Medicine in the 20th century

There is no time when it is 'good' to become ill, but the 20th century was a much better time to be poorly than any previous period in history. By 1991, the average life expectancy of a man in Britain was 73, and of a woman, 78.


A patient going into a CAT scanner.
CAT scanner

Based on a string of spectacular scientific discoveries, doctors came to understand the human body like never before, for example:

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

For the first time in history, doctors were able to cure many diseases:

  • the discovery of vitamins allowed doctors to cure diseases such as rickets
  • in 1922, the first clinical trials of injected insulin saved people with diabetes
  • during World War Two, Florey and Chain learned how to mass-produce the penicillin they had discovered - the first antibiotic
  • 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'


For the first time in history, people went into hospital not just expecting to be healed, but expecting to come out better than they went in. Key advances included:

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