuries. 

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Jenner actually came upon the idea of vaccination while observing some milkmaids. He noted that milkmaids who had previously caught cowpox were not catching smallpox. Jenner later drew matter from a cowpox pustule from a milkmaid's arm to vaccinate a young person. 

Rene Laennec Invents the Stethoscope

In 1816, Rene Laennec invented the stethoscope. Laennec, a French physician, used a long, rolled paper tube to funnel the sound coming from a patient’s chest to his ear. While accounts vary on how exactly Laennec created the invention, it was clear from the beginning that the tube’s acoustic properties improved Laennec’s ability to hear vital lung and heart sounds.

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Twenty-five years after Laennec invented the first stethoscope, a man by the name of George P. Camman developed a new version of a stethoscope that came with an earpiece for each ear. Later, in the 1960s, David Littman got a patent for a new stethoscope that had a vastly better acoustic performance. 

The First Successful Blood Transfusion

In 1818, James Blundell performed the first successful blood transfusion. A blood transfusion is a procedure that involves adding blood to your body after an injury or illness. Before James Blundell, Sir Christopher dedicated a lot of time to experimenting with canine transfusions in the mid 17th century. 

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Blundell performed the transfusion on a woman dying from a hemorrhage in Guy Hospital in London, UK. Before performing the blood transfusion on the dying woman, Blundell performed a series of experiments on animals. Blundell extracted around 4 ounces of blood from the patient’s husband to save her life. 

Elizabeth Blackwell Becomes First Woman to Earn a Medical Degree

For many centuries, men dominated the medical field. In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to earn a medical degree, paving the way for future female doctors. Blackwell earned her degree from Geneva Medical College in New York. 

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After graduating from medical school, Blackwell dedicated a lot of her life to encouraging other women to join the medical field. As a female physician, she experienced a lot of discrimination from patients and colleagues, so with the help of her Quaker friends, she opened a small clinic to treat underprivileged women. 

Hand Washing

It’s crazy to think that for centuries, medical professionals had no idea that germs were the cause of disease. In fact, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that doctors realized that washing hands helps to fight infection. 

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During the mid-19th century, a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis became an early proponent of handwashing. The maternal mortality rate for the doctor’s ward was nearly three times higher than the maternal mortality rate for the midwife’s ward. Semmelweis soon figured out that doctors were examining women straight after performing autopsies. Once Semmelweis ordered the doctors to wash their hands after leaving the autopsy room, the mortality rate dropped. 

Louis Pasteur

Louis Pasteur was a French biologist and chemist who made major discoveries in the areas of microbial fermentation and vaccination. He also discovered the process of pasteurization (hence, its name). He discovered that you could kill bacteria by heating up beverages, therefore making them safer to drink. 

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Pasteur was also the first to note that germs were the causes of disease in 1857. Later on, he developed the germ theory of disease alongside Robert Koch. Pasteur also developed the first vaccine for anthrax and rabies. 

First Vaccine Developed for Cholera 

Shortly after Pasteur developed the vaccine for rabies, the vaccine for cholera was developed. Cholera was a bacterial disease that typically spread through contaminated water. It caused diarrhea and dehydration, and it was fatal unless it was treated right away. 

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The cholera vaccine was invented by the Spanish physician Jaime Ferran. Ferran cultivated vibrio cholerae and worked with the live germs to develop the vaccine. The vaccine he created helped over 50,000 people in Spain during a massive cholera epidemic. 

Development of Contact Lenses 

In 1887, the first contact lenses were developed. There are conflicting reports regarding who invented the first pair of lenses. Some say it was the German glassblower F.A. Muller, while others say it was the Swiss physician Alfred E. Fick. 

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50 years before the invention of contact lenses, the English astronomer Sir John Herschel decided to create a mold out of a person’s eyes. And, 500 years before the invention of contact lenses, Leonardo Da Vinci produced sketches of the human eye suggesting that vision could be altered by placing the cornea in direct contact with water. 

The Invention of Aspirin 

If you’ve ever taken aspirin for a headache, you have Felix Hoffman to thank. Hoffman was a German chemist who used acetylsalicylic acid to alleviate the symptoms of his father’s rheumatism. In 1899, Bayer began to distribute a powder containing this acid to doctors to give to their patients. 

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The drug quickly became a hit, and in 1915, pharmacists began selling it over the counter. To this day, aspirin is still one of the most researched drugs in the world. Each year, around 700 to 1,000 clinical studies take place involving aspirin. 

The Classification of Blood 

In 1901, American biologist Karl Landsteiner figured out a way to classify blood. He split blood into three distinct groups: A, B, and O. The fourth group, AB, was later discovered by a separate group of researchers. 

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Landsteiner figured out that the antibodies and antigens in the blood induce red blood cell clumping when red blood cells from one type of blood are combined with the red blood cells of another type of blood. Landsteiner’s system is still used to this day for blood classification. 

The Discovery of Penicillin

In 1928, Sir Alfred Fleming discovered penicillin. Penicillin is an antibiotic that’s used to treat a variety of bacterial infections. Fleming actually discovered penicillin by accident. 

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After a two-week vacation, Fleming returned to his lab to find a new mold development on a culture plate. Upon further examination of the mold, Fleming noticed that the culture stopped the growth of staphylococci. Fleming spent the next three years studying penicillin. 

Vaccine Development in the 20th Century

The 20th century and the tail-end of the 19th century saw a rapid increase in vaccine development. As we mentioned, cholera and rabies vaccines were developed by Louis Pasteur in the 19th century. In 1896, the first vaccine for typhoid fever was developed. A year later, the first vaccine for the Bubonic plague was developed. 

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The first half of the 20th century also saw the development of vaccines for diphtheria, whooping cough, tuberculosis, tetanus, yellow fever, typhus, influenza, and polio. The latter half of the 20th century saw the development of vaccines for measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, pneumonia, meningitis, hepatitis B, and hepatitis A. 

Smallpox is Eradicated 

In 1980, smallpox was officially eradicated. It was eradicated over 1,000 years after its discovery in 910, and nearly 100 years after scientists began developing a vaccine for the disease. 

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Thanks to the success of the vaccination, the final smallpox outbreak occurred in the US in 1949. Since the World Health Assembly declared that smallpox was eradicated in 1980, no more outbreaks have occurred. 

HIV Identified 

In 1983, HIV, the virus that leads to AIDs, was identified. The virus was discovered by a team of scientists at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. While the virus was discovered in 1983, it’s believed that the AIDs epidemic officially began in June of 1981. 

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Scientists believe that a chimpanzee version of the virus was transmitted to humans and later mutated into HIV when humans hunted chimps for meat and then came into contact with their infected blood. To this day, there is no cure for HIV or AIDs, and approximately 76 million people have become infected with HIV since the beginning of the epidemic. 

Dolly the Sheep Becomes the First Clone

On July 5th, 1996, Dolly the Sheep became the first mammal to be successfully cloned from an adult cell. Dolly was born at the Roslin Institute in Scotland. Her original code name was 6LL3, but it was later changed to Dolly after the singer Dolly Parton. 

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Unfortunately, Dolly died on February 14th, 2003 from a lung infection at the age of six. Scientists believe the death had nothing to do with her being cloned. Besides sheep, other mammals scientists have cloned from somatic cells include deer, dogs, horses, cats, rabbits, oxen, and rats.

The Future of Medicine

As you can see, medicine has come a long way since the early centuries. Still, we have a lot to look forward to when it comes to the future of medicine. New innovations are popping up every day. 

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In the next 25 years, we can expect to see more patients being treated by gene therapy. There is also hope that the invention of a single blood test will be able to alert people if they’re at risk for heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and other diseases. Additionally, we can expect to see more scientific discoveries that directly target the effects of aging. 

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