Past Great Discoveries

Chronology of selected important events in medicine and biology

For context, some non-medical events are shown:



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

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