3.1 Discoveries that changed the world of health
Some of the discoveries that are critical to our health are taken for granted today. One such development is the thermometer, originally based on the principle that a liquid’s density changes with its temperature (Noyes, 1936). Although the mercury thermometer is currently being phased out in favour of digital thermometers due to mercury’s toxicity, its use has been critical to detecting fevers which need treatment.
Another important innovation is X-ray technology. Without this, it would be extremely difficult to make a correct diagnosis for some medical conditions. Discovered by Wilhelm Röntgen, a German physicist, who was studying electric currents passing through gas at low pressure, he observed that in a darkened room, the ray tube covered with barium platinocyanide created a fluorescent effect. Despite winning a Nobel Prize for his innovation, he was mocked by an American journalist for trying to photograph something that was deemed invisible (Kaye, 1934).
The discovery of X-rays led to the search to access even more areas of the body which, in turn, led to the invention of the CT scanner by Dr Godfrey Hounsfield and Allan Macleod Cormack. Both Hounsfield and Cormack were unaware of each other’s work, so they both received a Nobel Prize in 1979 for an invention they had discovered independently of one another.
The CT scanner was able to reveal multiple layers within multiple X-ray images. This technology later enabled Dr Raymond Damadian to be able to determine the difference between cancerous and normal cells using nuclear magnetic resonance, a method known as an MRI (Dawson, 2013).
These are just some of the innovations that have helped to transform millions of lives. The next activity gives you an opportunity to find and explore other great discoveries that have pioneered and transformed the health of many people.
Activity 2 Discovering innovations
Search the internet for four innovations that have transformed healthcare and the way that healthcare is delivered. Make notes about what you found and write your findings in the box below. Write down who discovered it, what the innovation was, and how it has been used.
Here are some suggestions.
- Stethoscope: The French physician René Laennec invented the stethoscope. The earliest version was made of wood and shaped like a trumpet tube to amplify sound. He found that doctors would listen to a patient’s heartbeat by placing their ear on the chest of the patient. The problem was, however, that if there was considerable insulation between the heart and the chest (e.g. fat) then this way of determining a patient’s heartbeat was ineffective. The idea of using an instrument to amplify sound remains in use today.
- Cardiac defibrillator: Invented by Claude Beck, who first used the device to defibrillate a boy’s heart during surgery in 1947, defibrillators save millions of lives each year. It works by sending a high energy shock to the heart to enable it to return to a normal rhythm. It is especially useful for someone who is experiencing cardiac arrest.
- The hypodermic needle: The hypodermic needle is a significant innovation enabling blood and poisons to be removed and insulin and anaesthesia to be inserted. While the Romans and Greeks used needles, the practice wasn’t always safe. It wasn’t until a nineteenth-century surgeon, Alexander Wood, combined the syringe with a needle to inject morphine to a patient that it became much safer to use. Now needles are much stronger, thinner, more sterile and even come pre-filled to enable people to self-inject, for example, to treat diabetes. This makes it much more efficient for health professionals and patients.
- Artificial pacemaker: Two Australian scientists, Mark C. Lidwill and Edgar H. Booth, developed the cardiac pacemaker in 1926. The original device was portable and consisted of two poles, one of which was connected to a salt solution-soaked skin pad, while the other pole was attached to a needle that was inserted into a patient’s heart chamber. With this device, they were able to revive a stillborn baby. Contemporary designs are now more sophisticated, enabling a patient to use one for up to 20 years.
Now that you have identified other important breakthroughs that have transformed health care, the focus of the next section is on innovations specific to the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK.