15 medical inventions of the 1800's that defined modern medicine

It goes without saying that modern medicine would look very different if it hadn't been for these 15 medical inventions and discoveries of the 1800s.
Christopher McFadden
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  • The 1800s were a groundbreaking period for medical inventions and the development of modern medicine in general.
  • Many commonly used medical devices can trace their origins to this century.
  • But which ones came to define modern medicine?

Modern medicine can trace some of its foundational principles to the 19th Century, such as Germ Theory and sterilization. The 1800s also saw the invention of some of the key diagnostic tools commonly used by doctors today - the stethoscope is a prime example.

Other highly significant advances would be made in pharmaceuticals during this time and with the introduction of the first vaccinations. All of which would save and dramatically improve millions of lives after that.

The world looked very different before the 1800s and would never be the same again. These 15 medical inventions and discoveries of the 1800s are a few significant advances made throughout this period. This list is in no particular order and is far from exhaustive.

1. Rene Laennec's stethoscope changed medical examinations forever

Not many people are aware of the first entry on our list of medical inventions of the 1800s.

René Leanne's groundbreaking stethoscope has helped save countless lives since its invention in 1816. Before its invention, physicians performed physical examinations by listening with the human ear alone.

This was far from ideal, as internal sounds were not amplified, often muffled, and the technique relied on the physician's hearing and ear placement. It was also awkward for the physician and patient and far from reliable.

The stethoscope addressed all these problems in one go and changed how the patient diagnosis was performed forever. Today, the basic principle of this medical device has changed very little. It also remains one of the most critical tools a doctor has to hand.

15 medical inventions of the 1800's that defined modern medicine
The stethoscope was revolutionary.

2. Quinine helped turn the tide on malaria

The use of quinquina tree bark to treat 'fevers' had been known in South America for some time before its introduction to Europe by the Spanish in the 17th Century.

At this time, an elixir was produced from the tree bark by drying it before grinding it to a fine powder and mixing it with a liquid (usually wine). Although this was known to protect against malaria, no one knew exactly why this was the case.

In 1820, the bark's active ingredient was finally reliably isolated by Pierre Joseph Pelletier and Joseph Bienaimé Caventou. It could now be synthesized on a large scale.

Isolated quinine would now completely replace bark preparations as the standard treatment for malaria. It would also be part of one of the world's first clinical trials between 1866 and 1868. Quinine would remain the standard treatment for malaria until the 1920s, when synthetic alternatives replaced it. The World Health Organisation still recognizes quinine as one of the world's essential medical inventions.

15 medical inventions of the 1800's that defined modern medicine
Quinine has saved millions of lives.

3. Aspirin is still the world's most-used medicine

French chemist Charles Henri Leroux first isolated the 'miracle' drug Salicylic Acid (proto-aspirin) in 1829. An Italian, Raffaele Piria, later improved on this process in 1838. Charles Frederic Gerhardt later buffered Salicylic Acid with an extra acetyl group to create true aspirin in 1853. This Acetylsalicylic Acid, true aspirin, was born and then forgotten.

Its more recognizable tablet form was the brainchild of a German chemist, Felix Hoffmann. After rediscovering Gerhardt's findings, he realized it would solve many problems associated with earlier preparations. Before this, patients administered salicylic acid suffered from severe nausea and vomiting. He later patented it. The Bayer Company bought the patent, which immediately realized its potential and began mass production in the late 19th Century. The rest is history.

Interestingly, salicylate derivatives from the bark of several trees (including the willow) have been known to provide pain relief for almost 4,000 years since the times of the Sumerians. Ancient records also indicate that the Mesopotamians, Chinese, and Ancient Greeks observed this.

Estimates today, by the Internation Aspirin Foundation, that no less than 35,000 metric tonnes are produced and consumed each year. The WHO also recognizes it as one of the world's essential medicines and medical inventions.

15 medical inventions of the 1800's that defined modern medicine
Aspirin is widely used today.

4. World's first blood transfusion has since saved countless lives

In 1818, British obstetrician James Blundell performed the first successful human blood transfusion. Before this, other transfusions had taken place, notably by Jean-Baptiste Denis in 1667, but were between animals or between animals and humans.

James' experiment involved transferring blood between a patient who had, unfortunately, hemorrhaged during childbirth. It would take until 1901 for the procedure to become safe and reliable when Karl Landsteiner, an Austrian physician, identified the human blood groups. This would make transfusions considerably safer and drastically improve the survivability of patients from the procedure.

After some later developments throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the procedure was perfected during the Second World War.

15 medical inventions of the 1800's that defined modern medicine
Safe blood transfers are still very important today.

5. First use of nitric oxide as an anesthetic

NO2, or Nitrous Oxide, was first discovered in 1772 by Joseph Priestly. Its 'recreational applications' were first identified by Sir Humphrey Davy at the turn of the 19th Century in his monumental text on the history, chemistry, physiology, and recreational use of nitrous oxide.

Toward the end of his book, Davy made the following observation: "As nitrous oxide appears capable of destroying physical pain, it may probably be used with advantage during surgical operations in which no great effusion of blood takes place."

It would be another 40 years until an American dentist, Horace Wells, first demonstrated its usefulness as an anesthetic in 1844. It wouldn't become 'mainstream' until the 1870s and was a commonly used general anesthetic until the 1960s.

From the 1930s onwards, it would find its place as the main pain-relieving go-to during childbirth - much to the relief (literally) of many a mother-to-be. Of course, it has recently been used as a fuel booster for "souped-up" vehicles. 

6. Antiseptic theory has saved countless lives since 1867

Another crucial medical invention of the 1800s was the birth of the concept of antiseptic.

In 1867, Joseph Lister published his "Antiseptic Principle of the Practice of Surgery." This was one of the pivotal moments in medical science that would ultimately lead to cleaner operating theatres and higher survival rates of patients.

He was convinced, correctly as it turned out, that cleanliness during surgery was vitally important to the efficacy of the procedure and subsequent recovery of the patient. This was revolutionary thinking at the time.

Lister successfully developed many antiseptic surgical methods, especially using carbolic acid to clean wounds and instruments. He published his results in The Lancet in six articles from March to July 1867.

The effectiveness of his techniques was immediately recognized by his peers and widely adopted soon after. Remarkably one particular hospital noted a decrease in death rates from infectious disease from 60% to a paltry 4% after following his procedures.

15 medical inventions of the 1800's that defined modern medicine
Nitrous oxide was another important medical invention.

7. Cholera vaccines are a world-essential medicine

The first vaccines for cholera were developed in the later 19th Century and became the first widely used vaccine ever made in a laboratory. Early pioneers, like Jaume Ferran I Clua (A Catalan physician), developed an early version in 1884.

He had isolated this live vaccine from cholera sufferers in Marseilles. He used it to treat over 50,000 people in Valencia during an epidemic. Later Waldemar Haffkine developed another cholera vaccine with milder side effects and tested it in Calcutta between 1893 and 1896.

Willhelm Kolle was the first to develop a heat-killed cholera vaccine in 1896. Kolle's vaccine was much easier to prepare, and he successfully used it on a large scale in Japan in 1902.

Cholera vaccines have since become vitally important to world health, so much so, that the WHO recognize it on their list of Essential Medicines. 

15 medical inventions of the 1800's that defined modern medicine
Cholera is still a big killer today.

8. X-Rays were first used to find bullets in wounded soldiers

In 1895, Wilhelm Rontgen became the first to study and name X-Rays systematically. He was not, however, the first to observe their effects. 

At the time, Willhelm was a Professor at Wuerzburg University in Germany working with a cathode-ray tube in his laboratory. He noticed that when the tube was shielded with heavy black paper, a green-colored fluorescent light was generated by barium platinocyanide crystals on a nearby table.

He concluded that some new form of ray was being emitted by the tube. This ray could pass through the paper and excite the phosphorescent material nearby. Wilhelm began to study the effect systematically and noticed that the new ray could pass through many other substances but would leave a "shadow" for anything solid, like bones.

His discoveries were groundbreaking and would spark intense further study and interest from the scientific community. Just under six months after his seminal work, X-Rays were being used by battlefield surgeons to locate and remove bullets from wounded soldiers. Today X-rays are vital to any doctor's arsenal of diagnostic techniques.

15 medical inventions of the 1800's that defined modern medicine
X-rays are still a critical diagnostic tool.

9. The Smallpox Vaccine Was a World's First

Smallpox had ravaged human civilization for millennia before developing an effective vaccine. Thanks to the groundbreaking work of one Edward Jenner in the closing years of the 18th Century, it is no longer an issue today.

Jenner famously demonstrated the effectiveness of cowpox in immunizing humans from the much more severe smallpox virus. This treatment was later exported to the New World in 1800 by Dr. John Clinch - a friend of Jenner. 

Soon after this, it was used in Spanish and British Colonies worldwide. Vaccination programs soon began to be established, with the U.S. Congress passing the Vaccine Act of 1813. By 1900, smallpox was eradicated from Northern Europe, with mass vaccination programs continuing well into the 1970s. Smallpox is widely considered to have been eradicated in most corners of the globe.

Jenner has since become a legend of medical science, and his work paved the way for practically eradicating smallpox from the world. He is widely credited as the "father of immunology."

15 medical inventions of the 1800's that defined modern medicine
Smallpox is much less of a problem today,

10. Germ theory changed everything

The great Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch identified 'germs' as the cause of many diseases worldwide. They were able to develop their groundbreaking theory, partly thanks to the significant advancements in microscope technology.

Despite the findings, convincing his peers about his theory took him long. At the time, the prevalent theory for the disease was the "bad air" theory. Pasteur started as a chemist focusing on the study of crystals. After becoming the Head of the Science Faculty at Lille, he was pestered by the local wind industry to research fermentation. 

His studies would lead him to discover that fermentation was caused by living microscopic organisms. From here, he developed his famous pasteurization process and noted that sterilization was imperative to stop the spread of disease.

He also insisted that 'germs' could be spread by human contact and transmitted using medical instruments. He also advanced the study of another field of medicine, virology. Modern medicine would be very different if it weren't for the work of Louis Pasteur.

15 medical inventions of the 1800's that defined modern medicine
Germ theory was a game-changer.

11. Leukemia was first described as a blood disorder in 1845

John Hughes Bennet was an English physician and pathologist who first described leukemia as a blood disorder in 1845. Despite this, Leukemia was first described as a disease (though the source was not identified) by Alfred Velpeau in 1827.

John was also the first doctor to describe the pathogenic fungus Aspergillus in 1842.

Apart from Bennet and Velpeau, other 19th Century European physicians noted that some of their very ill patients had abnormally high levels of "white blood." Leukemia is derived from the Greek "Leukos" and "Heima" meaning "white blood".

Later work by Franz Neumann would link the disorder with other issues related to patient's bone marrow. By 1900, leukemia was considered a family of conditions rather than a single disease. In 2015, an estimated 2.3 million people suffered from the disease, claiming just over 350,000 lives. Till today, it is the most common form of cancer in children.

15 medical inventions of the 1800's that defined modern medicine
Leukemia still kills millions today.

12. The hearing aid would change the lives for the hard of hearing

The first 'hearing aids' were created in the 17th Century. These consisted of basic ear trumpets that directed sounds in front of the ear while blocking other noises. 

What we would consider today as hearing aids can trace their origins to the works of one Miller Reese Hutchinson in 1895. Miller was an American electrical engineer and inventor born in Montrose, Alabama, in 1876. He would later die in New York in 1944.

He successfully created the world's first electric hearing aid, the akouphone. This device used a carbon transmitter to convert and amplify weak audio signals into stronger ones using electrical signals.

His interest in developing his 'hearing aid' was inspired by his deaf childhood friend, Lyman Gould. He would later form the Akouphone Company in Alabama to market the device, but the original bulky tabletop form was impractical.

He would spend the next few years refining it, adding batteries, and repackaging the device as the Acousticon. Hutchinson would find some mild success with the machine but ultimately sold the rights to Kelly Monroe Turner in 1905, who developed it further. Modern hearing aids wouldn't become practical until the rise of the computer in the 20th Century.

15 medical inventions of the 1800's that defined modern medicine
Hearing aids are another great medical invention.

13. The mosquito is found to blame for malaria

Ronald Ross was a British medical doctor who served with the Indian Medical Service in the 1890s. He managed to demonstrate that mosquitoes transmitted the malaria parasite. 

The parasites were identified a little earlier by a French army surgeon Charles Louis Alphonse Laveran. He noted the presence of the parasite in blood samples from malaria patients in 1880.

Ronald managed to identify the malarial parasite in the gastrointestinal tract of a mosquito in 1897. This proved that mosquitoes transmitted malaria and laid the foundation for combating the disease. 

He would later identify the transmission method for malaria as well by noting that the parasite could be transmitted to mosquitoes from infected patients. He also noted that mosquitoes could also transmit malaria between birds. His discoveries won him the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1902.

15 medical inventions of the 1800's that defined modern medicine
It took until the 1800s to discover the connection between malaria and mosquitoes.

14. The first open heart surgery paved the way for the future

Throughout the 19th Century, various surgeons successfully operated on the heart and pericardium. Francisco Romero in 1801, Dominique Jean Larrey in 1810, Henry Dalton in 1891, and Daniel Hale Williams in 1893 all successfully operated on the sac surrounding the heart - the pericardium.

The first true surgery on the heart itself was performed by Axel Cappelen in 1895 when he performed the surgery in Rikshospitalet in Kristiania, now Oslo.

Cappalen's operation was to staunch the bleeding to the coronary artery of a 24-year-old man stabbed. Although the operation seemed successful and the young man awoke, he died three days later from mediastinitis (an acute chest inflammation).

The following year in 1896, saw Dr. Ludwig Rehn of Frankfurt, Germany's first successful heart surgery (with no complications). He successfully repaired a stab wound to the right ventricle on 7 September 1896. This catalog of work throughout the 19th century would ultimately pave the way for modern open heart and other invasive surgery. This was once thought an impossible operation but is now, more or less, routine.

15. The ophthalmoscope was revolutionary

The ophthalmoscope was first devised by Charles Babbage in 1847 and later rediscovered and popularised by Hermann von Helmholtz independently in 1851. 

The basic principle is to direct light into the eye using a small mirror or prism. This light is reflected off the retina and into the device via a small hole. 

15 medical inventions of the 1800's that defined modern medicine
This was another important medical invention.

This lets the clinician view a magnified image of the internal structure of the patient's eye.

In the mid-1850 Greek ophthalmologist, Andreas Anagnostakis realized the device could be improved by adding a concave mirror to make it handheld. He had Austin Barnett create a model of his medical invention, which he used in his practice before presenting it to his peers.

Andreas later presented it at the Ophthalmological Conference in Brussels in 1857, and the instrument became an instant success among ophthalmologists. Further refinements were made in 1915 by Francis A. Welch and William Noah Allyn invented the handheld direct illuminating ophthalmoscope. This was the immediate precursor to modern devices used around the world. Today, it is one of the world's most widely used medical screening devices.

And that is your lot for today.

The 19th century was a transformative period for medical inventions and discoveries. From the development of the stethoscope and anesthesia to the discovery of microbes and germ theory, the medical community made significant strides toward understanding and treating illnesses.

These innovations paved the way for modern medicine and continue to shape the healthcare landscape today. Looking back on the 1800s, we can appreciate the dedication and perseverance of those who paved the way for a healthier world.

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