The progress of medicine in modern times is pretty awe-inspiring.
Modern human beings (homo sapiens) have existed on Earth for a staggering 200,000 years. For most of that time, we lived as nomads, hunting and gathering in small tribes. Organized civilizations came to be only a mere few thousand years ago. It was then that we were able to gather our collective knowledge and resources to make advances in myriad fields, including science and technology.
The first evidence of the practice of medicine was found in ancient Egypt in the 2nd millennium BCE. The first doctor (Imhotep), the first surgery, and the first medical text were identified from that time period. Other civilizations throughout the world–Indian, Chinese, Greek, Roman, and Latin American—have also left remnants of the practice of medicine.
Medical practice for most of this time was nebulous at best: part magical and part animal, vegetable, or mineral. It was of questionable integrity and success, and oftentimes deadly.
The real breakthroughs were discovered in only the last 200 (or so) years:
1796: the first vaccine (smallpox)
1842: inhaled anesthesia
1847: hand-washing before procedures
1860: germ theory of disease proven
1901-1937: ABO blood types and Rhesus antigens, blood transfusions
1900’s: advances in surgery and cancer treatment with radiation, chemotherapy
1950: first successful transplant (kidney)
1950s: first laparoscopic surgery
1960: first hormonal contraceptive
1970s: CT, MRI
1978: stem cells identified
1978: first successful in vitro baby born
1983: first robotic-assisted surgery
It’s amazing that all of this has happened in just the past 200 years. Also amazing is the fact that from 1800 to now, medical advances have more than doubled the life expectancy of human beings, from 35 years of age in 1800 to 75 years of age.
We live in an age now when reality sounds almost like science fiction: surgery can be performed remotely with computer-assisted robots, patients can use brain waves to control prosthetic devices, vital signs can be collected on smart phones, therapies can be targeted to a patient’s particular genetic identity, and transplantation surgeries have advanced to include face, limb, and even uterine transplants.
We’ve managed to expand our “civilization” now to the point that we’re going to be able to aggregate the collective knowledge of the entire world and be able to use this to advance humanity further. Computer technology has also advanced to the point that it can, with a little human guidance, do things no human being could ever do. Technology can be used to create far greater inventions than we could create ourselves. We can use it to solve problems that have confounded us for centuries.
It’s hard to imagine (but fun): what will the world look like in the next 200 years? The next 2000 years? The next 20,000 years?
For some, the future can be scary to think about. (Just think of the ancient Egyptians, who embalmed their Kings and sequestered them in colossal tombs to carry them to safety in the world to come…) But I just think of how far we’ve come and how each step has been a huge leap forward in terms of our health and longevity. The world is full of potential and possibility, limited only by our imaginations.
We’re lucky to be here at this moment in time.
Instead of fearing the unknown, we should try to harness the arsenal of our collective knowledge and the tools at our disposal to create the future we want.
Let’s ask ourselves: How can we advance medicine further? What diseases can we eradicate or prevent? How can we enhance and improve our lives and that of our fellow man? How long can we live? What abilities can we gain?