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Medical milestones - your vote

The British Medical Journal has shortlisted fifteen important milestones on the road to modern medicine:

Anaesthesia
Antibiotics
Chlorpromazine
Computers
DNA
Evidence based medicine
Germ theory
Imaging
Immunology
Oral contraceptive pill
Oral rehydration therapy
Risks of smoking
Sanitation
Tissue culture
Vaccines

Brits invented or significantly advanced at least nine of these, starting with anaesthesia.

The first anaesthetic, nitrous oxide, was isolated by British scientist Joseph Priestley, a man with an intriguing mind. It was first used as an anaesthetic by Humphrey Davy. (Links go to Ingenious Timeline. Scroll down for details.) Nitrous oxide carried the danger of asphyxia and was supplemented by ether, first used by an American dentist, William Morton.

Dr John Snow, who would prove a champion in the conquest of cholera, mastered ether, but other doctors struggled, and so did their patients.

Up in Edinburgh, James Young Simpson was trying to find a way to relieve the pain of his patients during childbirth. According to the BMJ, in 1847 he “discovered chloroform by chance when testing a number of volatile fluids in the hope of finding one that was easier to breathe than ether. Chloroform was less irritating to the lungs and produced unconsciousness swiftly.” Chloroform immediately became the anaesthesia of choice, despite opposition from those who thought suffering in childbirth was “natural”. Dr Snow gave chloroform to Queen Victoria during the birth of Prince Leopold in 1853.

The first widely used modern anaesthetic, halothane, was synthesized by ICI, Imperial Chemical Industries, and used in Manchester in 1953.

If anaesthesia is not the most important milestone in medicine, it certainly feels like it if you are lying on the operating table.

We'll look at some of the other milestones. You can vote in the BMJ poll here.

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