Past Great Discoveries

Chronology of selected important events in medicine and biology

Past Great Discoveries

For context, some non-medical events are shown:

c.3000 BCWriting invented
420 BCHippocrates of Cos active
129Birth of Galen Pergamum (his first works printed in Latin in 1490)
1037Death of Ibn Sina (Avicenna), author of Canon of Medicine
1123St Bartholomew's Hospital founded in London
1347Black Death begins (ends 1352)
c.1455Gutenberg's Bible printed at Mainz
1519Megellan begins his circumnavigation of the world (to 1522)
1543Nicolaus Copernicus writes of a Sun-centred planetary system; Andreas Vesalius publishes his great work on human anatomy, De Humani Corporis Fabrica
1628William Harvey writes on the circulation of the blood
1677Cinchona bark (source of quinine) included in the London Pharmacopoeia as a fever treatment
1747James Lind discovers that citrus fruits cure scurvy
1766Albrecht von Haller shows that nervous stimulation controls muscular action
1774Joseph Priestly discovers oxygen; Franz Mesmer uses hypnosis as a medical treatment
1785William Withering introduces digitalis (from the foxglove) to cure dropsy
1796First vaccination against smallpox by Edward Jenner
1799Bichat published Treatise on Membranes, viewed tissues as basic building blocks and prime pathological sites.
1816Stethoscope invented by Rene Laennec
1832Hodgkin describes cancer of the lymph nodes
1844Horace Wells uses nitrous oxide to pull one of his own teeth painlessly
1846Eduard Seguin first description of what is now called Down's syndrome. (In 1959 it was discovered that Down's children had 3 copies of chromosome 21.)
1858Rudolf Virchow in Cellularpathologie demonstrated that every cell was the product of another cell and concluded that diseases were the result of disturbances in cellular structures.
1859Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species
1866Johann Gregor Mendel the founder of genetics published the paper in which he formulated what is now known as Mendel's law.
1869Friedrich Miesher discovered what was later to be known as nucleic acid.
1874Louis Pasteur suggests placing instruments in boiling water to sterilize them.
1876Robert Koch identifies the anthrax bacillus (Louis Pasteur devises a vaccine in 1881).
1895Wilhelm Rontgen discovers X-rays
1896Antoine Becquerel discovers radiation.
1897Ronald Ross locates the malaria parasite in the Anopheles mosquito.
1899Aspirin introduced.
1900Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams.
1910Paul Ehrlich announces his discovery of Salvarsan for syphilis - the beginning of modern chemotherapy. Sickle cell disease first reported by J B Herrick (in 1949 Linus Pauling identified defect in hemaglobin in sickle cell anemia).
1916Albert Einstein's General Theory of Relativity.
1918End of First World War; start of influenza pandemic.
1919Ernest Rutherford splits the atom.
1921F.G. Banting and C.H. Best isolate insulin.
1928Alexander Fleming discovers penicillin in a mould (Howard Florey and Ernst Chain develop penicillin as an antibiotic in 1940).
1943Wilhelm Kolff develops first kidney dialysis machine.
1948National Health Service formed in Britain.
1951John Gibbon develops heart-lung machine and operates successfully in 1953.
1953James Watson and Francis Crick determine the double-helix structure of DNA.
1957Albert Sabin develops a live polo vaccine.
1967Christiaan Barnard performs human heart transplant.


Neil Armstrong lands on the moon; Patrick Steptoe and Robert. Edwards announce the fertilization of human eggs outside the body (first 'test tube' baby born in England in 1978).

1977Fred Sanger developed the chain termination (dideoxy) method for sequencing DNA
1979World declared free of smallpox.
1981AIDS first recognised by US Centres for Disease Control.
1986Human Genome Project set up.
1989Alec Jeffreys coined the term DNA fingerprinting and was the first to use DNA differences in paternity, immigration and murder cases.
1990Drs Sulston and Coulson in collaboration with Dr. Waterston (Washington University, USA) began pilot study of the genomic sequence of the worm (C. elegans).
2000First draft of the human genome announced in June.

Information from:

  • The Cambridge Illustrated History of Medicine. Edited by Roy Porter Imprint Cambridge (Eng.) New York : Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  • The Oxford Medical Companion edited by John Walton, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 589. Additional information provided
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