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Milestones in Medicine

A visit to the doctor often calls for routine procedures to prevent, diagnose, or treat an illness. The doctor might check our pulse, draw blood for analysis, give us a flu shot, prescribe an antibiotic, take an X-ray, or even perform minor surgery.

These treatments are familiar to us, but to a person living in Colonial America, or even a century ago, they would be cause for wonder. Like so much else, medicine has advanced more rapidly in the past two centuries than in all its prior history. Setting the stage was the hard, patient, and courageous work of those who, in prior centuries, labored to advance the healing arts.

Here are some of medicine's biggest milestones:


Willow bark is used to relieve pain. Willow bark contains salicylates that are related to aspirin.

700 B.C.E.

The Greek philosopher, Homer, writes of Apollo, the cause and reliever of plagues in The Iliad 

384 B.C.E.

Aristotle, noted philosopher and scientist, is born.

300s B.C.E.

The Romans build a sewage system. In addition, their aqueducts carry 300 million gallons of fresh water a day--contributing significantly to public health.

632-1200 C.E.

Islam flourishes and eventually conquers Egypt and much of the Middle East. Arab medical scholars copy Greek medical texts into Arabic. 

900 C.E.

Avicenna, renowned Arab physician, compiles a vast medical encyclopedia that will influence medical education in Europe for centuries to come.

1543 C.E.

The first scientific textbook on human anatomy is published by Andreas Vesalius, physician and professor of medicine at the University of Padua in Italy. Vesalius based his work on dissection of human cadavers.

1628 C.E.

William Harvey shows for the first time that the heart pumps blood through the arteries to all parts of the body, and that blood returns to the heart through the veins.

1600s C.E.

Antony Leeuwenhoek uses a microscope and discovers red blood cells, bacteria, and protozoa.

1796 C.E.

The smallpox vaccine is developed by Edward Jenner, initiating the science of immunology.

1800s C.E.

Florence Nightingale, through her work during the Crimean War, establishes the foundation of modern nursing.

Circa 1840 C.E.

Americans Crawford Long and William Morton independently discover that ether gas can be used as a general anesthetic, allowing doctors to perform operations never possible before.

1865 C.E.

Joseph Lister introduces antiseptic methods to surgery during a time when close to half of all surgical patients die of postoperative infection.

1898 C.E.

Pierre and Marie Curie discover radium, which becomes a powerful weapon against cancer.

1928 C.E.

Sir Alexander Fleming discovers the germ-killing power of a mold called penicillium, later isolated as penicillin, the first antibiotic.

1950s C.E.

Jonas Salk develops the first successful polio vaccine.

1954 C.E.

American surgeons transplant a kidney, the first successful organ transplant.

1970s C.E.

The World Health Organization announces worldwide eradication of smallpox.