20th Century medicine

Home learning focus

In this lesson you will find our about the history of medicine in the 20th Century.

This lesson includes:

  • a film about advances in medicine during the century

  • archive footage of Sir Alexander Fleming

  • a film about the founding of the NHS

  • two activities to test knowledge


The 20th Century was a time of great advances in medicine and public health.

These changes mean people living today are much more likely to be healthy and to live longer than at any other point in human history.

Watch this short film to find out more about how medicine progressed in the 20th Century.

How medicine progressed

All of the advances in medicine during the 20th Century meant that by 1991, the average life expectancy of a man in Britain was 73, and that of a woman was 78.

Doctors increasingly understood the human body like never before thanks to landmark inventions and discoveries which included:

  • invention of the electrocardiograph or heart monitor by Willem Einthoven in Holland in the early 1900s
  • discovery of blood groups by Karl Landsteiner in Austria in 1901
  • discovery of penicillin in the 1930s by Chain and Florey, inspired by the work of Alexander Fleming
  • development of the electron microscope in 1931
  • finding of the molecular structure of DNA in 1953 by Francis Crick and James Watson
  • discovery of stem cells by Leroy Stevens in the USA in 1953
  • invention of the CAT scanner (a powerful X-ray machine that provides a cross-section of the human body) by Godfrey Hounsfield in Britain in 1972
  • mapping of all the 40,000 genes in the human body in the 1990s by the Human Genome project

Watch this short film of Alexander Fleming talking about his discovery of penicillin.

Recalling the discovery of penicillin

Other medical advances in the 20th Century included:

  • the discovery of vitamins allowing doctors to cure diseases such as rickets
  • in 1922, the first clinical trials of injected insulin saved people with diabetes

However, doctors were still unable to cure viruses such as AIDS or diseases like cancer, and overuse of antibiotics led to the development of drug-resistant strains of killer diseases such as the MRSA hospital 'superbug'.

Advances in surgery

Treatment in hospitals and the skills of and equipment available to doctors and surgeons increased meaning healthcare became safer and better.

  • In the 1940s, British surgeon, Archibald McIndoe, performed the first plastic surgery on the faces of disfigured airmen.
  • In 1967, South African surgeon, Christiaan Barnard, performed the first heart transplant.
  • In 1978, Louise Brown became the first 'test-tube' (IVF) baby.
  • In the 1990s, 'keyhole' surgery, which avoided using large surgical cuts, became more widely used.

Public health in the 20th Century

Changes in housing, sanitation and government action throughout the century all made large changes to people's health.

  • In 1906, local authorities were given the right to provide free school meals for poor children.
  • In 1907, the School Medical Service started to give free health checks.
  • In 1908, the Government introduced pensions for old people.
  • In 1911, the National Insurance Act provided free medical treatment for workers, and benefit money for those out of work.

Post World War Two

Following World War Two the Government implemented its 1942 Beveridge Report, and took responsibility for caring for every citizen 'from the cradle to the grave', introducing the 'Welfare State'. Important developments were:

  • In 1945, the Family Allowances Act gave a small payment for children.
  • In 1947, the Town and Country Planning Act set targets for the clearance of slums.
  • In 1948, the Government set up the National Health Service – providing free doctors and hospitals, paid for out of taxes.
  • In 1948, the National Assistance Act abolished the poor law and brought in social security.
  • In 1956, the Clean Air Act imposed smokeless zones.

By 2001 the government provided or subsidised a huge array of services to help with family planning, care for pregnant women and visits for mothers with infants.

Watch this short film to find out more about the founding of the NHS in 1948.

The NHS was founded in 1948


Try these activities to check what you have learned about medicine in the 20th Century.

Activity 1

Take this short test on 20th Century Diseases and Treatments from SAM Learning to check how much you have learned about some of the advances in medicine made in the 20th Century.

Select Year 8 - Diseases and Treatments

SAM Learning

Activity 2

There were giant leaps forward in surgery during the 20th Century which made it safer and more effective.

Refresh your knowledge with this short test from SAM Learning.

Select Year 8 - Surgery

SAM Learning

There's more to learn

Have a look at these other resources from around the BBC and the web.

Bitesize Daily lessons
In Our Time - Discovery of Penicillin
BBC Teach - Medicine through time