Medical Firsts

This timeline offers a sample from an extensive chronology of key moments in human health history.

BCE
2750

The earliest known surgery is performed in Egypt.

1600

The Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus shows that some organs, such as the heart, its vessels, liver, spleen, kidneys, uterus, and bladder, were recognized.

420

Hippocrates of Cos maintains that diseases have natural causes and establishes the Hippocratic Oath.

200

The Charaka Samhita (in southwest Asia) applies an objective, rational approach to the causes and cures of diseases.

CE
30

Aulus Cornelius Celsus, a Roman physician, publishes a book of Greek medical writings on anatomy and surgeries called De re medicina.

162

Galen, a Greek scientist, moves to Rome and becomes a physician at the imperial court after gaining valuable experience as a doctor at a gladiator school.

220

Zhang Zhongjing compiles Shang Han Lun, the oldest complete medical textbook in the world.

870

Ali ibn Sahl Rabban al-Tabari dies.  He wrote the first encyclopedia of medicine in Arabic

1030

Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sīnā writes Al-Qanoon fi al-Tibb, which establishes experimental and evidence-based medicine and remains a standard textbook in the Muslim and European world until the 18th century.

1347

The plague epidemic begins in Europe and human population starts to decline for the first and only time.

1535

The first detailed anatomy text with illustrations is published:  Isagogae breves per lucide ac uberrime in Anatomiam humani corporis by Jacopo Berengario da Carpi.

1543

Andreas Vesalius publishes De Fabrica Corporis Humani which corrects Greek medical errors and revolutionizes European medicine.

1553

Miguel Serveto is the first European to describe circulation of blood through the lungs (although he did it in a theological treatise).

1628

William Harvey correctly describes the circulatory system in Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus.

1701

Giacomo Pylarini provides the first smallpox inoculations in Europe. They were used widely in the east before then.

1736

Claudius Aymand performs the first recorded successful appendectomy.

1804

Hanaoka Seishu, a Japanese surgeon, performs the first reliably documented surgery on a patient under general anesthesia.

1829

James Blundell, who wanted to prevent women from bleeding to death after childbirth, performs the first successful human blood transfusion.

1842

In the Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain, Edwin Chadwick explains the role of environmental conditions in people's health.

1847

Ignaz Semmelweis discovers that hand washing prevents a common, but fatal, bacterial infection contracted by women during childbirth. 

1862

Louis Pasteur establishes his germ theory:  infection is caused by living organisms not by "spontaneous generation."

1895

Wilhelm Röntgen discovers medical use of X-rays.

1901

Karl Landsteiner discovers there are different types of human blood, explaining why some transfusions did not work.

1903

Willem Einthoven discovers that electrocardiography (ECG/EKG) can read electrical activity in the heart.

1906

Frederick Hopkins discovers vitamins and their role in health and disease.

1924

Hans Berger performs the first human electroencephalography (EEG), which records brain waves.

1928

Alexander Fleming accidentally discovers penicillin while studying the bacteria staphylococcus.

1937

Orvan Hess begins work on the first fetal heart monitor.

1943

Willem J. Kolff builds the first artificial kidney, or dialysis machine.

1946

Benjamin Spock publishes Baby and Child Care, sparking a revolution in raising children by suggesting that parents should be more affectionate and treat children as individuals.

1947

Claude Beck performs the first successful defibrillation, which saves the life of a 14-year-old boy during heart surgery.

1950

The first reports linking tobacco and cancer are published.

1952

Jonas Salk develops the first polio vaccine.

1954

Joseph Murray performs the first human kidney transplant.

1963

James Hardy performs the first human lung transplant.  The patient lives for 18 days.

1965

Walter Krause and Richard Soldner develop the first commercial ultrasound machine for use in hospitals.

1967

Christiaan Barnard performs the first human heart transplant, although his patient dies in less than a month.

1977

Raymond Vahan Damadian performs the first MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan of a whole human being.

1979

Smallpox is the first disease eradicated from the Earth.

1981

The US government reports that "5 young men, all active homosexuals" in Los Angeles have been diagnosed with Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia—the first reported cases of AIDS in the US. 

1985

Alec Jeffreys develops DNA fingerprinting, now a staple in forensic science.

1985

Yik San Kwoh performs the first robotic surgery.

1988

Julio Palmaz invents the first commercially useful intravascular stent and revolutionizes cardiac care.

1998

Working independently, James Thomson and John Gearhart report success in growing human stem cells in culture.

2000

The International Human Genome Project releases a rough draft of the complete, human genome to the public.

2001

Jacques Marescaux leads the first telesurgery from New York on a patient in Germany.

2003

Carlo Urbani, from Doctors without Borders, alerts the World Health Organization about the threat of the SARS virus.

2005

French surgeon Jean-Michael Dubernard performs the first partial face transplant.

2010

A 54-year-old Italian man is the first patient to live beyond 1000 days with an artificial heart while waiting for a donor heart.