10 Health Advances That Changed the World

Much of the initial work surrounding the discovery of X-rays was done by Roentgen, a German physicist in the late 1800s. Initially, they were viewed as an invasion of privacy rather than a life-saving tool.

Its utility was soon realized, however, and many additional imaging technologies eventually followed.

"CT scans didn't come into the picture until the 1970s," Baker said, adding that this technology was brought to us by the company BMI -- the same BMI which had previously made a fortune off the British band known as the Beatles.

Advancements in Childbirth

Up until the middle of the 20th century in the United States, childbirth was considered to be the most feared part of a woman's life.

"Go into any old graveyard, and you always see a number of women who died in their 20s," Baker said. "That was in a large part due to childbirth."

With the advent of techniques in anesthesia, cesarean section, and forceps delivery, the chances of a successful have pregnancy improved, at least in developed countries. Unfortunately, many resource-poor societies around the world still lag behind in this arena.

Organ Transplantation

Few surgical interventions today carry as much complexity -- or as much ethical significance -- as organ transplantation.

"It's such a technically complex intervention that it's an amazing thing that it can even be done," Baker said. "It ties together both surgery and immunology."

The first successful transplant operation, which took place in 1954, removed a kidney from one donor and installed it in the body of his identical twin. Other organ transplants followed, including the first liver transplant in 1967 and the first heart transplant in 1968.

Today, there are more than 90,000 people awaiting a transplant in the United States alone -- a situation that also reveals the moral considerations that come entwined with such techniques.

"It represented an important turning point in the field of medical ethics," Baker said. "It really challenged physicians' ethic of 'first, do no harm.'"

What's Next?

Considering the progress that has been made in years past, it is tempting to view the state of health and medicine today as an endpoint.

"Medicine has made it possible to deal with many conditions," Baker said. "Our lives are longer. Still, we have to say in all honesty that our control over chronic diseases is somewhat mixed."

Additional research into how best to stave off these conditions -- even by delving into the secrets of the human genome -- could represent the next hopeful steps toward healthier, longer lives.

"In the future, I think we will begin to see more and more applications from genomic medicine, which will help us identify individuals at risk for chronic diseases and allow us to intervene earlier," Baker said.

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