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Timeline: A Brief Timeline of Western Medical History

130 C.E.-1842 | 1844-1973  

130 C.E.

Galen Galen, a Greek physician, is born. He develops the theory of the four "humors": blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. Good health is thought to result from a balance of the humors, and when one humor gets out of proportion, it should be treated by applying its opposite. Different bodily fluids are associated with different humors, and each patient has a dominant humor. This theory of medicine, which will prevail for over a thousand years, creates a process of diagnosis that is mainly speculative.


The Black Death, the great plague epidemic that kills tens of millions, arrives in Europe from Asia. It is thought to be caused by "miasma," poisonous air rising from swamps and marshes.


Over the objections of religious authorities, dissection begins at Italian medical schools in Bologna and Padua.


Renaissance artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci completes thousands of anatomical drawings, based on dissection and observation, and employing multiple angles of view and cross-sections. The drawings will not come to light until after his death.


Italian physician Andreas Vesalius publishes the illustrated De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the Structure of the Human Body). His work relies on observation rather than speculation, and lays the foundation for modern anatomy.


William Harvey, a British physician, publishes De Motu Cordis (On the Motion of the Heart), stating his discovery of the circulation of blood.


Dutch physician Antony Leewenhoek demonstrates his discovery of "animalcules" to the Royal Society of London. He sees the tiny swarms of moving mites -- microbes -- through his primitive microscope. He observes that they can survive without air, but can be killed by heat.


Italian physician Giovanni Morgagni publishes an anatomy book launching the idea that diseases are localized in particular areas of the body.


Giovanni Morgagni Inspired by his experience with beer barrels, Leopold Auenbrugger of Austria introduces percussion tapping to medicine. He demonstrates that by striking a patient's chest sharply with slightly curved fingers, a physician can discern the sounds inside the body without intimately putting his ear to it. Author Lilian Furst explains, "Each disease -- pleurisy, pneumonia, tuberculosis, inflammation of various areas of the heart -- was found to have its characteristic sounds in living patients and to be confirmed by the damage revealed in cadavers."


Just two years after the newly-united states ratify the U.S. Constitution, George Parkman is born in Boston.


John Webster is born in Boston.


Xavier Bichat French physician Marie François Xavier Bichat pioneers pathological anatomy by identifying the distinctive lesions on organ tissue that are associated with particular diseases. By this discovery, he spurs the turn in medicine away from the study of organs and toward tissue examination for disease classification.


George Parkman completes Harvard Medical College.


John Webster completes Harvard Medical College.


Laennec invents stethoscope French physician R. T. H. Laennec invents the stethoscope, the most important medical innovation until the X-ray in 1895. Laennec writes, "I was consulted by a young woman laboring under general symptoms of diseased heart, and in whose case percussion and the application of the hand were of little avail on account of the great degree of fatness.... I happened to recollect a simple and well-known fact in acoustics, and fancied, at the same time, that it might be turned to some use on the present occasion. The fact I allude to is the augmented impression of sound when conveyed through certain solid bodies, as when we hear the scratch of a pin at one end of a piece of wood, on applying our ear to the other. Immediately, on this suggestion, I rolled a quire of paper into a sort of cylinder and applied one end of it to the region of the heart and the other to my ear, and was not a little surprised and pleased to find that I could thereby perceive the action of the heart in a manner much more clear and distinct than I had even been able to do by the immediate application of the ear."


British scientist Joseph Jackson Lister devises the modern, achromatic microscope. His invention opens a world of microscopic, rather than gross, anatomy.


The average life expectancy for Americans at birth is 38 years. (It will increase to 70 in 1950 and 75.8 in 1995.)


In the first anesthetized operation, Crawford Williamson Long, a physician in Georgia, removes a cyst from a patient who breathes through a towel soaked in ether. The idea comes from a social habit known as "ether frolics." Long will not publish his innovation until 1849.

For a timeline of mental illness treatments, see the A Brilliant Madness Web site.

130 C.E.-1842 | 1844-1973  

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