Examples of accelerating scientific progress abound in human history.
Mendel’s experiments with plants demonstrated inheritance in the mid-1800s. Over the next 100 years, researchers across the world built upon each other’s discoveries, until Watson, Crick and Franklin finally identified the structure of DNA. The human genome project was launched nearly 40 years later, and within 15 years, the entire human genome had been mapped.
Da Vinci famously conceptualized human flight during the Renaissance, but it took 400 years of research and experimentation before the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk. Only 54 years later, the Russians launched Sputnik 1, and 12 years after that, Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon.
In 1846, ether was used for surgery for the first time. Surgeons could operate on patients without inflicting excruciating pain from the knife. Advances in the understanding of antisepsis taught surgeons to wash their hands and their instruments, and survival rates after surgery steadily rose. The first appendectomy happened in 1880. The first kidney transplant was in 1953. Today, surgeons can repair heart valves without opening the chest, and address spina bifida while an infant is still in the womb. Death as a result of surgery is uncommon in all but the direst of circumstances.
Hundreds of years ago, the Chinese blew pulverized smallpox scabs into the noses of susceptible individuals, and eventually variolation, the deliberate, controlled exposure of an individual to smallpox was practiced throughout the world. Smallpox contracted naturally carried a death rate of about 30%. Variolation improved the odds significantly: only 1 - 2% of people died. In 1796, Jenner started inoculating children with cow pox, thus conferring immunity to smallpox, and the modern vaccine era began.
Since the late 1800s, vaccines against many once terrible diseases have been developed. As technology has advanced, it has been easier to identify the organism that causes a disease. It took almost 15 years to determine that polio was caused by a virus rather than bacteria, and another 40 years to learn that there were in fact three different strains of the polio virus. It took only two years to identify HIV.
Science accelerates, and science rises to new challenges. Basic science advancements are translated into new or improved technologies faster than ever before. Researchers across the world can collaborate, replicate, build upon, or as importantly refute, each other’s findings.
We have tools today that even da Vinci could not have imagined, and they enable us to do things that would have seemed like magic to previous generations. Science fiction author Arthur C. Clark once wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Thankfully, understanding how these technologies developed helps us appreciate the difference.
Debra Johnston, M.D., is part of The Prairie Doc team of physicians and currently practices family medicine in Brookings. For free and easy access to the entire Prairie Doc library, visit www.prairiedoc.org and follow Prairie Docon Facebook featuring On Call with the Prairie Doc, a medical Q&A show streaming on Facebook and broadcast on SDPB most Thursdays at 7 p.m.