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6 Remarkable Medical Gadgets

Martha Mason of Lattimore, North Carolina, recently passed away at the age of 71. What makes her obituary different than the thousands of others that appear in newspapers each day? It's the fact that she spent 60 of those 71 years in an iron lung, after a 1948 polio attack left her paralyzed from the neck down. Mason, who graduated from Wake Forest University in 1960, used a voice-recognition computer to chronicle her life story in the 1994 autobiography Breath: Life in the Rhythm of an Iron Lung. Technology gave her the option to use a portable ventilator many years ago, but Mason preferred the protection of the metal cylinder that had been home to her for so many years. She didn't like the idea of tubes in her throat, incisions into her body, or the frequent hospital visits that would accompany the "improvement." mental_floss invites you to peek into the history of the iron lung and five other medical gadgets and gizmos which have aided both doctors and patients over the last century.

1. The Iron Lung

Dr. Philip Drinker of the Harvard School of Public Health developed the first "thoracic cage" that used vacuum cleaner blowers to alternate between atmospheric and sub-atmospheric pressure to force a patient to breathe. The machine, known as a Drinker Respirator, was originally intended as a pediatric-ward device to assist premature babies born with under-developed lungs. But when the dreaded disease known as polio began to spread in the United States, doctors found a second use for the device. Polio frequently paralyzed patients' diaphragms, rendering them unable to breathe on their own. The Drinker Respirator was first used on a polio patient in 1928. Following its initial success, and with the disease affecting tens of thousands of Americans, demand quickly grew. The Warren Collins Corporation fine-tuned Drinker's design and mass-produced a similar device at a more affordable price; it was dubbed the Iron Lung. Cost and availability became pertinent factors in the early 1950s, when every American neighborhood seemed to have at least one polio patient in residence.

2. The Stethoscope

medinv2.jpgAs a young medical-school student in 19th-century Paris, Rene Theophile Hyacinthe Laennec developed a knack for hearing and interpreting the different sounds made by the heart and lungs when he placed his ear on patients' chests. This method only worked if the patient was sufficiently slender, of course. One afternoon, Laennec saw some children playing with wooden boards. One tyke would scratch or tap softly on one end, while another put his ear on the other end of the board to hear the sound. Laennec went back to his office - presumably after removing a splinter from the tyke's ear - and constructed a long tube out of several pieces of rolled-up paper. By placing the end of the cylinder directly on a patient's chest or back, he discovered that he could hear sounds much more clearly than before. After experimenting with different materials and designs, he came up with the stethoscope. In 1819, the medical community began to recognize the use of the gadget as a valuable diagnostic tool.

3. The Blood Pressure Cuff

medinv3.jpgHuman blood pressure was first recorded in 1847 by Dr. Carl Ludwig. Unfortunately, his method required the insertion of a catheter into an artery; not the most convenient procedure. Eight years later, Karl Vierordt discovered that the arterial pulse could be measured non-invasively by wrapping an inflatable cuff tightly around the upper arm and slowly releasing the pressure. The device was subject to regular improvements over the years, and in 1896, Scipione Riva-Rocci devised the first modern sphygmomanometer. He attached the inflatable cuff to a mercury-filled manometer (a device that measures liquid pressure), which provided an accurate account of the force of the blood as the heart tried to pump it past the restricting cuff and into the arm.

4. The Internal Thermometer

medinv4.jpgDaniel Gabriel Fahrenheit developed the first mercury thermometer back in 1720. Before his invention, thermometers relied on a mixture of alcohol and water. Unfortunately, these were too susceptible to air pressure to be of much use. Fahrenheit discovered that not only did mercury expand at a more constant rate than alcohol (providing more accurate results), but it also allowed for readings at much higher and lower temperature extremes. When first used for medical purposes, the typical thermometer was over a foot long and had to be held in place for 20 minutes to accurately determine a patient's temperature. In 1866, British physician Sir Thomas Allbut invented a six-inch bulb thermometer that could record a temperature in only five minutes.

5. The X-Ray Machine

medinv5.jpgGerman physics professor Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen was experimenting with cathode rays in his laboratory in November 1895 when he noticed that certain objects in the room began to glow. The humble scientist wasn't quite sure what his findings meant, and his only comment at the time was "I have discovered something interesting, but I do not know whether or not my observations are correct." Roentgen continued his experiments, and a month later, he presented an X-ray of his wife's hand to the Wurzburg Physical-Medical Society. (He'd named his new technology with an X, a variable scientists use to represent an unknown factor.) Roentgen won a Nobel Prize for his discovery, and "X-ray-mania" became a fad, Doctors and scientists joined in to take endless "pictures" of human bone structure. Department stores even took X-rays of customers' feet to fit them with the best possible shoes. The dangers of the technology weren't discovered and addressed until the one-two punch of serious X-ray burns and widespread cancer began to affect Thomas Edison's assistant, Clarence Dally.

6. The Pacemaker

medinv6.jpgToronto surgeon Dr. Wilfred Bigelow spent years conducting extensive studies on the treatment of frostbite. In 1949, using techniques he had culled from his research, Bigelow demonstrated that "controlled hypothermia" could be used to slow down the rhythm of the human heart. This tactic would reduce blood flow in the human body, making certain procedures (like open-heart surgery) possible. The main problem with his technique was discovering a way to jump-start the heart if it slowed down too far or came to a complete stop. Luckily, doctor-cum-electrical-engineer John Hopps was in the midst of his own research, hoping to use radio frequencies to restore body temperature in hypothermia patients. During Hopps' experiments, he had discovered that the application of a gentle electrical charge could restart the heart without damaging its muscle tissue. Using Bigelow's technique to operate on the heart, in 1950, he implanted the first pacemaker into a human being.

Naturally, there are dozens of medical devices and procedures that we didn't cover in this article. Which ones have you always wondered about? Like who invented that torturous tongue depressor? Or the name of that shiny round thing that old-time TV doctors always wore on headbands? Or even why, despite a 1 p.m. appointment, you have to wait until 2:30 to see your GP? Please drop a comment, and perhaps we'll revisit this topic again. Thanks!

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Karen Bleier, AFP/Getty Images
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Medicine
Bill and Melinda Gates Will Repay Nigeria's $76 Million Polio-Fighting Loan
Karen Bleier, AFP/Getty Images
Karen Bleier, AFP/Getty Images

Not long after announcing a $100 million donation to find a cure for Alzheimer's disease, Bill and Melinda Gates have agreed to pay off Japan's $76 million loan to Nigeria to stamp out polio, Quartz reports.

Polio has been eradicated in most countries around the world, but it's still present in Nigeria, as well as in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 2008, according to The Conversation, Nigeria accounted for 86 percent of all polio cases in Africa. This high number was thanks in part to low immunization rates and calls from extremists to boycott polio vaccinations out of fear that they were tainted with anti-fertility steroids.

National and international campaigns were launched to lower polio rates in Nigeria, and in 2014 the nation received the loan from Japan to boost disease-fighting efforts. Progress has been made since then, with no new cases of polio reported in Nigeria in 2017. Two children had contracted polio in 2016, two years after Nigeria's last known case.

Nigeria's loan repayments to Japan were slated to begin in 2018. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation agreed to cover the costs after Nigeria met its goal of "achieving more than 80 percent vaccination coverage in at least one round each year in very high risk areas across 80 percent of the country's local government areas," Quartz reports. The loan will be repaid over the next 20 years.

While the Gates Foundation is lending a hand to Nigeria, the Associated Press reports that health officials in Pakistan's eastern Punjab province recently launched a new chapter in the nation's ongoing struggle against the disease. Health workers will engage in a week-long, door-to-door vaccination campaign, though efforts like this are risky due to threats from the Taliban and other militant groups, who view vaccinations as a Western conspiracy and believe they sterilize children. Anti-polio efforts in Pakistan also suffered after the CIA used vaccinations as a cover to get DNA samples from the Bin Laden compound.

[h/t Quartz]

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George Mayerle, U.S. National Library of Medicine // Public Domain
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Design
This 1907 Vision Test Was Designed for People of All Nationalities
George Mayerle, U.S. National Library of Medicine // Public Domain
George Mayerle, U.S. National Library of Medicine // Public Domain

At the turn of the 20th century, San Francisco was a diverse place. In fact, Angel Island Immigration Station, located on an island in the San Francisco Bay, was known as the “Ellis Island of the West,” processing some 300,000 people coming to the U.S. in the early 1900s. George Mayerle, a German optometrist working in the city at the time, encountered this diversity of languages and cultures every day in his practice. So in the 1890s, Mayerle created what was billed as “the only [eye] chart published that can be used by people of any nationality,” as The Public Domain Review alerts us.

Anticipating the difficulty immigrants, like those from China or Russia, would face when trying to read a vision test made solely with Roman letters for English-speaking readers, he designed a test that included multiple scripts. For his patients that were illiterate, he included symbols. It features two different styles of Roman scripts for English-speaking and European readers, and characters in Cyrillic, Hebrew, Japanese, and Chinese scripts as well as drawings of dogs, cats, and eyes designed to test the vision of children and others who couldn't read.

The chart, published in 1907 and measuring 22 inches by 28 inches, was double-sided, featuring black text on a white background on one side and white text on a black background on the other. According to Stephen P. Rice, an American studies professor at Ramapo College of New Jersey, there are other facets of the chart designed to test for a wide range of vision issues, including astigmatism and color vision.

As he explains in the 2012 history of the National Library of Medicine’s collections, Hidden Treasure [PDF], the worldly angle was partly a marketing strategy on Mayerle’s part. (He told fellow optometrists that the design “makes a good impression and convinces the patient of your professional expertness.”)

But that doesn’t make it a less valuable historical object. As Rice writes, “the ‘international’ chart is an artifact of an immigrant nation—produced by a German optician in a polyglot city where West met East (and which was then undergoing massive rebuilding after the 1906 earthquake)—and of a globalizing economy.”

These days, you probably won’t find a doctor who still uses Mayerle’s chart. But some century-old vision tests are still in use today. Shinobu Ishihara’s design for a visual test for colorblindness—those familiar circles filled with colored dots that form numbers in the center—were first sold internationally in 1917, and they remain the most popular way to identify deficiencies in color vision.

[h/t The Public Domain Review]

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