Amazing Medical Breakthroughs of the 1950s

Amazing Medical Breakthroughs of the 1950s

The 1950s carry a lot of nostalgia for many Americans, and the decade has a lot of strong arts and cultural associations—especially in areas like music, television, and literature. It’s not often thought of as an especially significant decade from a science and technology standpoint, though. 

There were plenty of notable inventions in the ’50s, however, across a wide range of industries. Also, the decade saw an impressive number of important medical breakthroughs. Many of the innovations in medicine and medical technology played key roles in our understanding of human health and in advancing our ability to diagnose and treat disease. Many are even still relevant today, while others provided a foundation for subsequent major steps forward. 

Medical Advancements in the ’50s 

  • Penicillin—an antibiotic that’s considered one of the most important medications of all time—was first successfully synthesized and mass produced 
  • The polio vaccine was developed by Jonas Salk 
  • The fist successful human kidney transplants from a living organ donor and from a deceased donor were performed—and the first successful kidney transplant was also the first successful human organ transplant 
  • The heart-lung machine used for cardiopulmonary bypass was invented; the first successful human open heart surgery supported by this machine was performed in 1953 
  • Battery-powered transcutaneous cardiac pacemakers were developed 
  • Artificial heart valves were first successfully implanted into humans 
  • A Doppler monitor was first used by Dr. Edward Hon to detect a fetal heartbeat—thus initiating the use of fetal ultrasounds 
  • Oral contraceptives (“the pill”) were developed, though not approved for use until 1960 
  • Chemotherapy came into use for cancer treatment, and the chemotherapy drug methotrexate cures metastatic cancer for the first time in 1956 
  • In 1958, researchers identify how hormones can bind to a receptor protein in cells to drive cancer growth, opening up an entirely new avenue of treatment for certain cancers 
  • Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation was invented by Peter Safar and James Elam 
  • James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the 3D double helix structure of DNA 
  • Oxytetracycline was discovered, becoming the second known broad-spectrum antibiotic in the tetracycline family, and became mass produced by Pfizer under the brand name Terramycin 
  • The antibiotic isoniazid was developed and successfully used to treat tuberculosis infections 
  • A number of groundbreaking epidemiological studies were published linking smoking to lung cancer; also, results from a major study commissioned by the American Cancer Society were published in 1957 and showed that smoking significantly reduces life expectancy 
  • In 1953, REM sleep was discovered and associated with dreaming, first establishing that sleep consists of distinct stages 
  • The first cochlear prosthesis was invented and first implanted for the treatment of deafness 
  • British ophthalmologist Dr. Harold Ridley implanted the first permanent intraocular lens to correct cataracts

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Leonard Riforgiato is a successful furniture manufacturing entrepreneur, a Miami resident, and co-owner of legacy furniture company Heywood-Wakefield.

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