When did modern medicine start? The 1950s would be a good guess. But the 1840s is a better answer. That’s when radical students in France, Germany, and other countries revolted against a medical establishment that attributed diseases to causes such as miasma, an imbalance of humors, and bad weather.
In France, Claude Bernard demanded that physicians and medical professors spend less time pontificating and more time gathering and analyzing facts. In Germany, Hermann Helmholtz led a group of students determined to rid medicine of metaphysics. Finally, the stage was set for real progress based on empirical evidence.
What happened next was one of the most notorious episodes in the history of medicine.
When Ignaz Semmelweis arrived at Vienna General Hospital in 1846, the maternity wards were plagued by outbreaks of deadly childbed fever. Semmelweis was convinced that no one knew the real cause, and he was determined to discover it. He studied the statistics and investigated the facts. The evidence suggested the disease was infectious. Semmelweis ordered that medical attendants entering the first ward wash their hands in a bowl of chlorinated water placed by the entrance. The incidence of childbed fever fell dramatically.
Semmelweis’ finding suggested that physicians had been carrying the deadly disease from patient to patient all along. Naturally, there was tremendous resistance to that conclusion within the medical profession. Semmelweis discovered the truth but, thanks to his stubbornness and poor social skills, had little success in persuading others. He died a broken man.
Fortunately, Louis Pasteur possessed the skills that Semmelweis lacked. As the foremost proponent of the germ theory of disease, Pasteur organized dramatic public demonstrations. While Semmelweis didn’t even bother looking through a microscope, Pasteur employed a variety of tools, and even taught breweries how to use the microscope for quality control.
Pasteur famously said “Chance favors the prepared mind.” Helmholtz had a similar outlook. They both understood that the mind was best prepared through hard work and use of the latest technology. Pasteur applied existing tools in new ways. Helmholtz developed new tools—often Rube Goldberg-like contraptions made out of materials only a notch above bubble gum and chicken wire.
Robert Koch took the technology to the next level. He invented photomicrography; discovered the best materials for culturing and staining microorganisms; and developed tools for sterilizing lab equipment. By the late 1800s, Pasteur, Koch, and others were preventing and even curing once dreaded diseases.
The pioneers of modern medicine were the technology power users of the 19th century.
Next time: The Fantastic Voyage (endoscopes, x-ray, and computed tomography)
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