Inventions That Changed Medicine

Inventions That Changed Medicine | HealthSoul

Medicine is a field of constant innovation. We’re constantly looking for ways to improve treatment, to get the patients the help they need faster, more efficiently and with greater impact. It’s not just about speed, either, as scientists and doctors work tirelessly to find ways to diminish risk to the patients and to rule out any possible areas of uncertainty and doubt. While inventions and innovations come thick and fast, through the course of history there have been several key huge leaps forward that have changed everything, made the next steps possible, and made life, and quality of life, immeasurably better. Here are just a few.

The Stethoscope

It seems hard to imagine that a tool as simple as the stethoscope would have been invented as recently as 1816, but it took a French doctor named Rene Laënnec to take that step. Before his invention, doctors understood the importance of listening to a patient’s heartbeat, but they relied on placing their ear on the subject’s chest themselves, which understandably left a lot of scope for missing important sounds.

When Laënnec rolled up a sheet of paper to listen to a patient’s heartbeat he noticed a marked improvement in what he could hear, and crafted a simple wooden tube. He published a huge book on the subject in 1819, and while the design may have changed over the decades, the principle remains the same.


It’s one of the best-known stories in medicine, how Alexander Fleming left his laboratory in such a state that he discovered that a fungus had overrun one of the staph cultures he was using in his research on Staphylococcus and had killed the bacteria. He called it penicillin after deciding that his original choice, ‘mold juice’, wasn’t quite right, and quickly discovered that it had the same effect on many of the bacteria which caused several of the most severed illnesses of the time. 10 years after he gave up on his research, Howard Florey and Ernst Chain found a way to mass produce penicillin, and all three men won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1945 for their world-altering work.

The Pacemaker

The development of the pacemaker was a long and difficult process, starting with Mark C. Lidwell and Edgar H. Booth, who designed pacemaker that had to be plugged into a power source which revived a stillborn child in 1928. Four years later, Albert Hyman and his brother Charles created a device that needed a hand-cranked motor to function, and Albert coined the term “artificial pacemaker.” It was John Hopps who created the first external pacemaker in 1950, with Wilfred Gordon Bigelow and John Callaghan, which was powered from a wall socket and tested on a dog.

Improvements in power sources followed, and experiments in implantable pacemakers began in the late 1950s. The big stride forward would come by accident, as engineer Dr. Wilson Greatbatch discovered that an addition to his attempt to create a heart rhythm recorder actually created electronic pulses. In 1960, the first Greatbatch design was implanted in a human patient and the basis for what was to come had been set.

Health Care Goes Portable

Throughout history there has always been a drive to find a way to make healthcare treatment options more portable, as evidenced by the necessarily clumsy early pacemaker designs. Throughout the 1960s we can see more and more formerly hospital-bound equipment hit the road, perhaps most noticeably in 1965 when the Irish doctor Frank Pantridge invented the very first portable defibrillator.

The device used car batteries for power and weighed around 70 kilos, compared to the 3 kilo machines used today. It was first used in January 1966 and was quickly adopted in America, but dismissed in the UK where it took another 24 years before all front-line ambulances carried one. Thanks to this kind of trailblazing work, portable electrical medical equipment became increasingly common and less and less clunky. For example, portable dental units allow dentists to carry out surgery on home visits, in an ambulance or even at sports games.

Organ Transplants

At the turn of the 20th century the first steps towards organ transplants were being carried out, although animals were the subjects, as Alexis Carrel carried out a kidney transplant on a dog. The first attempt at a kidney transplant on human patient took place in 1933 in the Soviet Union, when Ukrainian surgeon U.U. Voronoy attempted the procedure with donor material just six hours old. However, the patient died two days after the transplant, and it wouldn’t be until 1954 when a team at the Brigham hospital in Boston conducted the first successful kidney transplant from one twin brother to another. Following the success of the kidney transplant, surgeons around the world tried and failed with other organs, with the first successful liver transplant taking place in 1967.