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7 Medical Breakthroughs That Are Straight-Up Bonkers Town

Meanwhile, the rest of us still can't figure out how to put on bandages properly.

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1. Through the development of insulin, Dr. Frederick Banting and Charles Best were able to help patients suffering from diabetes.

Before the discovery and development of insulin, there were no effective long-term treatments for diabetes. Through severely restricting one's diet and eliminating sugar, one could usually survive for a few years, but the disease was ultimately fatal.

One such patient, a young girl named Elizabeth Hughes, was diagnosed with the disease in 1919. Her parents brought her to a leading diabetes expert, Frederick Allen, who changed her diet from 2,200 calories a day to a mere 400 in order to control her symptoms. She held on through the starvation, hoping that a cure would be found before it was too late. Luckily for her, Banting and Best had been hard at work with their pancreatic research, and she became one of the first patients injected with their life-saving insulin.

She got well and lived until she was 73 years old. Thanks to years of scientific research, diabetics now can expect to live full and normal lives.

2. In a time rife with racial prejudice, Dr. Charles Drew was able to make tremendous life-saving innovations in the field of blood storage.

Drew grew up and attended school before the civil-rights movement, and while he was extremely bright, he struggled to gain opportunities due to limited acceptance of African-American students. Despite these barriers, Drew got a residency, a faculty position, and several advanced degrees.

By this time, he had begun specializing in blood storage and transfusion, and he developed a revolutionary life-saving method of storing blood plasma. He discovered that if plasma was separated from the blood cells and dried, it could be saved for relatively long periods of time and reconstituted with water for future transfusion. He made his discovery on the eve of WWII, a time when the need for blood transfusions was very high. As a result of his expertise, he was given leadership positions in several military blood-banking initiatives, but he eventually left when he was asked to keep white and African-American blood donations separate.

After next setting up two of the first large-scale blood banks in America, he tragically died from injuries sustained in a car accident when he was just 45. His blood-storage methods, however, have gone on to save countless lives.

3. Lady Montagu became a critical figure in the fight against smallpox by bringing knowledge about innoculation from the Ottoman Empire to Europe.

Smallpox was terrifying. Victims not only experienced severe flu-like symptoms, but they also suffered from countless blisters and rashes that, if not fatal, severely scarred them for life. Lady Montagu was one of these victims.

As the wife of the Turkish ambassador, she spent time in Turkey and became acquainted with preventive measures against smallpox that involved exposing a non-sufferer to the disease. After observing the method's success, she believed in the efficacy of these methods enough to have her own daughter go through the process.

When she came back to Europe, she spread the word of the miracle smallpox-prevention method. While people were skeptical, enough followed her example, and the practice began to spread. While smallpox-prevention methods would improve in later years (this one still killed 2–3% of the people who underwent the process), this nonetheless marked an important moment in the fight against the disease.

4. Dr. John Snow, the father of epidemiology, stopped a cholera outbreak in its tracks by tracing the spread of the disease back to a local water pump.

Apparently, in the 19th century parts of Soho in London were pretty much a giant cesspool — and cholera outbreaks were common. This disease was brutal; it struck its victims with severe diarrhea and vomiting, which caused intense dehydration and, frequently, death. (In 1853 alone, the disease claimed the lives of more than 10,000 people in London and Newcastle.) The prevailing opinion was that cholera spread through bad air, but physician Snow was able to prove that it actually spread through drinking water polluted with sewage. Yuck.

Snow's hypothesis was originally met with opposition from local authorities. However, during a harsh outbreak in 1854 (killing 127 people in the first three days), Snow changed history. After interviewing the families of the victims, he realized that all the people suffering from cholera had gotten their water from the Broad Street pump. Snow brought his case to the Board of Guardians of St. James’ Parish and convinced them to remove the pump's handle (which meant no one was able to drink the water anymore). Immediately, the cases stopped popping up, and it was clear that cholera wasn't spread through the air but instead through bad water. Looks like THIS John Snow knew something.

Not only did Snow help us better understand and prevent cholera, but he's also responsible for teaching us how to geographically examine the spread of a disease in order to make observations about it. The handle-less pump still stands in London in honor of his incredible life-saving achievement.

5. By using the first rabies vaccine, Louis Pasteur risked serious legal repercussions to save the life of nine-year-old Joseph Meister.

Before Pasteur developed the rabies vaccination, a bite from a rabid animal was often fatal. A common treatment for these bites involved sticking a red-hot iron in the wound, but even this nightmare treatment wasn't very effective.

This was a complicated vaccine to make because the microorganism responsible for the illness couldn't be isolated or cultured in vitro. Eventually, Pasteur was able to create the vaccine using dried nerve tissue from rabbits, and when he was confronted with young Meister — who had been bitten by a rabid dog and was almost certain to die — he decided it was time to administer the vaccine to his first patient. It worked.

Its success wasn't just lucky for Meister: Since Pasteur wasn't a licensed physician, he could've gotten into pretty serious legal trouble for his test. But since it saved Joseph's life (and promised to save many more), the authorities let it slide.

6. While usually penicillin is credited to Alexander Fleming and his dirty petri dishes, Howard Florey and Ernst Chain are actually responsible for developing the mold into one of the first antibiotics.

While it's true that Fleming is the one who noticed a mold that eliminated harmful Staph bacteria in his petri dishes, Fleming wasn't enough of a chemistry wiz to bring it from mere mold to miracle cure. After chemist extraordinaire Florey read about Fleming's mold, Florey and Chain were the ones responsible for turning penicillin into one of the first antibiotics. Fourteen years after Fleming's dish discovery, the first civilian patient was taken from the edge of death to full recovery thanks to penicillin. No one had seen anything like it before.

So why do we remember Fleming instead of Florey and Chain? Is it just because Fleming gives us an excuse to avoid doing our dishes? Maybe this is partly true, but it's probably also due to Florey's purposeful avoidance of publicity. Despite Florey's modesty, he and Chain's work was recognized with a Nobel Prize in 1945.

7. Before Jonas Salk's creation of the first polio vaccine, the only responses to the "infant paralysis" disease were iron lungs and quarantine.

Poliomyelitis (AKA polio) has been a scourge throughout recorded human history. Particularly impactful on children, polio used to leave its victims partially paralyzed and incapable of breathing without the aid of an "iron lung" (a metal, coffin-like respirator).

Salk tirelessly worked to isolate the virus, and he and his own family were among the first people to test the vaccine.

When he first announced his findings in 1953, he became an instantly celebrated hero. It's no wonder, since in 1952 before the vaccine was introduced there were 58,000 new cases of polio in the US. However, by 1957, the number was down to 6,000. (Today there are only a handful of cases in the US). For his remarkable life-saving discovery, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977.

Illustrations courtesy of Dan Blaushild.

Thanks, science! ...Now just fix everything else, plz. It's comforting to know that scientists around the world are hard at work trying to do just that.

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