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Timeline: A Brief Timeline of Western Medical History

130 C.E.-1842 | 1844-1973  


Horace Wells, a Connecticut dentist, begins extracting teeth with laughing gas. He tries to prove his success with this anesthesia to doctors in Boston in February 1845 with dismal results, possibly due to the use of too little gas. He is discredited, and commits suicide in 1848.


first etherized anesthesia October 16: William Thomas Green Morton, a Boston dentist, gives the first successful demonstration of etherized anesthesia.


Ignaz Phillippe Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician practicing in a large Vienna hospital, asserts that women die of childbed fever because they have been infected by decayed matter transmitted by doctors from cadavers and ill patients. He institutes hand-washing with chlorine solution -- and deaths drop dramatically. His findings will go unheeded for decades.

The American Medical Association is founded. The association is part of a movement spearheaded by Dr. Nathan Davis to raise the standards of education and uniformity in the medical profession.


Louis Pasteur French chemist Louis Pasteur discovers the destructive nature of microbes. He begins the development of bacteriology.


Elizabeth Blackwell Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman to earn a medical degree, graduates from the Geneva Medical College in Geneva, New York.

British physician John Snow proves that cholera is a water-borne infection.


November 23: In Boston, Dr. George Parkman disappears.


August 30: Dr. John Webster is hanged in Boston for murdering George Parkman. Part of the morbid public attraction to the Webster case was the murder's setting -- in Webster's chemistry laboratory. Lab work was still on the periphery of medicine. W. F. Bynum writes, "By 1850, laboratories were just beginning to make an impact on medical education, although their direct relevance for medical practice was less clear."

There are 52 medical schools in the United States, with varying standards of training. There will be 160 by 1900.


The Civil War prompts the swift improvement of American surgery.


Joseph Lister British surgeon Joseph Lister publishes his findings about carbolic acid as an antiseptic for wound treatment. This revolutionizes surgery, enabling doctors to stop post-surgical wound infection. Up to this point, surgery has often meant death, due to infection.

1860s and 70s

French physician Pierre-Charles-Alexandre Louis initiates the numerical method for measuring temperature, pulse and respiration rates.


Texas establishes the first state medical licensing board.


Charles Eliot, president of Harvard, institutes thorough reform of the medical school curriculum. The course of study has comprised mainly theoretical lectures, and Eliot believes graduating students are sorely unprepared to treat patients. His reforms include a curriculum based on anatomy, physiology and chemistry, and mandatory hands-on lab experience.


Johns Hopkins opens as an experiment in medical education. It is the first medical school to require a previous college degree, have full-time professors, and institute student work in hospitals.


May: French chemist Louis Pasteur demonstrates the possibility of vaccination for bacteria using a weaker strain of the same bacteria.


July 14: The first issue of the Journal of American Medical Association is published, with Nathan Davis as its editor.


Johns Hopkins The Association of American Medical Colleges is founded, establishing a minimum standard of three years for medical education in the U.S.


By this year all states have medical licensing boards.


German physicist Wilhelm Konrad Röntgen discovers the X-rays. It is a major breakthrough in the fields of physics and medicine.


The German pharmaceutical company Friedrich Bayer & Co. launches a pain-killing medication it names Aspirin. The compound had been known as early as the 5th century B.C., when the Greek physician Hippocrates used the bark and leaves of the willow tree to treat pain and fever.


Karl Landsteiner discovers specific blood types, making successful transfusions possible when donors and recipients are matched.


Ultrasounds and CAT (computer assisted tomograph) scans are first described in published articles.


American chemist Paul Christian Lauterbur publishes the first MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) image of tissue.

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

130 C.E.-1842 | 1844-1973  

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