A Brief History of Medical Technology

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19th Century to Early 20th Century

One of the first medical devices was the ophthalmoscope invented by a German scientist, Hermann von Helmholz, in 1850.  The ophthalmoscope allows the interior of the eye to be viewed.

In 1855, Manuel García invented the laryngoscope, which uses a mirror to see the inside of the throat and the larynx.

At about the same time, Willhelm Roentgen, a professor of physics in Bavaria, discovered that radiation can penetrate solid objects of low density. This led to the invention of x-ray, which allowed physicians to view the inside of the body without surgery. X-rays became popular in World War II. They were used to diagnose pneumonia, pleurisy, tuberculosis, and to help doctors before surgery. The biochemical assay was also developed during this period to be used as a diagnostic tool for diabetes, kidney disease, anemia, diphtheria, and tuberculosis.

Technology also made a great impact on medical procedures and allowed for complex surgical procedures to be developed. In 1927, the respirator was introduced. In 1939, the first heart-lung bypass machine was introduced.

The origin of physical therapy can be traced back to Elizabeth Kenny, an Australia nurse, who used hot packs for treament of polio and muscle rehabilitation in the early 20th century. Hot pack procedures were shown to reduce residual polio paralysis from 85% to 15%.

20th Century to Present

The use of technology in medical applications has expanded tremendously in the last 50 years. The growth of medical technology in the past 50 years has exceeded all advances made during the previous 2000 years.

For instance, microscopic devices have evolved from an optic microscope to an electron microscope which allows three-dimensional visualization of intracellular space.

In the 1970s computer technology merged with medical technology. Medical researchers now use computers in all activities, ranging from performing complex calculations, storing medical records, to controlling instruments. Computers can now be programmed to perform robotic surgeries with great precision.

A key contribution to the growth of medical technology is the application of basic science and engineering. For instance, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is an amazing engineering feat that brings physics principles into reality. MRI is now widely used for medical imaging.

Technology also makes great breakthroughs in improving quality of life of patients by providing prosthetic body parts such as artificial heart valves, blood vessels, limbs, and reconstructive skeletal joints.

This post is part of the series: History of medical technology

This article series will review the development of medical technology from the time of Hippocrates to modern time.

  1. Introduction to the Evolution of Medical Technology
  2. Technological Breakthroughs in Medical Technology