history of medicine

On this day in 1870, students at the New England Female College for Medicine petitioned Boston’s City Council for clinical instruction at Boston City Hospital. The students wrote “ We are without the usual clinical advantages which are indispensable to future usefulness in our profession” and petitioned “that we may be admitted to share in the opportunities by the City Hospital of Boston, equally with others planning the study of medicine.”

The petition was referred to the City Council’s Committee on the City Hospital which wrote a report on the petition in April of the following year. They reaffirmed an 1865 decision against the admission of female students to City Hospital. The Committee did not give concrete reasons for denying the students’ petition, but rather declined to reverse the decision of the Hospital’s Trustees, stating that “unless a great and overruling necessity can be shown, the administration of the trustees ought not to be interfered with.”

Despite the difficulty of obtaining facilities for clinical instruction and training, the College served over 300 female students in its 27 years of existence, and paved the way for women to enter the medical profession.

Docket 1871-0216-A1, Proceedings of the City Council, 1881, Collection 0100.001, Boston City Archives

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Horizontal Sections of the Adult Male
Top-to-Bottom: Mid-section of skull, section at maxilla [hard palate between sections], section below mandible

Eugène-Louis Doyen was a revolutionary (if flamboyant and controversy-loving) Parisian surgeon who lived between 1859 and 1919.

Long before the Visible Human Project created its 1,871 “slices” of Joseph Paul Jernigan at 1 mm intervals, and created over 65 gigs of anatomical data (and later created 40 gigs of data with a female cadaver), Doyen presented a new way of visualizing the cadaver: longitudinal and horizontal sections, showing exactly how the human anatomy goes together in each area, without the context of seeing the full organs or bones.

Though the full usefulness of these unorthodox sections wasn’t truly appreciated until the advent of tomography in the early 1970s, they were noted to be helpful to early radiologists, and especially to the burgeoning fields of criminal forensics and forensic archaeology.

Atlas d'anatomie topographique. Eugène-Louis Doyen. 1911.


Inca Skull Surgeons Were “Highly Skilled,” Study Finds 
(Norris, National Geographic, May 2008)

Inca surgeons in ancient Peru commonly and successfully removed small portions of patients’ skulls to treat head injuries, according to a new study.

The surgical procedure—known as trepanation—was most often performed on adult men, likely to treat injuries suffered during combat, researchers say.

A similar procedure is performed today to relieve pressure caused by fluid buildup following severe head trauma (Decompressive craniectomy).

Around the ancient Inca capital of Cuzco (see Peru map), remains dating back to A.D. 1000 show that surgical techniques were standardized and perfected over time, according to the report.

Many of the oldest skulls showed no evidence of bone healing following the operation, suggesting that the procedure was probably fatal.

But by the 1400s, survival rates approached 90 percent, and infection levels were very low, researchers say.

The new findings show that Inca surgeons had developed a detailed knowledge of cranial anatomy, said lead author Valerie Andrushko, of Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.

These people were skilled surgeons,” she said.

Read the entire article on NatGeo: Inca Skull Surgeons Were “Highly Skilled,” Study FindsImage Sources: 1, 2, 3, and 4

Doctors didn’t wear white coats until the late 1800s. Because medicine was quickly advancing, the public thought discoveries of new antiseptics and the spreading of disease were just mysticism and deceit. In response, doctors ditched their formal black waistcoats and adopted the white lab coats scientists wore in order to be taken more seriously and to represent a fresh start for the medical field. Source


These color lithographs illustrating amputation are from Jean Marc Bourgery’s monumental Traité complet de l'anatomie de l'homme.  This work was originally published in eight volumes over the course of twenty-three years (1831-1854); Bourgery himself died before it was completed.

The illustrations were done by Nicholas-Henri Jacob, a student of the renowned French Revolution era painter Jacques Louis David.

Skull from Ciapas, Mexico, bearing teeth adorned with gems.

Ancient peoples of southern North America went to “dentists"—among the earliest known—to beautify their chompers with notches, grooves, and semiprecious gems, according to a recent analysis of thousands of teeth examined from collections in Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History.

Most of the gem-encrusted teeth were from individuals who lived before the year 1500 and who came from all walks of life–this was not a trend for the elite alone.

Source: National Geographic

List of Medical Documentaries

History of Medicine
Ancient Egypt: Medicine and History (History Channel, “Where Did it Come From?)
Forbidden Knowledge: Ancient Medical Secrets (Discovery)
Getting Better: 200 Years of Medicine (New England Journal of Medicine)
Human Anatomy and Medicine (Discovery)
Lost Tomb of Imhotep (Ancient Egypt Documentary)

Frontline: The Trouble with Antibiotics (PBS)
Rise of the Superbugs (Dailymotion)
Origin of AIDS: The Polio Vaccine (CBC: Witness)

Business of Medicine
The Business of Being Born (Barranca Productions)

Siddhartha Mukherjee - The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, Lecture (Harvard Book Store)
Pain, Pus and Poison - Pus, The Search for Modern Medicine (BBC; @medicine-nerd)

Global Medical Missions
Médicins sans Frontières: From Action to Words (MSF)
Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors without Borders (MSF Australia)

Health Care
Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare (Lionsgate; @stayingmedicallyinspired)

Human Behavior
Pleasure and Pain Documentary with Michael Mosley (BBC)

Pioneering Physicians
Present and Unaccounted for: Black Women in Medicine (URU, The Right to Be, Inc.)

Pain, Pus and Poison - Pain, The Search for Modern Medicine (BBC; @medicine-nerd)

Medical Dramas
Boston Med, Season 1 (ABC)
Emergency Room: Life + Death at Vancouver General Hospital (Knowledge Network)
Hopkins (ABC)
NY Med, Season 1 (ABC)
NY Med, Season 2 Episode 1, 2, 34, 5, 6, 7, and 8 (ABC)

Medical Education
Doctors’ Diaries: Part 1 and Part 2 (PBS NOVA)
"I am a Medical Student” - The Motivations and Interests of 5 Future Physicians (Mauch Scott)

Science Documentary: Stem Cells (UCL)

Surgery & Surgical Procedures
Surgery’s Dirty Secrets (BBC)
The Lobotomist, Walter J. Freeman: Part 1 and Part 2 (PBS)
Extracting a Deadly Brain Tumor (University of Miami School of Medicine; @medicine-nerd)
The Human Face (BBC)

Pain, Pus and Poison - Poison, The Search for Modern Medicine (BBC)
The Venom Cure (PBS; @medicine-nerd)

War & Medicine
Nuremberg: Nazis on Trial (Parts 1-3) (BBC)
Battlefield Medicine (History Channel)
Modern Marvels: Battlefield Medicine (History Channel)
Surgeons at War: Combat Surgery in World War II (Unknown)
Frontline Medicine (BBC)

Please note: This list is updated regularly. If you have any documentary suggestions, please share!

In 1975, Dr. Vera Peters stood fast in front of 400 medical professionals and painstakingly proved them wrong.

This talk, in which she argued that breast cancer should be treated with removing merely the cancerous area and treating with radiation (instead of the borderline mutilation that was the standard treatment of the day), was not received well. Despite the overwhelming amount of evidence Peters presented — she had meticulously conducted a study of over 8,000 cases by hand — her findings were largely dismissed, and advocates of her “lumpectomy” methodology labeled incompetent. Her daughter, Dr. Jenny Ingram, recalls of the event, “there was just a dead silence at the end of this. I don’t think anyone could believe it, they were just shocked (by the data).”

History, of course, has borne out that she was correct, and her techniques are now the basis of modern-day breast cancer treatments.

This event was the second act to an already-remarkable life. In earlier years, her work on Hodgkin’s disease had brought it down from a death sentence to a treatable disease. Unfortunately, according to her contemporary Dr. Charles Hayter, the international medical community did not appreciate her spot in the limelight, and more or less shunned her, saying “go back to Toronto and do your women’s work.”

So she did. And improved the lot of a great many breast cancer survivors in the process.

She was appointed a Member of the Order of Canada in 1975, raised to Officer in 1977, and was posthumously inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame in 2010. In January of 2015, the aforementioned Dr. Hayter wrote and put on a play about her, entitled Radical, in Toronto. It opened to good reviews.

Source: CBC, Wikipedia

(thanks to Moira for sending this in!)

How an African slave helped Boston fight smallpox - The Boston Globe

The idea behind this radical new treatment came from Africa, specifically from a slave named Onesimus, who shared his knowledge with Cotton Mather, the town’s leading minister and his legal owner. Boston still suffered dreadfully, but thanks to Onesimus and Mather, the terror linked to smallpox began to recede after Africans rolled up their sleeves—literally—to show Boston how inoculation worked. The story of how Boston began to overcome smallpox illustrates the strife that epidemics can cause, but also the encouraging notion that humans can communicate remedies as quickly as they communicate germs—and that the solutions we most need often come from the places we least expect to find them.

Mather had come close to choosing a career in medicine, and devoured the scientific publications of the Royal Society in London. As the society began to turn its attention to inoculation practices around the world, Mather realized that he had an extraordinary expert living in his household. Onesimus was a “pretty Intelligent Fellow,” it had become clear to him. When asked if he’d ever had smallpox, Onesimus answered “Yes and No,” explaining that he had been inoculated with a small amount of smallpox, which had left him immune to the disease. Fascinated, Mather asked for details, which Onesimus provided, and showed him his scar. We can almost hear Onesimus speaking in Mather’s accounts, for Mather took the unusual step of writing out his words with the African accent included—the key phrase was, “People take Juice of Small-Pox; and Cutty-skin, and Putt in a Drop.”

Excited, he investigated among other Africans in Boston and realized that it was a widespread practice; indeed, a slave could be expected to fetch a higher price with a scar on his arm, indicating that he was immune. Mather sent the Royal Society his own reports from the wilds of America, eager to prove the relevance of Boston (and by extension, Cotton Mather) to the global crusade against infectious disease. His interviews with Onesimus were crucial. In 1716, writing to an English friend, he promised that he would be ready to promote inoculation if smallpox ever visited the city again.

American History, but something I think a lot of people would be interested to read.


Top picture: 1987 Dr. Zbigniew Religa monitors his patient’s vitals after a 23 hour long heart transplant surgery. His assistant is asleep in the corner. Photograph taken by James Stanfield.

Bottom picture: His patient who survived and actually went on to outlive Dr. Religa.

Dr. Religa was also the first surgeon to graft an artificial valve using materials from human corpses. He lead a team that completed the first successful heart transplantation in Poland. Him and his team obtained the Brusseis Eureka award for developing an implantable pump for a pneumatic heart assistance system.


Highlights from the Oxford Reference medicine timeline:

  1. c. 2000 BCE Medicine men in Peru practice trephination, cutting holes in the skulls of brave or foolhardy patients.
  2. c. 100 BCE The practice of acupuncture is described in Nei Qing, a Chinese medical text.
  3. c. 1489 Leonardo da Vinci begins an unprecedented series of detailed anatomical drawings, based on corpses dissected in Rome.
  4. 1545 Ambroise Paré, the greatest surgeon of his day, publishes an account of how to treat gunshot wounds.
  5. 1665 The first recorded attempt at blood transfusion, at the Royal Society in London, proves that the idea is feasible.
  6. 1796 German physician Samuel Hahnemann coins the term ‘homeopathy’ and describes this new approach to medicine.
  7. 1860 Florence Nightingale opens a training school for nurses in St Thomas’s Hospital, establishing nursing as a profession.
  8. 1978 Louise Brown, born in England, is the first test-tube baby, having been conceived by IVF (In vitro fertilization).
  9. 2000 At the turn of the century, it is calculated that 36 million people worldwide are infected with the HIV virus.

Image credits: 1) Girl skull, trepanated with a silex, 2) Hua Shou. Expression of the fourteen meridians, 3) Vitruvian Man, 4) Ambroise Paré et l'examen d'un malade by James Bertrand,  5) Sample blood bag,6)  Samuel Hahnemann, 7) Three Quarter length portrait of Florence Nightingale, 8) ICSI sperm injection into oocyte, 9) Stylized rendering of a cross-section of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. All via Wikimedia Commons.