The "Soap" Opera of Medical Research

Article excerpt

The annual Medical Research issue is, historically, an opportunity to showcase the latest news-breaking, eyebrow-raising, Buck Rogers-style innovations that will, it is hoped, impact on our lives and on the lives of our children with special healthcare needs.

But I'd like to depart just a little from that and reflect on the nature of medical research, specifically where we've been and what we've stumbled across to bring us to today and tomorrow.

A recent book set out to identify and describe the ten greatest medical discoveries of all time (Medicine's 10 Greatest Discoveries, by Friedman and Friedland). You may find it interesting to not only see the list but to see how many of the discoveries impacted on the way you were evaluated and treated at your last medical encounter.

The authors considered the three tiers of medicine to make their list: the structure and workings of the body, the diagnosis of disease, and lastly, the treatments.

As you peruse the chronologically ordered list of discoveries (accompanied by the principal researcher for each), see if you can identify what the authors conclude is the most important medical discovery of all time.

1. Modern Human Anatomy--Andreas Vesalius

2. Circulation of Blood--William Harvey

3. Bacteria--Antony Leeuwenhoek

4. Vaccination--Edward Jenner

5. Surgical Anesthesia--Crawford Long

6. X-Ray Beam--Wilhelm Roentgen

7. Tissue Culture--Ross Harrison

8. Cholesterol--Nikolai Anichkov

9. Antibiotics--Alexander Fleming

10. DNA--Maurice Wilkins

I was not surprised to find my medical research "hero" not even listed. After all, he certainly gave the listed hall of famers a run for their money in terms of creativity and number of lives that his observation saved. He also is noteworthy in illustrating the axiom that an idea must never be presented before its time.

Ignaz Phillip Semmelweis (1818-65) was a 19th century Hungarian physician whose radical idea of "hand-washing" saved countless women from the death sentence of "child bed fever" (puerperal fever). His insistence that his colleagues and students "wash up" after dissecting cadavers in the anatomy lab and before delivering babies in the obstetrics wing at Vienna General was, for the most part, rejected and ridiculed.

To substantiate my nomination I'd like to add that his concept, based on the spread of bacteria, was offered almost a decade before Pasteur proved that bacteria were the culprit in infections. And to visitors to my office who point to his framed pictures and ask, "Who's that? …