To meet the first doctor in recorded history, we must journey back over 4,000 years to the heart of Egypt. There, around 2600 B.C.E., in the service of King Djoser, the Egyptian Imhotep is believed to have authored a papyrus describing 90 anatomical terms and 48 injuries. So great were Imhotep's contributions that, after death, he was made a demigod and then a god.
We must then leap forward more than 2,000 years before history records another medical leader, this time the great Greek physician, Hippocrates. Hippocrates, born in Cos, Greece in 460 B.C.E., is considered the Father of Medicine. He based his practice on observations and on rational explanations of illness rather than superstition. Hippocrates ably described disease symptoms and the diseases of pneumonia and epilepsy, sharing his knowledge by founding a medical school in Cos. Today, graduating physicians still swear his Oath of Medical Ethics before embarking on health careers.
Soon after, the historical medical record begins to build. Diocles, a Greek medical pioneer living around 300 B.C.E., wrote the earliest known anatomy book including such diverse topics as physiology, embryology, and medical botany. In 65 C.E., Dioscorides wrote his five-volume Da Materia Medica describing almost 600 medical plants.
The early stages of medicine helped define body function and disease, including Persian physician Rhazes's 910 C.E. identification of smallpox. The first smallpox vaccine did not come until 800 years later with Giacoma Pylarini's discovery of it in 1701, although the first developed vaccine appeared in 1796 with the work of Edward Jenner. During the Renaissance, medical developments multiplied. Leonardo da Vinci secretly dissected corpses to gain a greater understanding of the human body, and Zaharius Jannsen invented the microscope, opening an entirely new world for inspection.
In 1628, William Harvey famously released An Anatomical Study of the Motion of the Heart and of the Blood in Animals. Harvey's groundbreaking research was followed 28 years later by Sir Christopher Wren's experiments with canine blood transfusions.
Beginning in 1670 and later, Anton van Leeuwenhoek made good on the promise of the microscope by discovering blood cells and making observations of bacteria. Despite these substantial advancements, many aspects of medical knowledge were still rudimentary. Significantly, in 1763, Claudius Aymand performed the first successful appendectomy, even though Sir Humphrey Davy didn't develop nitrous oxide anesthetic until 1800.
After 1800, major advances in medicine occurred at a more rapid pace. Rene Laennec invented the stethoscope in 1816 to allow auscultative examination of the heart, lungs, and bowels. Crawford Long developed ether anesthetic (1842) to more effectively control awareness and pain during surgical procedures.
Between 1850 and 1870, important advances in the understanding and control of germs occurred. First, in 1857 Louis Pasteur established that germs cause disease. Following Pasteur's work, Joseph Lister developed antiseptic surgery techniques. In 1870, scientists Koch and Pasteur established the germ theory of disease, creating a far greater understanding of the cause and treatment of disease.
Before the end of the nineteenth century, Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen discovered x-rays. More than 100 years later, his discovery is still researched and fine-tuned to maximize the diagnostic and therapeutic use of the process. Beginning in 1922, doctors began using insulin to treat diabetes, and shortly after, in 1928, Sir Alexander Fleming made the critically important medical discovery of penicillin.
But, all advances in medicine aren't medical in nature. In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to earn a medical degree when she graduated from the Geneva Medical College in New York, paving the way for other female professionals. Some advances, such as the birth of the first test-tube baby in 1978 or the 2006 development of the first vaccine to target a cause of cancer, turned medicine on its head.
Medical advances continue to develop at a rapid pace with fascinating medical stories unfolding all the time.
Last Updated: 05/21/2014