There’s little doubt that the field of medicine has changed a lot since prehistoric times. With the discovery of ancient drawings and archaeological remains, we know that disease existed (of course!) and was treated: unearthed bones confirm previous intentional repair and cave paintings highlight medicinal ministering. But when compared to today’s modern medical advances, the ancient evidence we now have, while impressive considering the resources of the time, still indicates a primitive understanding of the human body. Today, we graft missing limbs and cure cancer, after all! Over time we have compounded our medical knowledge, assessing, diagnosing and treating illnesses in more creative and more advanced ways. Here are three of the most important medical advancements since ancient times:
We know that ancient cultures most assuredly had pain (as evidenced by healed fractures in prehistoric skeletal remains), but we don’t know how they treated it until history began to be recorded. Writings from 6,000 years ago indicate that willow bark was probably one of the first pain relievers, chewed to alleviate fever and inflammation. Thousands of years later (in the 1700s and 1800s), researchers figured out that the salicin in willow bark could be made into acetylsalicylic acid, the active ingredient of the modern analgesic drug aspirin. Aspirin and other contemporary anesthetics have paved the way for additional ways to manage pain including the use of general anesthesia for surgical treatment, undoubtedly one the most significant advancements for the treatment of all diseases.
Vaccines and Antibiotics
In the progression of disease, infection is often the first step: a germ enters the body and begins to change its cellular makeup. Thus, when we think about medicine, we often think about germs and infections. In the past, humans could do little to fight infections except to wait them out or and/or to treat their resulting symptoms. Bacterial infections such as the Plague, cholera and tuberculosis, along with viral infections such as smallpox, polio and HIV, killed millions of people because there was no way to actively rid the body of the offending pathogen other than allowing it to try to beat the deadly invader on its own. It wasn’t until the widespread use of vaccines (from the first use of inoculations for smallpox in the 1700s) and antibiotics (from the discovery of penicillin in 1928) that humans were offered any active treatment for the prevention or cure of an acquired infection. With their continued use, humans now have better ways to avoid, manage and treat infectious disease, even eliminating smallpox and severely limiting the spread of more (like polio, malaria, measles and mumps).
Discovery of Stem Cells
Another significant medical advancement came with the discovery of stem cells in the mid 20th century. Not only has the identification of stem cells and their regenerative properties led to advancements in transplant medicine, it has expanded the scientific understanding of life itself. With knowledge of how stem cells differentiate and multiply within the body, we can now repair and/or replace diseased, decaying and damaged cells, curing blood cancers, growing body parts and testing new drugs along the way. We can even offer alternative treatments for more common problems; today, doctors make use of stem cell injections for back pain, erectile dysfunction and other soft tissue repair.
These are just three important medical advancements. Can you think of more?