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The Greatest Medical Discoveries and How They Were Made

With ever improving technology and the proliferation of clinical research organisations, today we have better means of investigating and testing drug therapies than ever before. Yet, many of history's most groundbreaking realisations were made with rudimentary tools and sometimes even by accident. On the 150th anniversary of the birth of Maria Curie, it seems a prudent time to reflect some of the greatest discoveries in medical history.

Marie and Pierre Curie's Research and Discovery of Radium & Radiocativity

Today, Marie Curie is best known for her namesake's charity who support those living with cancer and terminal illnesses. However, her life's work was not directly linked to patient care at all; Marie was primarily a physicist at heart and won two Nobel Peace Prizes for her discoveries. The first was for Marie and her husband Pierre Curie's investigation into uranium, which lead to their discovery of thorium, polonium and most importantly radium.

The applications of this new compound were found soon after Marie Curies death in 1934 using it in the treatment of cancer with radium plasters. Although it was later realised that while radiation can break down cancerous cells, it can also cause the disease when ingested or handled in even tiny quantities. However, when used correctly this compound has a myriad of medical uses. The most significant of which being radioactive isotopes, which are present in almost all modern areas of scientific discovery.

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Alexander Fleming's Accidental Uncovering of Penicillin

Alexander Fleming's Accidental Uncovering of Penicillin

Like many of the best revelations, Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin was completely unintentional. Although he had a reputation for being an extraordinary researcher, Fleming was also extremely untidy.

During an experimental phase he went on holiday and left plates of bacteria culture in his laboratory next to an open window and they stayed there for two hot summer weeks. Whilst he was away, fungus spores blown in from the street contaminated on of his cultures plates and when he returned from holiday, Fleming noticed that some mould had grown on the plate. He was about to wash the plate when something else caught his eye, the mould had destroyed all the bacteria that were around it. Fleming had discovered entirely by accident, the very first antibiotic and was destined to revolutionise medicine.

The Evolution of Anaesthetics

Before anaesthetics, surgery was an incredibly painful experience and as such surgeons were very limited in what they could perform. Unrelated to surgery, students in the 1830's had discovered that after inhaling both ether and nitrous oxide they would get high leading to the popularity to parties involving these substances.

Having witnessed the pain numbing results of nitrous oxide at one of these 'frolics', a dentist called Horace Wells attempted to demonstrate these effects, but the experiment failed. A few years later, Dr William Morton who Wells had tried to convince of the potential benefits of nitrous oxide, attempted using ether to knock out his spaniel, then himself and later on a patient to great success. Suffice it to say that the discovery of anaesthesia has made possible and entirely new era of surgery and there are countless procedures that would not be possible without it.

The Realisation of Germ Theory as we Know it Today

When Doctor Ignaz Semmelweis came to work at the Vienna General Hospital in 1846 he was alarmed at the number of women dying from child bed fever and intrigued by a curious discrepancy. Between two wards there was a 71% difference in the morbidity rate of the mothers and the difference lay in who they were being treated by. The first ward was run by physicians and on this ward 7% of the mothers would die of child bed fever. Whereas in the second ward the mothers were attended to by midwives and this ward only 2% of the mothers would die from the same disease despite having less training than the physicians.

Semmelweis noted that one of the main things that the physicians did that the midwives did not, was to perform autopsies on the women after they had died. Then they would return to deliver babies or examine mothers without washing their hands. Semmelweis wondered if the physicians could be carrying invisible matter between the patients and passing on the disease when they touched them. So he conducted a test, he asked the physicians on his ward to clean their hands in a chlorine solution and suddenly the mortality rate for mothers dropped to 1% - lower even than the midwives. This was the beginning of germ theory as we know it.

Edward Jenner and The Origin of Vaccines

Although a distant memory today, the smallpox virus was responsible for 400,000 deaths a year in Europe and no-one was safe from it - even royalty were not immune to the virus. No one that is, apart from milk maids and shepherdesses, who were renowned for their beauty because their skins were free from pox scars.

Enter rural doctor Edward Jenner, who had noticed that milk maids got small blisters on their hands caused by milking cows suffering from cow pocks. This made Jenner question whether there was a link between the two viruses and if in fact infection with cow pox somehow protected the milk maids from the much more deadly small pox. In order to test his theory, he took a small amount of cow pox and infected his gardener's eight year old son with the sample. Then two months later he gave the same boy a shot of small pox and his theory was proven as the boy did not become sick with the virus. Over 200 years later, thanks to his work the World Health Organisation declared small pox eradicated.