Most important medical discoveries of the 20th century

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Most important medical discoveries of the 20th century
Race against time. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images News/Getty Images)

The 20th century saw huge advancements in science and technology that radically changed the lives of human beings. In this century the car and aeroplane became standard modes of transport and we landed men on the moon. We now know far more about the largest and smallest elements of the universe because of the advancements of the 20th century. Medical discoveries were no less astonishing and many have allowed human life to thrive on earth like never before.

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The chance discovery of this world-changing antibiotic meant that the chance of dying from bacterial infections was greatly reduced. Before this, if someone suffered a serious injury, they were more likely to die from infection than from the injury itself. The Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming is credited with the discovery of the drug in 1928 in a mouldy Petri dish, but it wasn’t until 1943 that the drug was used widely outside the science lab. The use of penicillin remains widespread and its discovery prompted that of many other types of antibiotic.

The pill

The oral contraceptive pill, first marketed in the UK in 1961, had both powerful medical and social effects. It enabled women and couples to strictly control when they got pregnant. It allowed women to put off getting pregnant until later in life, giving them a greater opportunity to have careers as well as families. It is also credited with enabling the sexual liberation of women – allowing them to engage in sexual activity freely and without fear of an unwanted pregnancy. It worked by tricking the female body into thinking it was already pregnant.

First heart transplant

Transplants had been carried out before on eyes, skin and kidneys, but the first successful heart transplant in South Africa in 1967 heralded a new age of possibilities to help those with serious heart disease – one of the world’s biggest killers. The recipient of the heart died only 18 days after the transplant, but not because the transplant failed. The drugs administered to them lowered their immune system to the extent that they developed double pneumonia. This obstacle was largely overcome in the 1980s when transplants became far safer and now are almost routine. Research is continuing into growing organs outside the human body for transplantation.

The Human Genome Project

The crusade to map all human genes began in 1990 and was completed in 2003. It has given us a revolutionary insight into what determines our physical and mental characteristics, what we inherit from our parents and the risks of use developing certain diseases. The first cloned sheep was also created by geneticists in 1997 and genetically engineering is now widespread. The work on the human genome is ongoing and the greatest discoveries because of the unravelling of the human genome may be yet to come.

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