Famous Physicians Who Made Huge Contributions to Medicine

In a time when we’re celebrating the work of physicians across the country, we thought we’d take a look back at some of the most famous doctors in history, highlighting their accomplishments and the unending curiosity and tenacity they showed to change the face of medicine as we know it today. 

As we celebrate Doctors' Day in 2020, we are keenly aware of the work that you’re doing to help patients across the country. Know that you’re on AMN Healthcare's “most influential” list all year long as you do your part to stem the tide of COVID-19 and other illnesses.  

Hippocrates (c460-c470)

Known as The Father of Medicine, Hippocrartes lived in Greece in the 5thCentury BC. Many consider him to be the greatest physician of all time with his early hypothesis that illness had both physical and rational explanations. 

He was far ahead of his time, observing that health was influenced by diet, breakdowns in bodily processes, and even changes in the environment. His motto, “do no harm” is still part of our lexicon today.

Joseph Lister (1827-1912)

Believe it or not, the use of antiseptics during surgeries was not fully in practice until Joseph Lister recognized that pathogens were a danger to patients. In the 19th century, physicians rarely even washed their hands until Lister came on the scene.

During his career, he successfully introduced carbolic acid (now known as phenol) during surgical procedures, saving many lives against the dangers surrounding the introduction of internal pathogens that later caused postoperative infections. You may already know his name, as Listerine, a popular antiseptic mouthwash, can be found in many people’s medicine cabinets today.

Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910)

As the first woman in the U.S. to become a medical doctor, Elizabeth Blackwell initially thought of a career in medicine when a female friend suffering from a terminal illness remarked that she would have fared better if she had had a female physician. Blackwell was accepted to Geneva Medical College in 1847, but her acceptance was looked upon by her fellow students as an administrative joke. She experienced the stigmas of discrimination throughout her studies but was still awarded a medical degree, ranking first in her class. Even then, she was still ostracized by some of her peers and even her patients.

However, her tenacity pioneered the education of women in medicine, and she eventually opened her own medical college for women. In addition, as the first woman to be admitted to the British Medical Register, she had the right to practice medicine in both the U.K. and the United States. 

Edward Jenner (1749-1823)

As we strive toward a vaccine for COVID-19 and other illnesses, we should think of Edward Jenner who created the first vaccine against smallpox. While his methods were crude by today’s standards, he is often referred to as the Father of Immunology for his contributions to the field. 

He is said to have taken fluid from a cowpox blister and scratched it into the skin of an 8-year-old boy, James Phipps. The boy did develop a blister on the spot but soon recovered, giving rise to Jenner's work in the area of immunology and immunizations. He followed by inoculating the young boy with smallpox matter and found that no disease formed. Hence, his work was a success. To this day, his vaccine remains the only effective preventative treatment against smallpox disease. 

Alexander Fleming (1881-1955)

While Alexander Fleming is best known for creating the antibiotic penicillin, a drug that some believe has saved upwards of 200,000,000 lives, his early days as a scientist are equally important to his contributions. 

When Fleming was a soldier in World War 1, he soon realized that the antiseptic agents being used to treat soldiers’ wounds and prevent infection were actually killing more soldiers than infections. In fact, they were lowering the patient’s own natural resistance to infection by killing white blood cells. 

When he returned from the war in 1919, he began research at St. Mary's Hospital Medical School in London. While there, he took secretions from inside the nose of a patient suffering from a head cold. He cultured the secretions to grow any bacteria that happened to be present. 

In the secretions, he discovered a new bacterium called Micrococcus lysodeikticus, now called M luteus. A few days later, when he himself was suffering from a head cold, a drop of mucus fell from his nose onto the culture. The bacteria on which it fell were almost completely destroyed. 

Fleming soon discovered that the common factor in bodily fluids was an enzyme he named lysosome that seemed to destroy certain microbes, making them harmless to people. While lysozyme has limited antimicrobial benefits today, it is still used as a food and wine preservative. It is also used in medicines, particularly in Asia, where it can be found in treatments for head colds, throat infections, and even athlete’s foot. 

Jonas Salk (1914-1995)

Jonas Salk saw firsthand what the devastation of poliomyelitis (polio) can do as he was a child when the illness was rapidly spreading amongst many of his peers. In addition, he also lived through the Spanish Flu pandemic, making it easy to understand how these events helped shape his desire to go into medicine.

In 1947, Salk began conducting research on polio while at the University of Pittsburgh. In a few short years, he had determined that there were three distinct types of polioviruses that led him to develop a “killed” version of the virus he could then test. 

Preliminary testing began in 1952, with the vaccine given mostly to children. In the following years, national vaccinations began, making it one of the biggest clinical trials in the history of medicine. Salk even administered the experimental vaccine to himself, his wife, and his sons. When the results proved successful, the vaccine was approved for general use in 1955.  

You're Part of Today's Physician Heroes

While we were recounting the amazing contributions of physicians over time, it was hard not to notice how they each took the important work of their predecessors and used it to push further into new therapies and lifesaving treatments. As of today’s first line of defense for our country, we thank you for taking your skills to the next level to treat patients across the country.

Thank you for all the work you do year-round. The nation will get through this current crisis, but we are confident that you will be there going forward with a helping hand, a kind heart, and the professionalism that goes with your work as a physician.

On this National Doctors' Day 2020, please take a moment to think of all the contributions you yourself are giving. Your patients recognize it and so does the team at AMN Healthcare.

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