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Conquerors Of Disease - Part I

Updated on April 11, 2012

Wise and learned men and women in all periods of the world's history have devoted their lives to the healing and prevention of disease. In ancient times, and during the Middle Ages many useful discoveries were made about the human body and how it works, but on the whole, progress was slow.

It was not until the eighteenth century that medical science began to develop rapidly. Today, it is still growing and producing fresh miracles of healing and comfort for the human race, though there is and always will be much yet to be learned.

One reason why medical knowledge has made such great strides in such a short period of time is that the modern sciences of physics and chemistry have given it new tools and new methods with which to work. From the physicist have come such tools as the X-ray and the microscope in the past, and from the chemist many new drugs and medicines, and an exact knowledge of the material of which our bodies are made. However, in all ages, the patience and unselfish devotion of a few have been the foundations of all medical achievement.

Dr. William Beaumont 1785 - 1853, pioneer American physiologist (from the painting for Petrolagar Laboratories, Inc., by Tom Jones).
Dr. William Beaumont 1785 - 1853, pioneer American physiologist (from the painting for Petrolagar Laboratories, Inc., by Tom Jones). | Source

William Beaumont (1785 - 1853)

The first two that I'd like to speak about of special interest, simply because they were pioneers of medicine who lived in America when the continent was still largely in the pioneering stage. One was William Beaumont and the other was Ephraim McDowell.

William Beaumont was a surgeon with the United States Army during the War of 1812. In 1822, while he was stationed at Michilimackinac, he was called upon to treat a young half Indian, Alexis St. Martin.

A bullet had torn a hole in the man's stomach, and he was in a very serious condition. Beaumont was successful in his care of the wound and the man recovered his health, but a strange things happened. The flesh over the wound would not join together, but healed in a sort of flap covering a small hole through which the digestive process in the stomach could be seen.

This was not very pleasant for Alexis St. Martin, but it was a wonderful thing for Dr. Beaumont, and for medical knowledge in general. St. martin's stomach became a laboratory for the study of the action of the stomach and its juices in digesting food.

Beaumont was able to find out things that had never been known before, for this was the first time in medical history that such a condition had been made use of to see what actually happened to different foods when they reach the stomach.

The observations and tests that Beaumont made were in themselves of the greatest importance, and they also showed the way for later and more scientific studies by others.

Dr. Ephraim McDowell, who performed the world's first ovariotomy
Dr. Ephraim McDowell, who performed the world's first ovariotomy | Source

Ephraim McDowell (1771-1830)

The other pioneer American doctor was Ephraim McDowell. He was a Virginian who studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, which was at the time, the most famous medical school in the world, and who had gone to live in Danville, Kentucky.

McDowell was really a skillful surgeon and if he lived today, he would probably have specialized in surgery.

In those days, however, and in a village like Danville, there could be no specialists. There were few doctors and these few had to be prepared to treat any and all kinds of disease and injury.

One day in 1809 Dr. McDowell found that one of his patients, Mrs. Jane Crawford, was suffering from a large tumor which, if allowed to grow, would eventually kill her.

The doctor knew that the highest medical authorities had said that this kind of tumor could not be cut out without causing the patients death. He was convinced, however, that he could remove it safely.

He told Mrs. Crawford all of this, and the brave woman declared that she was willing to take the risk if he would operate. The neighbors and people of the town were very angry, however, when they heard what the doctor was going to do. They said he was nothing but a murderer, and threatened to punish him if he performed the operation.

McDowell's Achievement Waited Long For Recognition

This did not frighten either the doctor or the patient, and the tumor was cut out. Mrs. Crawford soon got well and lived many years longer in excellent health. This was the first time such an operation had ever been performed, and when Dr. McDowell sent a brief description of it to a medical journal to the East it was thought that he was not telling the truth.

Not until many years later, after the had successfully performed a number of similar operations, did the medical world recognize his achievement. Today, such operations are common place and the surgeons use much the same methods with much more high tech tools using the same methods Ephraim McDowell used.

In the days when Beaumont and McDowell were carrying on their work, little was known about the causes of infection in cuts and wounds. Nobody knew how the microbes (bacteria) that caused blood poisoning, or gangrene, got into the wound, and so nobody knew how to prevent them from getting in.That is one reason why so many patients died of gangrene after surgical operations in the days before Pasteur showed how bacteria work and Lister found a way to prevent bacterial infection.

Pasteur Louis (1822 - 1895) - Portraits from the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology
Pasteur Louis (1822 - 1895) - Portraits from the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology | Source

The Chemist Who Completely Changed Medical Science

Louis Pasteur (1822 - 1895) was a chemist, and one of the true benefactors of mankind. Born in the little French town of Dole, he became interested in chemistry when he was studying at the Royal College at Besancon.

When he had taken his degree in literature he began to prepare for the examination necessary to admit him to the Ecole Normal, or normal school, in Paris.

In 1847, he received his degree in physical science, that is physics and chemistry, from the Ecole Normal, and was appointed assistant in the laboratory at the University of Paris.

There he made his first real discovery. A chemist named J. B. Biot had made experiments which led to new knowledge of the effect of light on the crystals of tartaric acid. Pasteur in his study of the crystals completed the discovery and finished the work that Biot had begun.

The discovery was very important, and when the experiment was carried out in his presence, Biot cried out:

"My dear child, I have loved science so well throughout my life that this makes my heart beat fast."

Dr. Louis Pasteur
Dr. Louis Pasteur | Source

Pasteur Finds The Microbes That Cause Fermentation

As a result of this discovery of what he called "left-handed tartrates," Pasteur was made professor of chemistry at Strasbourg, and a few years later he was made dean and professor of science at the University of Lille.

He led a busy life, for his motto was "Travailler, travailler toujours" -- Work, always work."

Besides the many duties that a college professor had, he continued to seek the answers to many puzzling questions of science. One of these questions, why does beer turn sour? was brought to his attention by the brewers of Lille. Pasteur sought diligently for the answer.

Helped by the experiments he had already made with tartaric acid and fermentation, he found that beer and wine and milk are turned sour by the action of tiny organisms called microbes, or bacteria. If these microbes were kept out of the vessels which held the liquids, the milk and wine and beer would not turn sour.

He also found out the nature of the disease attacking silkworms that had almost destroyed the great silk industry of France.

He discovered the microbes that cause cholera, which was killing French poultry and the disease called anthrax, which is fatal to sheep and cattle. Perhaps his name is most familiar to all of us because of the process called "pasteurizing," which makes sure that no dangerous microbes get into milk and other food products.

Louis Pasteur Institute In Paris
Louis Pasteur Institute In Paris | Source

The Pasteur Institute Is Founded In Paris

One of the most famous achievements of this great man was the prevention and treatment of rabies (hydrophobia). Before this, the disease called rabies in dogs was a cause of terror, for the bite of a dog or other animal that is ill with rabies can cause a human being to have this terrible illness.

When Pasteur made his great discovery, the Pasteur Institute was founded in Paris to study and treat the disease. The work spread to many other countries, and today rabies is no long a common danger in most parts of the world and at least a treatable disease.

Pasteur lived to the age of seventy-three, and when he died he was buried in the grounds of the Pasteur Institute. He was a great scientist and a devoutly religious man, who made the world safer for all of the generations of people who were to come after him.

Up to the time that Pasteur discovered the part played by microbes in the fermentation of beer, many people had believed that it might have been caused by spontaneous generation, which means that life comes suddenly into being without cause. Pasteur's discovery upset this theory, and set the whole scientific world talking. It also inspired Joseph Lister, a young surgeon, to find a means of preventing gangrene in surgical cases.

Joseph Lister
Joseph Lister | Source

Joseph Lister, Who Led The Way To Modern Hospital Treatment

Joseph Lister (1827 - 1912) was born near London, England, and was five years younger than Louis Pasteur. His family belonged too the Society of Friends (Quakers), and Joseph was educated at their schools and at King's College, London, where he took degrees in both medicine and surgery.

When he became a house surgeon in a London hospital, he was appalled by the number of deaths that came from "hospital sickness" or gangrene.

At the time such a large percentage of hospital patients died of this infection that the doctors were in despair.

Young Lister made every effort to improve this situation in his hospital, but except for maintaining greater cleanliness, he had made little progress when he heard of Pasteur's discovery of the microbes that cause fermentation. That gave him the clue that he needed

He had already come to believe that hospital gangrene was caused by microbes, and study with the microscope showed that he was right.

In the meantime, he had gone to the hospital in Glasgow, where gangrene was raging, and he set himself to stamp it out. Pasteur's discovery taught Lister that the microbes which cause gangrene could not grow in a wound unless they had been carried there. At first he believed that they came from the air, so he looked for something that could be used to keep the air away from wounds. Then, he tried using carbolic acid to form a crust over the wound. Carbolic acid is a powerful antiseptic. It kills microbes and destroys the poison that they produce, but it burns the flesh severely, and although its use permits wounds to heal without becoming infected, it leaves ugly scars.

Therefore, instead of applying the acid directly to a wound, Lister began to use it as a spray. Through various steps he was led to the belief that the use of carbolic acid was not necessary. He learned that the microbes in fresh, pure air do no harm to a wound. It was the microbes carried to the wound by the hands, the clothing, and the bandages, or the instruments used in an operation that did the mischief.

Thus, he laid the foundation for what is called "aseptic treatment." That is, antiseptics, or microbe-destroying substances, are not put right on the wound. They are sometimes used on dressings, and they are used, as great heat is used, to sterilize, or kill the microbes, on bandages, instruments and anything else that may touch the wound.

Joseph Lister, 1st Baron Lister, at age 69; taken during the meeting of the British Medical Association in Liverpool, 1896
Joseph Lister, 1st Baron Lister, at age 69; taken during the meeting of the British Medical Association in Liverpool, 1896 | Source

Lister Receives Many Honors For His Great Achievements

Dr. Lister became very famous for the wonderful work he did -- work that made possible the safety and cleanliness of our modern hospitals and operating methods. For many years he was professor of surgery at King's College, London.

Even after he retired he continued his scientific studies. He received many honors for his achievements. Queen Victoria made him Lord Lister, and he was elected president of the Royal Society, an honor that is given only to the most distinguished men of science.


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    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      7 years ago from United States

      Thanks Hello, hello!

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 

      7 years ago from London, UK

      Jerilee you wrote a fantastic hub here. Thank you for your great research.

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      7 years ago from United States

      Thanks pharmacist! I've always been convinced we need to be admiring the "real" heroes across history.

    • pharmacist profile image

      Jason Poquette 

      7 years ago from Whitinsville, MA


      What a great review and introduction to some of the interesting discoveries in medical history. Love this! And your reference to the faith of a man like Pasteur is right on. For many of these great early scientists, faith was never viewed as an 'obstacle' to careful science, but rather a motivation! Looking forward to the next installment.

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      7 years ago from United States

      Thanks katiem2! One of the things I enjoy doing here on hubpages is writing about subjects that should be common and general knowledge, while at the same time trying to give something extra that wasn't previously brought up on other sites.

    • katiem2 profile image


      7 years ago from I'm outta here

      Very interesting, am I ever glad I stumbled upon conquerours of disease Part 1, looking forward to more about this and Dr. Listir. It is both amazing and fascinating the journey we have taken along the path to disease and the advances made it the desire to preserve life. Well Done! :) Katie


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