The 1940s was a decade of true innovation, both in America and around the world. Many of the most important and innovative inventions of the ’40s came about from military research as WWII engulfed the globe. Similarly, some of the medical breakthroughs of the 1940s came out of military research or others’ efforts to offer better treatments to veterans, as well.
While medical treatments have certainly come a long, long way since the forties, many discoveries from the decade set in motion entirely new avenues for understanding and treating diseases. Here’s a quick look at some of the noteworthy medical innovations from these years.
Medical Advancements of the ’40s
- The influenza B virus—a form of the flu—was isolated in 1940
- In 1941, Charles B. Huggins treated patients with advanced prostate cancer by eliminating the hormone that spurred the cancer’s growth, establishing the field of hormonal cancer treatment
- The technique for continuous caudal anesthesia—a type of epidural—was developed in 1941 and was first used in a woman in labor in 1942
- The powerful antibiotic streptomycin was first isolated in 1943, and by 1946 it made it possible to cure tuberculosis
- Dutch physician Willem Johan Kolff invented the kidney dialysis machine in 1943—and amazingly, due to material shortages in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands at the time, he assembled it from things like drink cans, washing machine parts, and sausage casings
- When American troops in the South Pacific were dying from malaria, relief came in 1944, when William E. Doering and Robert B. Woodward successfully synthesized quinine, the best known treatment at the time that was in short supply; then, in 1947, chloroquine was introduced as an even better malaria treatment for many strains of the infection
- J. Roy Blaney began a 15-year experiment in 1946 that would establish the dental benefits of adding fluoride to drinking water (a practice that, in the ’50s and ’60s, some people thought was a communist plot to negatively affect the health of Americans)
- Methotrexate—a chemotherapy drug used to treat leukemia, breast cancer, lymphoma, lung cancer, and others, and one of the first anticancer agents—was developed in 1948
- Drug company Merck & Co. created synthetic cortisone—a corticosteroid for treating pain and inflammation—and brought it market in 1949
- The first bone marrow transplant was performed in 1949 by Leon O. Jacobson—in a mouse—paving the way for this life-saving procedure leukemia and other conditions
- Corneal contact lenses, a smaller and generally better alternative to existing scleral contact lenses, were invented in 1949
- In 1949, researchers at Boston’s Children’s Hospital Medical Center successfully grew the polio virus in human tissue cultures, revolutionizing the study of viruses and making it possible to develop the polio vaccine, one of the major medical breakthroughs of the 1950s