The modern healthcare industry is one of the most technologically advanced industries in the world, but it was actually a fairly underdeveloped field until the 19th century. It has only reached the level it is at today thanks to the genius of a few key individuals who helped lead the revolution in health innovation.
From Arthur C. Clarke, sci-fi author and futurist, to Edward Jenner, inventor of the smallpox vaccine, here are 5 of the top contributors to modern healthcare’s success.
Despite being best known for his seemingly outlandish science fiction works, British author Arthur C. Clark was an accomplished student of physics and mathematics, and his predictions of future technologies actually helped shaped the notion of many inventions. He is famous for his suggestion in 1945 that space stations that maintain a geostationary orbit above the Earth would allow for a worldwide communications network.
Remember, this is 1945 – televisions are not even in widespread usage and Sputnik is still twelve years away from igniting the space race. Later, in 1964, Clarke remarked to a BBC program that doctors may one day utilize wireless communication to operate on patients via remotely controlled robots. This has since become a reality, and allowed the world’s best surgeons to provide much-needed surgeries around the world.
The partnership of Henry Heimlich, the namesake of the world-famous Heimlich manuever, and Paul Winchell, a famous American ventriloquist, seemed very unlikely, but Winchell’s innate interest in the medical field helped spur their joint invention of the world’s first mechanical heart. Following their introduction at a dinner party, Winchell wondered aloud to Heimlich if an artificial heart could be used to temporarily keep patients alive during crucial heart surgery and while they wait for heart transplants and Heimlich immediately recognized the genius of Winchell’s idea. Within a few years they had the first patent for the artificial heart which has since saved countless lives.
The truly marvelous thing about Vikor Zhdanov’s story is that he helped rally two bitter enemies, the United States and the USSR during the height of the Cold War, to work together to eradicate smallpox.
To put the disease in perspective, it is estimated that smallpox killed up to 500 million people during the 20th century and was one of the most aggressive and devastating illnesses in human history. Zhdanov suggested in 1958 that the governing World Health Assembly work to eradicate smallpox completely; one year later his plan was approved and doctors scoured the most remote corners of the earth to vaccinate people against smallpox. Finally, in 1977 the last ever case of smallpox was recorded and today’s children will never know of the disease that once made living to adulthood a slim chance.
Virologist Jonas Salk helped change the world forever when he developed a safe and effective vaccine for polio, which was ravaging the United States following the end of World War II. He also shocked the world when he refused to benefit financially from his vaccine. In the post-war United States, when polio was wreaking havoc and there was no cure in sight, Jonas Salk assembled a research team that was able to develop a vaccine after years of arduous work.
He then released the vaccine free of charge and refused to patent it, allowing laboratories worldwide to synthesize the vaccine without having pay royalties. All in all, Forbes has estimated today that Salk’s patent could have been worth $7 billion today, making Salk a truly inspirational story of altruism.
Despite the recent sensationalism surrounded vaccinations and their supposed health risks, the discovery of the vaccination process is one of the most pivotal moments in both medical and human history, and has led to hundreds of millions of lives being saved. Edward Jenner was a British physician who lived in the 18th century. During his lifetime the best method of protecting oneself from smallpox was called “inoculation,” which involved introducing smallpox to a patient’s skin in order to infect them with the disease and build immunity to it. However, this led to many different health conditions.
Jenner discovered that another disease, called cowpox, was very similar to smallpox but was much less harmful, and when the body was exposed to cowpox it also built an immunity to smallpox. Jenner’s successful development of a smallpox vaccine helped drastically reduce the prevalence of the disease and the set the stage for its ultimate demise over one hundred years later.