Medical Technology: A Brief History of Progress

posted by Chris Valentine

Over the past 200 years or more, the way in which technology is used to diagnose and treat conditions has advanced beyond all recognition. From the earliest plant based medicinal tinctures and solutions, through to state of the art imaging, X-rays and synthetic medications, more and more conditions are now completely treatable, with many others having been irradiated completely from modern day society.

The journey from those earliest remedies through to cutting edge medical technology has been exciting to say the least. With every decade presenting new and potentially life saving interventions, our ability to understand and alter the mechanisms of diseases and conditions has advanced rapidly.

These days, technology positively influences the options available for many conditions deemed previously untreatable. From helping individuals with spinal cord injuries regain mobility, thanks to the impressive device mentioned on the Epidural Stimulation Now website, to the recent development of an ‘artificial pancreas’ to help those with diabetes, as mentioned later on in this post, the possibilities that arise from continuous technological development are seemingly endless.

Here are just five of the greatest medical technology breakthroughs to have been recorded during the last few hundred years:

1816 – The Invention of the stethoscope

The stethoscope is arguably one the most important pieces of medical equipment to have been invented in the last two hundred years. Frenchman René Laennec invented the stethoscope and started the practice of ‘auscultation’ (listening to the patient’s chest). The earliest models looked a lot like old-fashioned ear trumpets and simply consisted of a wooden tube with a microphone at one end. By being able to amplify the sounds heard in the chest cavity, doctors could listen to the heart and the lungs to identify any potential conditions. Over 30 years later, a British doctor called Golding Bird adapted a flexible tube to replace the wooden trumpet, and ten years later Irish physician Arthur Leared invented earpieces that were able to fit into both ears. His final prototype became the makings of the stethoscope we know so well today.

1895 – First documented use of x-rays in medical imaging

X-ray image showing a broken arm

X-rays were discovered in 1895 by Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen, a Professor at Wuerzburg University in Germany. Whilst working with a cathode-ray tube in his lab, he noticed that an unusual type of ray was being emitted from the tube that was capable of passing through heavy paper. One of his earliest experiments on the human form was taking a film of his wife Bertha’s hand. The idea that an invisible ray could pass through solid matter, and be reflected on to a photographic plate took both the worlds of science and medicine by storm. Just 6 months after Roentgen had published his initial findings, X-rays were being used by battlefield physicians to find bullets located in wounded soldiers.

1956 – Ultrasound first used on pregnant women

Obstetrician Ian Donald and engineer Tom Brown developed the earliest form of diagnostic ultrasound with technology used to detect industrial flaws in ships. Doctor Donald first used the procedure to encourage pregnant woman not abort a foetus, in line with his devout Christian values. From 1956 onwards, doctors embraced the sonographic technology to observe foetal development from outside the womb. Although some ladies were lucky enough to enjoy a sneak peek at their baby during the mid-century, the procedure didn’t become commonplace until the 1970’s.

1973 – Invention of first whole-body CAT scan

A more modern example of a CT scan

CAT scans, or CT scans, were first invented by British engineer Godfrey Hounsfield at the EMI Laboratories in England, and South Africa physicist Allan Cormack of Tufts University, Massachusetts. Using computerised tomography, the scanner was able to send multiple x-ray beams through the body at different angles, and was first used to diagnose a brain tumour on a 41-year-old female patient. By successfully combining an X-ray machine and a computer, medical specialists turned their attention to creating a machine big enough to capture images of virtually any part of the body. Both Hounsfield and Cormack were later awarded the Nobel Peace Price for the contributions to medicine and science.

2016 – Invention of first artificial pancreas

In 2016, the FDA approved the MiniMed 670G, a device designed to mimic the function of a healthy pancreas. This “artificial pancreas” is able to dramatically enhance the health and quality of life of adults with type 1 diabetes. Using an innovative “hybrid closed loop’ system, the MiniMed 670G combines the glucose monitor and the insulin pump in one device, significantly altering the way in which diabetes patients need to self administer insulin, therefore changing their lives for the better.

Looking forward into the unknown

Medical science and technology are able to offer life-saving diagnostic and treatment procedures for millions of patients worldwide. Whilst the profession has made huge advances over the past century or two, there is still much to be learnt about the body and how it fights specific types of disease and injury. With so much time and money being ploughed into medical science, it may be possible to see cures for cancer and other long-awaited resolutions become commonplace within our lifetime.

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