6 Remarkable Medical Gadgets

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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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May 18, 2009 - 5:55am
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