History of Medical Careers

Modern medicine did not always revolve around the latest and greatest blockbuster prescription medicines and esoteric subspecialties. Many years ago, there were no X-rays, computed tomography (CT) scans, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Medical careers have roots beginning in prehistoric times and span many centuries, culminating in modern medicine.

Prehistoric medicine men were referred to as shamans. They were considered to have special powers that enabled them to prevent as well as cure illness. They often used magic, prayers, charms, and spells to heal the sick and injured. Through archaeological findings, we know that the most primitive type of brain surgery, called trephination, began during prehistoric times. Trephination entailed boring holes into the skull to release demon spirits suspected of causing illness. A few modern medicines, such as digitalis and quinine, have documented uses during these times.

Ancient Egypt has long been identified as the cradle of traditional Western medicine. During this time, practitioners typically had dual roles as physicians and priests. The duality most likely came from Egyptian beliefs of sickness being influenced by the gods. The most famous physician of Egyptian times was Imhotep. The Egyptians mastered human anatomy and organ function as a result of their traditional practice of human mummification. Formalized surgery has also been traced to these times. Other medical careers, such as dentistry, midwifery, obstetrics and gynecology, and pharmacy, are thought to have their beginnings during Egyptian times. It is believed that Egyptian pharmacists had access to or could manufacture hundreds of standardized prescription medicines.

Ancient Greece continued to formalize and refine medical treatment. Greek physicians attributed illness to an imbalance of the four humors (blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile). Famous physicians during this time included Aesculapius and Hippocrates. Aesculapius was later worshipped as a Greek god. Hippocrates wrote many medical textbooks and is honored with the Hippocratic Oath, the professional ethical standard followed by modern-day physicians. The first acknowledged formal medical school was established during Greek times.

The Romans continued in the tradition of the Greeks. The most influential physician of the Roman era was Galen. He, like Hippocrates, wrote volumes of medical textbooks. During this time, we see the advent of the military medical corps and advances in the treatment of trauma. Army surgeons used instruments very similar to modern-day scalpels, forceps, and catheters. Hospitals were commonplace during this time. Sedatives such as morphine were common in surgery, and there is evidence of quasi-sterilization of surgical instruments. Public health was also fostered with the advent of water and sewage systems.

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were a great time of medical innovation. Anton van Leeuwenhoek refined the microscope; he was the first to discover red blood cells and observe microorganisms such as bacteria and protozoa. William Harvey was the first to describe how blood circulates throughout the body. Gabriel Fahrenheit developed the mercury thermometer. James Lind discovered that citrus fruit could prevent scurvy, hence, the advent of vitamins. Edward Jenner invented vaccinations after observing that exposure to the cowpox virus protected patients against the deadly smallpox virus. Humphry Davy was the first to describe the anesthetic properties of nitrous oxide. Other medical careers, such as pathology and histology, were founded by Giovanni Margagni and Marie Francois Bichat.

The scientific basis of modern medicine was developed during the nineteenth century. Rene Laennec invented the stethoscope. Joseph Lister began disinfecting surgical instruments, which greatly decreased the incidence of death from postoperative surgical infections. William Morton refined anesthesia and made surgery virtually painless. The first medical degree was granted to a woman, Elizabeth Blackwell, during this time. Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch established the germ theory of disease. Alexander Wood invented the hypodermic needle. The first vaccines for anthrax, rabies, tetanus, typhoid, and plague were developed. Willem Einthoven invented the electrocardiogram (EKG). Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen discovered X-rays. Felix Hoffman created and patented aspirin, the most widely used medicine in the world. Other medical careers, such as physiology, cellular pathology, microbiology, and bacteriology, were founded by Jakob Henle, Robert Virchow, Louis Pasteur, and Robert Koch.

The twentieth century saw further advancements in medicine. Karl Landsteiner characterized the existence of different human blood types. The process for synthesizing insulin was invented. The first vaccines for diphtheria, pertussis, tuberculosis, and tetanus were developed. Alexander Fleming invented penicillin. Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine. The double helical structure of DNA was first characterized. The first vaccines for meningitis, measles, pneumonia, mumps, and rubella were developed. Giorgio Fischer invented liposuction. The first test-tube baby was born. Godfrey Hounsfield and Allan Cormack invented the computed tomography (CT) scan. Raymond Damadian invented and patented the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) device. Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), was identified. The human genome was completely mapped, and this innovation continued into the new millennium.

Last Updated: 05/21/2014