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Murder at Harvard | Timeline

Western Medical History

Claude Galien | Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine

130 C.E.
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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