While birth control was a major breakthrough in limiting unwanted pregnancies, its opposite in many ways, is just as important. In-vitro fertilization is a way of creating pregnancies, for people who have no other way of getting pregnant. The history of IVF dates back to the 1950s, but it wasn’t until 1978 that the first “test-tube baby” was born. The second was born a year later in Scotland, although there were unconfirmed reports that there had been a baby born in India between the two.
As with any science that is seen to interfere with natural conception, IVF has been controversial. It is still outlawed by the Catholic Church, with its teaching describing babies born through IVF as a “commodity”. There has also been criticism from other quarters about the multi-million dollar nature of the IVF industry and the implications of allowing couples to “design” their baby by selecting embryos based on gender etc. But for childless couples, IVF is a miracle and it should be recognized as an amazing breakthrough.
4. Germ Theory
The discovery of germs was such a huge moment in the history of medicine that it completely changed the way that we think. Prior to that, patients were advised to carry around things that smelt bad, in order to ward off the “bad air” or miasma, particles of decaying matter that got into the air and caused diseases. The actual cause of disease – germs – were discovered by various scientists, but the breakthrough came in 1854, when John Snow linked an outbreak of cholera to a specific water pump in Broad Street, London.
By isolating the source of the disease, he could then analyze what was in the water causing it. He tracked it down to an old cesspit, over which the pump was built and specifically a baby’s nappy that contained the cholera germs. However, his work was rejected by the government of the time, as the idea of people breathing in other people’s fecal matter was considered unseemly. A few years later, Louis Pasteur managed to prove germ theory in laboratory conditions and it is his name that is generally linked to the theory. The work of both men lives on, however, in much-improved sanitation and consequent lower levels of disease.
Another groundbreaking drug that has become so widely used that it seems commonplace. Penicillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928, almost entirely by accident – a petri dish left overnight showed that a mold was actively repelling the bacteria around it. Fleming developed the anti-biotic and it is now used to treat a number of viruses and infections. A fortuitous discovery that has affected medicine in a profound way ever since.
2. Smallpox Vaccination
This is a real success story for vaccinations. Smallpox was once a horror of a disease – killing in its millions – but it has been entirely eradicated thanks to the vaccine. The last recorded case was in 1977, but the worldwide figures for the 20th century still stand at around 30 million deaths. It was also notorious for killing thousands in the colonies, as colonists brought the pox with them and passed it on to the natives. The vaccine was discovered by Edward Jenner, who had learned that a milkmaid was immune to the disease because she’d been exposed to cowpox. Jenner isolated the cowpox and used them as a successful vaccine. One of the greatest achievements in medical history.
As amazing as all the discoveries so far have been, there is only one which unpicks the fabric of who we are – and that’s DNA. It dictates which physical attributes about us, from eye color to genetic disease. It has played its part in IVF, forensics and so many other fields. As with many on our list, the discovery was the work of several people, but it was Francis Crick and James Watson who first produced the double-helix model and subsequently won the Nobel Prize. An amazing insight into what makes us.