Technology and medicine - Science Museum

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Computer technology in medicine
Technology and medicine - Science Museum

G Lawrence (ed.), Technologies of Modern Medicine (London: Science Museum, 1994).

Devices such as the thermometer, microscope and kymograph revealed how healthy and diseased bodies worked. Other instruments were developed over the century: the ophthalmoscope saw into specific organs such as the eye and the oesophagus ; the sphygmograph provided information about organs deep inside the body such as the heart. During the 1800s doctors and biomedical scientists developed instruments to examine and understand the body. It became an iconic object in biomedicine. This simple wooden tube enabled doctors to hear and diagnose chest diseases. In 1816, French doctor Rene Laennec invented the stethoscope. Many instruments became routine equipment.

Using proper safety measures, X‑rays were the main imaging technology until the 1970s. However, unprotected exposure to X‑ray radiation causes burns and cancer. Other imaging machines such as the CT, PET and MRI scanner were developed. Many patients and radiologists in the early 20th century died from overexposure before the risks were understood. Unlike traditional X‑ray machines, they gave detailed views of the body’s complex structures, such as the brain. X‑rays were not just used for diagnosis. Cancer could be treated using X‑ray radiation therapy devices.

A Webster, Health, Technologies & Society: a sociological critique, (London: Palgrave, 2007).

R Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind': A Medical History of Humanity from Antiquity to the Present (London: Fontana paperback, 1999).

J Howell, Technology in the hospital: transforming patient care in the early twentieth century (John Hopkins University Press, 1995).

W F Bynum and R Porter, (eds.), Companion Encyclopedia of the History of Medicine (London: Routledge, 1993).

R Cooter and J Pickstone, (eds.), Companion to medicine in the twentieth century (London: Routledge, 2000).

S S Blume, Insight and Industry: On the dynamics of technological change in medicine Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1992).

However, some parents must decide whether to terminate the pregnancy if the fetus is revealed to have a certain condition. Does medical technology impose on us more than it empowers?. Ultrasound screens foetuses for disease before babies are born. Advancing technology has presented physicians and patients with serious ethical dilemmas.

This changed the way doctors diagnosed and treated disease. X‑ray machines became powerful medical tools over the next 30 years, especially during the First World War. Doctors could now see deep inside the body without using exploratory surgery. German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen discovered X‑rays in 1895.

Technology has changed the relationship between patients and practitioners. Safety concerns and cost have limited their use. Many question whether excessive use of technology within childbirth or to prolong life can be intrusive and do more harm than good. Some historians and physicians argued machines made doctors poorer healers by encouraging them to focus only on the sick parts of the body, rather than caring for the patient as a whole. Medical machines also caused practical problems.

J Bronzino, V Smith and M Wade, (eds.), Medical technology and society: an interdisciplinary perspective (Massachusetts: MIT press, 1990).

Add text to my collection artificial hand stethoscope sphygmomanometer artificial leg.

Many were viewed with suspicion. In the 1930s some doctors doubted an X‑ray image of the chest was as reliable as a physical examination. Devices threatened to replace the diagnostic expertise of traditional doctors. ECG was only useful when it became portable and reliable enough to be used at the patient’s bedside. Not all new technologies were readily accepted by the medical community. Many doctors valued their clinical experience over machine-produced information. Other technologies failed because doctors or patients found them impractical.

Technologies had a major role in medicine becoming more specialised. Many medical technologies allowed specific parts of the body to be studied, diagnosed or treated. These include ophthalmologists (doctors specialising in eye conditions) and otolaryngologists (ear-nose-throat specialists). This led to doctors who specialised in certain organs. Devices such as the X‑ray machine introduced medical professionals such as radiologists and radiographers.

Machines became central to medicine in Europe during the 1800s. However, by the start of the 20th century new instruments were available to study, diagnose and treat the body. Medicine had always relied on technology such as scalpels, probes and materia medica. Today, hospitals worldwide use complex, computerised machines to image the body or assist its function.

Doctors initially used such machines to treat conditions such as gout, paralysis and toothache. Others are still useful therapy. However, many were ineffective. They treat pain, spasms and brain conditions such as epilepsy. A distant relative of electrotherapy is electroconvulsive therapy (ECT, sometimes called electroshock). ECT in a modified form is still used to treat some cases of severe depression. This was invented in the 1930s and is a controversial treatment for mental illness. Other machines produced light or heat for heliotherapy and diathermy therapies.

Computerised machines in hospitals monitored patients continuously. Imaging techniques such as MRI or PET were possible because faster computers could reconstruct images of the body. More diagnostic tests were developed because automated laboratory machines performed tests quicker and more accuray. They also enabled insurers and state-run health services to track patient records on a massive scale. Using computers was one of the most important technological changes in 20th-century medicine. They became central to medical care from the 1950s.

Electrotherapy machines used electricity to treat patients during the 1800s. Electrostatic machines and galvanic or faradic devices gave brief electric shocks or sustained electric current to patients’ bodies.

B Holtzmann-Kevles, Naked to the bone: medical imaging in the twentieth century (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1997).

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A Gedeon, Science and technology in medicine, (Springer Science, 2006).

R Bud and D J Warner (eds.), Instruments of Science, An Historical Encyclopaedia (London: Science Museum, 1998) All Glossary terms.

Assistive technologies became central to medicine during the 20th century. Willem Kolff invented the kidney dialysis machine during the 1940s. Technologies such as hearing aids, artificial limbs and mobility aids became more sophisticated. Ventilators, pacemakers and other machines were developed to support, enhance or replace the body’s organs. Advances in science, engineering and manufacturing were applied to medical problems.

S Reiser, Medicine and the Reign of Technology, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978).

Computer technology in medicine