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When you hear about open-heart surgery or a revolutionary new medication, it’s easy to give thanks to modern medicine for providing us with these miraculous treatments. We tend to forget, however, that the relative health and comfort we enjoy today is largely due to the impressive medical advancements we’ve made in the past few hundred years. Here are some of the most amazing medical achievements that we take for granted.

1. Germ Theory

The discovery of germ theory didn’t happen in one definitive moment; it was more of a slow, collective development that occurred between 1850 and 1920. Prior to the acceptance of germ theory, the medical community favored the humoral explanation of disease, which held that the body had four basic humors and people became ill when they were out of balance. Germ theory, on the other hand, proposes that diseases are caused by microscopic organisms, which is of course a scientifically proven fact that has formed the basis for much of modern medicine. Identifying the true nature of disease allowed the medical field to make enormous strides in sanitation, epidemiology, surgical techniques, and much more. Sure, germ theory seems like a commonplace idea in our modern world, but not too long ago the cause of disease was a misunderstood mystery.

2. Vaccines

The most intense infectious diseases most of us face in the developed world are colds, flus, and stomach viruses. With a few exceptions, these diseases tend to be more of an inconvenience than anything particularly scary or fatal. Not long ago, however, an infectious disease was a vicious killer. Smallpox, whooping cough, tuberculosis, polio—we’ve all heard about these diseases, if only because we receive vaccines for them at some point in our lives. Our ancestors, however, had little protection from these ailments, and hardly any knowledge of how to prevent their spread. This all changed, however, with the widespread adoption of vaccines. Though inoculation techniques appear to have been utilized by the Chinese as early as 1000 CE, the practice did not become widespread in Western society until much later. In 1796, Edward Jenner used cowpox material to create immunity to smallpox, a practice that over the next 200 years led to the eradication of the lethal disease. In the following centuries, many more vaccines were developed and popularized. Thanks to these advancements, we’ve been largely freed from the constant threat of death by infectious disease.

3. Anesthetic

Before the development of modern anesthetics, surgeons would use alcohol, opium, herbs, narcotics and even acupuncture to induce unconsciousness in their patients. These methods, however, were unreliable, potentially deadly, and often downright ineffective, which often led to patients witnessing their own horrifying surgery and experiencing unbelievable amounts of pain. In 1804, Seishu Hanaoka concocted an effective herbal anesthetic in Japan, and in the following decades Western doctors experimented with different methods, including nitrous oxide and ether. The development of intravenous anesthetics in the 1950s offered new and often safer ways to induce unconsciousness. Today, many of the nastiest side effects of anesthesia have been minimized and we can largely endure surgery and other painful procedures in a blissfully and consistently unconscious state.

4. Discovery Of Penicillin’s Antibacterial Properties

These days, a bacterial infection is usually treated with a simple course of antibiotics. Not so long ago, however, bacterial infection often meant medical disaster. After germ theory became a widely accepted scientific fact, Alexander Fleming set out to find a way to treat bacterial infections after returning from the battlefields of World War I. When cleaning up his lab one day, he noticed that the staph bacteria surrounding the penicillium mold in one of his Petri dishes had been killed. Unfortunately, this discovery did not yield much in terms of real-world results until another researcher stumbled across Fleming’s findings in 1938. After examining Fleming’s notes, an Oxford team of researchers experimented with penicillin mold and found that it could be used to cure mice of bacterial infections. As we all know now, it also works in humans. Thanks to the discovery of penicillin’s antibacterial properties and all the subsequent antibiotics that were developed afterward, modern medicine is equipped with powerful tools to fight bacterial infections.

Your doctors and pharmacist have undoubtedly used some or all of these medical achievements to keep you healthy and alive. Give thanks for these advancements and for the hard work and dedication that made them happen!

About the Author

Steven Ellis, an education and technology enthusiast, enjoys writing news and stories related to these topics. Steven has written about medical assisting programs and medical gadgets for several online publications.

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