Before you tune in to National Geographic’s next episode of Origins (Mondays at 9/8 CST) to see how medicine shaped the course of human history, get to know an assortment of under-sung or oft-forgotten scientists, whose discoveries and inventions played important roles in saving individual lives—and arguably, entire civilizations.
1. METRODORA, THE FIRST WOMAN TO WRITE A MEDICAL TEXT
Little is known about Metrodora, an ancient Greek physician who likely lived sometime between the third and fifth centuries CE—except that she’s credited for being the first-known woman to write a medical text. Called On the Diseases and Cures of Women, or On Women’s Diseases, it outlined various topics related to women’s health (including gynecology), and listed various herbal remedies. Other Greek and Roman physicians relied on Metrodora’s work, and it was also referenced in Medieval Europe.
2. JAMES BLUNDELL, THE FIRST MAN TO PERFORM A SUCCESSFUL HUMAN-TO-HUMAN BLOOD TRANSFUSION
In 1818, a British obstetrician named James Blundell performed the first successful human-to-human blood transfusion. One of his patients suffered from postpartum hemorrhage, so Blundell used a syringe to extract several ounces of blood from her husband’s arm, and transferred it to the suffering mother. Blundell would go on to perform more transfusions—half of them effective—between 1825 and 1830, and he also published his findings and developed medical equipment for the procedure.
3. THE MINNESOTA SURGEON WHO INVENTED A LIFE-SAVING SUCTION TUBE
In 1931, Owen Wangensteen, the chief of surgery at the University of Minnesota, invented a suction technique—using what became known as a “Wangensteen tube”—that would eventually save millions of lives. Back then, trauma to the stomach region often resulted in an intestinal blockage that led to eventual—yet nearly certain—death. The surgeon was able to prevent this by threading his tube through a patient’s nose, through the esophagus, and down into the stomach and intestines, where it sucked out gases and fluids. The invention eventually became commonplace, but the surgeon refused to patent his device, as he believed that everyone should benefit from its potential.
4. IBN SINA, THE PERSIAN SCHOLAR WHO PIONEERED THE CLINICAL TRIAL
An 11th-century Persian scholar named Ibn Sina (known in Europe as Avicenna) produced a famous, five-volume medical reference work called Kitab al-Qanun fi al-tibb (Canon of Medicine). The work’s second volume discusses the characteristics of basic drugs—and the second chapter, “On knowledge of the potency of drugs through experimentation,” provides scientific guidelines to follow while assessing their effects. Today, it’s considered to be the world’s earliest known treatise related to clinical trials.
5. NASA, THE SPACE AGENCY WHOSE TECHNOLOGY HELPED MAKE SCANS USEFUL
NASA didn’t invent Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) or CT scans, but the space agency did help pave the way for their use. During the mid-1960s, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory pioneered digital image processing, as part of their preparation for the Apollo moon landing program. This new technology allowed them to capture more detailed Moon pictures; later, it was applied to the medical field, so doctors could create, enhance, and evaluate images of the human body.
6. THE DOCTORS WHO MAY HAVE DISCOVERED A WAY TO RECYCLE DISCARDED ORGANS
Many people with type 1 diabetes need a new pancreas, but due to a variety of factors, they don’t end up receiving a transplant. One contributing reason is that around 25 percent of donated pancreata (the plural for pancreas) are evaluated, found to be defective, and tossed out. Another is that recipients must take a lifelong course of drugs to prevent their body from rejecting the organ; these medicines can cause pretty bad side effects. However, scientists from one large Southern university’s medical center announced in 2015 that they may have pioneered a way to recycle wasted pancreata and reduce the risk of rejection. By removing the organ’s cells—a process called decellularization—and inserting new cells from the patient into its framework, they may have taken the first steps towards transforming a foreign pancreas into one that’s tailored for someone else’s body.
7. THE DOCTOR WHO DISCOVERED THAT MENTAL ILLNESS HAS A HEREDITARY COMPONENT
Experts once believed that severe mental disorders like schizophrenia were caused by lifestyle factors like bad parenting. But in the 1960s, geneticists realized that the disease actually had a hereditary component. While conducting a study on British twins with schizophrenia, an American researcher noted that identical siblings (who share the same genes) were more likely than fraternal ones (who do not share the same genes) to share a diagnosis. This helped him realize that the condition is partially inherited—but since only half of the study’s identical twins were both afflicted, the physician realized that environmental factors also play a role. This finding helped transform experts’ understanding of the origin of mental illness.
8. JOSEPH LISTER, THE FATHER OF ANTISEPTIC SURGERY
Surgical patients once regularly died from post-operative infections, as nobody knew that germs were the culprit. This began to change in the 19th century, with a British-born physician named Joseph Lister. While working as a surgeon in Glasgow, Scotland, Lister dressed wounds with bandages soaked in carbolic acid; this method helped reduce infection rates. He also sterilized medical instruments, washed his hands, and sprayed carbolic acid in operating rooms. Lister’s approach caught on, and today, he’s considered to be “the father of modern surgery."
9. AL-RAZI, THE 9TH CENTURY PHYSICIAN WHO DESCRIBED—AND IDENTIFIED—SMALLPOX AND MEASLES
The first physician to ever describe—and differentiate—the symptoms of smallpox and measles was a ninth-century man named Muhammad Ibn Zakariyya al-Razi, more commonly known as al-Razi. His 14-chapter book Kitab al-Jadari wa 'l-Hasba (The Book on Smallpox and Measles) outlines the symptoms and causes of the two diseases, why certain people are prone to them, the period during which they are the most common, and how to treat them.