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The History of Medicine - the 19th Century to Today

In earlier centuries, medical treatment was often based on superstition. This changed as scientific understanding and research improved. New technical equipment, new types of medicine and new treatments were developed.

The 19th Century - the Scientific Approach

The History of Medicine

The History of Medicine

During the second half of the nineteenth century, old myths and superstitions about illness were being replaced by scientific investigation into the causes and cures of disease. This new, scientific approach to medicine led to some very important discoveries. In 1864, the French scientist, Louis Pasteur, showed that micro-organisms such as bacteria and viruses, live all around us. In response to this discovery, a British surgeon started using carbolic acid as an antiseptic to prevent infection during operations. Pasteur's work also led to the development of vaccines to make us immune to infection.

Without the invention of the x-ray, the diagnosis and treatment of many diseases would have been very difficult. In 1895, the German physicist Wilhelm Rontgen discovered x-rays. He used his wife's hand for the first historic pictures.

Public Health

The new advances within the field of medicine also led to changes in public health laws. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, people had been moving from the countryside to the city. This led to overcrowding and epidemics of infectious diseases. When scientists discovered the causes of these infections, it was up to the politicians to establish minimum standards of hygiene. Major Public Health Acts in Britain, in 1848 and 1875, led to better sanitation. These improvements included laying drains, building sewers, and collecting rubbish.

Blood groups

In 1900, the Austrian pathologist, Karl Landsteiner, showed that there are four blood groups: A, B, AB and O. All except for the AB blood group contain antibodies that will react against other blood types and cause serious illness. Before blood is transferred from one person to another it is necessary to do laboratory tests. It is very important to check that donor and recipient have compatible blood types - i.e. blood types that will not react against each other.


In 1906, the British biochemist, Sir F. G. Hopkins, showed the existence of vitamins. Vitamins are now defined as compounds that are necessary for health, but which are not produced by the human body. They must, therefore, be provided by diet.
Vitamin A is found in dairy products, fish and vegetables. A lack of these vitamins can cause skin problems and night blindness. The vitamin B complex is found in meat, vegetables and cereals. A deficiency of these can cause depression, insomnia and tiredness. Vitamin C is found in fresh fruit, and the lack of this vitamin may cause scurvy. Vitamin E is found in vegetable oils and green vegetables. Its full role is still unknown although claims are made concerning its powers in preventing aging!

What Has Been Achieved?

Today, thousands, perhaps millions, of people survive illnesses that would have killed them fifty years ago. Better living conditions, earlier diagnosis and more effective treatment have all helped to prolong life as well as to improve the quality of life. However, while old problems are solved new ones arise.

Vocabulary tasks:

Tasks and Activities


Copy the text below into your text editor and fill in the missing words based on the information in the text.

  1. In 1864, Louis Pasteur showed that ________________ such as _________ and _________ are all around us.
  2. The invention of the __________ made the diagnosis and treatment of many __________ much easier.
  3. From the time of the ______________ ______________, people started moving into the cities leading to _______________ and epidemics of _____________ diseases.
  4. Improvements in sanitation included laying ___________, building ___________, and collecting rubbish.
  5. In __________ the Austrian pathologist, Karl Landsteiner, showed that there are __________ ____________ groups.
  6. Only the ______ blood group will not react against other blood types and cause serious _________.
  7. ____________ are not produced by the human body and must, therefore, be provided by diet.
  8. Vitamin A is found in ____________, fish and ____________.
  9. A deficiency of the vitamin _____________ can cause depression, ____________ and tiredness.
  10. It is claimed that Vitamin _____ which is found in vegetable _______ and green vegetables prevents __________.

Research and Presentation

Search the Internet (e.g.medical invention, discovery). Choose an important invention from the 19th or 20th century and make a short presentation about it.