As I sit through various lectures week after week, I hear about medical discoveries that are odd or boring, but often they are amazing. The last two centuries have seen some seriously amazing advances in medicine. Without them, most of us would be looking forward to reaching the ripe old age of 40. This is especially true for women, as maternal mortality was a terrifying killer, and often still is in the developing world. There are some medical discoveries I love more than others, and you may find yourself feeling a little surprised when you read about one or two of them!
Life pre-penicillin was quite a chore. Men at war would lose limbs, only to find that infections were creeping up on them anyway. Us ladies would encounter diseases like syphilis en-masse, despite remaining positively chaste. When penicillin came along in 1942, it was applied to a whole host of pathogenic sins! Long gone were the days of tragically uncontrollable infections. Since then, we have abused penicillin and other antibiotics a little. This leads me onto one of the strangest medical discoveries…
2. Maggot Therapy!
Yep, that’s right, I am not losing the plot nor am I pretending to be a citizen of Ancient Egypt. Pre-penicillin, maggot therapy was starting to make quite the comeback. It turns out these seemingly vile little creatures have actually evolved to weather pathogens better than most other creatures on earth. Now, here’s the part squeamish types may not like: it’s been well proven that they debride and clear up the nastiest of wounds—even those infected with MRSA! A team of scientists at my college have since discovered that maggots can secrete a substance that defies tough bacteria AND fungus. If anybody is intrigued, hop over to Google Scholar or Pubmed and look up some amazing cases.
3. The Stethoscope
I kid you not, I once faced writing an entire essay on the symbolism of the discovery of the stethoscope. In the end I chose the plague, which was a bit more fun. Anyway, the stethoscope has opened the medical world up to a whole host of diagnostic wonders. From cardiology through to obstetrics, medical professionals can now get an instant—sometimes rudimentary—insight into what is going on inside someone’s body. The fetal stethoscope still plays a big role in saving women in the developing world today!
4. McRoberts' Position
Now’s the time for me to get into my pet topic: maternal health. When governments and scientists worldwide realised that maternal and perinatal mortality wasn’t just ‘one of them things,’ medical discoveries flew out of the obstetric woodworks left, right, and center. Cue Dr. McRoberts, who developed the position that is used to tackle shoulder dystocia today. Depending on the studies you read or the skill of the professional performing this manoeuvre, it has a success rate of 48-60%.
5. Malaria Prophylaxis
And another one of my favorite topics: tropical health! Malaria has been a big killer for centuries. Sadly, it takes many lives today. Malaria prophylaxis significantly reduces the risk of individuals in certain countries of developing malaria. Now for the really frustrating bit: most of it is too expensive for those who really need it to get their hands on it. Recently there has been big talk from Glaxso Smith Kline about a vaccine. I really hope I can see the vision of successful malaria vaccination programs become a reality in my lifetime!
Okay, I can already feel people thinking ‘What, anatomy isn’t a discovery?’ Well, somewhere between Ancient Greece and Renaissance France, we decided to take a hiatus from logical anatomy. Someone, somewhere, felt that dissection for anatomical purposes would prevent us from entering heaven. For a while, human anatomy was based on that of pigs. Yep, pigs. Fortunately, logic once again fell on the medical community and our eyes were opened to the ACTUAL anatomy of humans. Trust me, it helps.
7. Germ Theory
Until Louis Pasteur came along, we were all in the dark when it came to germ theory. At some points we got pretty close. Take the plague, for example: a lot of physicians put it down to miasmas, aka bad smells, and decided to keep their faces covered. In reality, that isn't too different to the approach taken to preventing the spread of TB today! Inspired by three of his children dying from typhoid disease, Pasteur went to investigate nature’s most terrifying creatures: microbes. So many of our big and small medical discoveries have risen from his work!
The great thing about medical discoveries is they are ongoing! Not-so-surprisingly, some of the old-age cures we have since dismissed as having no place in medicine are gathering strength once again. Hopefully we can one day keep up with the pace of medicine’s ongoing challenges. If you are astounded by a medical discovery, what is it and why?