10 doctors who changed the world

By Liz Meszaros, MDLinx
Published March 28, 2019

Key Takeaways

The preservation and restoration of health are integral parts of any healthy and well-functioning society. On this National Doctor's Day—celebrated on March 30—MDLinx would like to take a moment to honor physicians for what they do to preserve and restore health and well-being for their patients, their communities, and for society as a whole.

To this end, we'd like to present a list of 10 physicians (in chronological order) who—through research, innovation, hard work, and devotion—changed the face of medicine and how it is practiced today.

Edward Jenner, MD, FRS, FRCPE: Discovered vaccinations

Born in May 17, 1749, in Berkeley, Gloucestershire, Edward Jenner was an English physician/scientist who pioneered the world's first vaccine, which he developed for smallpox. Often called the "father of immunology," Dr. Jenner and his work were said to have "saved more lives than the work of any other human." Indeed, during his time, smallpox was responsible for the deaths of roughly 10% to 20% of the population. By 1979, smallpox was declared eradicated from the world by the World Health Organization.

Elizabeth Blackwell, MD: First female physician in the US

Born on February 3, 1821, near Bristol, England, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first female physician in the United States. She moved to Cincinnati, OH, in 1832, and graduated first in her class on January 23, 1849. During her medical school tenure, Dr. Blackwell faced many obstacles because she was a woman, including discrimination. She was often forced to sit separately at lectures and excluded from attending certain labs. She was also frequently shunned by the local townspeople for daring to step out of her traditional role as a woman.

After opening her own clinic in New York City where she specialized in treating indigent women, Dr. Blackwell founded the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. In 1868, Dr. Blackwell opened the Women's Medical College of the New York Infirmary, and helped found the National Health Society, in London, England. Throughout her life, Dr. Blackwell worked to bring equality for women to the field of medicine.

Daniel Hale Williams, MD: First successful open-heart surgeon

Daniel Hale Williams was born on January 18, 1856, in Hollidaysburg, PA. Despite the hardships and racial biases of the era, Dr. Williams, who was an African American, became a surgeon. He also performed the first documented, successful pericardium surgery in the United States to repair a wound. Dr. Williams founded the Provident Hospital and Training School, Chicago, IL—the first non-segregated hospital in the United States, and associated nursing school for African Americans. Now known as the Provident Hospital of Cook County, it was the first hospital in the United States that was owned and managed by African Americans.

Sir Alexander Fleming, MD: Discovered penicillin

Born in Ayrshire, Scotland, on August 6, 1881, Sir Alexander Fleming served in World War I as a captain in the Army Medical Corps. Dr. Fleming had a special interest in the natural bactericidal characteristics of antiseptics and of blood. In 1921, he discovered the bacteriolytic substance lysozyme in the tissue and secretions. In 1928, while studying the influenza virus, he accidentally discovered penicillin. He had left a staphylococcus culture on a plate and found that mold had developed on it. The mold created a bacteria-free circle around it. Upon studying this culture further, he found that it could prevent the growth of staphylococci, even at 800 times dilution, and was part of the Penicillium notatum family. He named it "penicillin" and the rest is history.

Helen Brooke Taussig, MD: A pioneer in pediatric cardiology

Helen Brooke Taussig, born on May 14, 1898, in Cambridge, MA, is considered the founder of the field of pediatric cardiology. Her seminal work, Congenital Malformations of the Heart, was published in 1947. She developed the concept for the Blalock-Thomas-Taussig shunt procedure, which successfully prolongs survival in children born with tetralogy of Fallot, one of the main causes of blue baby syndrome.

Dr. Taussig was also renowned for her work in banning thalidomide, which caused serious deformations in infants whose mothers took it during pregnancy. She testified before Congress to ban thalidomide, and it was consequently banned in both the United States and Europe. Dr. Taussig also worked to promote the use of x-rays and fluoroscopy together for less invasive monitoring of changes in the hearts and lungs of infants. In 1960, Dr. Taussig became the first female president of the American College of Cardiology.

Charles Richard Drew, MD: Father of the blood bank

Born on June 3, 1904, in Washington, DC, Charles Richard Drew was an African American surgeon and medical researcher with a special interest in the field of blood transfusions. He developed improved blood storage techniques, which were used to develop large-scale blood banks during World War II. Dr. Drew also developed bloodmobiles, which, at the time, were simply trucks with refrigerators of stored blood.

Dr. Drew improved the blood collecting process, making sure that there was a centralized location where donors could go to donate. He also had all blood plasma tested before shipment, and strove to ensure that only skilled personnel would handle the plasma to avoid contamination. His work became the starting point for what would become the American Red Cross Blood Bank.

Michael Ellis DeBakey, MD: Pioneer of cardiovascular surgery

On September 7, 1908, Michael Ellis DeBakey was born to Lebanese Christian immigrants, in Lake Charles, LA. With a career that spanned over 75 years, Dr. DeBakey was one of the foremost cardiovascular surgeons in the world. He performed surgery on over 60,000 patients, including presidents and celebrities. In 1932, Dr. DeBakey developed the components that would become part of the first heart-lung machine. In the 1950s, he developed plastic tubing for vascular repair, which was used to prevent stroke recurrence, kidney failure, and vascular restoration in limbs.

His surgical innovations revolutionized cardiovascular procedures, and included the coronary artery bypass, carotid endarterectomy, artificial hearts, and ventricular assist devices. Dr. DeBakey famously pioneered the use of Dacron grafts for vascular repair. The DeBakey Dacron Graft is now used worldwide, including in the surgical repair of aortic aneurysms, which Dr. DeBakey himself underwent at the age of 97. In 1963, Dr. DeBakey installed the first artificial pump to assist a damaged heart. Not surprisingly, Dr. DeBakey's awards were numerous, and included the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of Science, and the Congressional Gold Medal. Dr. DeBakey died in 2008, at the age of 99.

Virginia Apgar, MD: Inventor of the Apgar Score

Photo courtesy: Al Ravenna

Born in 1909, Virginia Apgar developed the Apgar Score, the first standardized measurements for assessing a newborn's transition upon leaving the womb. Initially rejected, the Apgar Score is now used worldwide to assess a newborn's heart rate, respiratory effort, muscle tone, reflex response, and color on a scale of 0-2 points for a combined total score immediately following birth. Currently, 1- and 5-minute Apgar Scores are standard and accepted as predictors of neonatal survival and neurological development. Dr. Apgar made many contributions to the field of obstetrical anesthesia, and demonstrated the association between infant Apgar Score and the effects of labor, delivery, and maternal anesthesia.

Along with Duncan Holaday, MD, and Stanley James, MD, she developed new methods to measure blood gases and serum anesthesia levels, and discovered that low blood oxygenation in infants and highly acidic blood were associated with low Apgar Scores. Dr. Apgar and colleagues demonstrated that cyclopropane anesthesia delivered to mothers in labor could cause low infant Apgar Scores. She was also the first woman to achieve full professorship at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York, NY.

Georges Mathé, MD: Discovered treatment for leukemia

Georges Mathé was born on July 9, 1922, in Sermages, France. In preclinical studies of bone marrow transplantation, he demonstrated that donor cells survived and replicated only in those recipients that were first irradiated to neutralize their immune systems. Although performing such studies in clinical trials was problematic, fate provided Dr. Mathé with a chance to prove his theories in 1958. Several Yugoslavian physicists had been exposed to radiation during a nuclear accident. Dr. Mathé infused them with donor marrow and saved all but one from radiation poisoning.

Thus, Dr. Mathé become one of the first doctors to perform a human allogeneic bone marrow transplant, essentially discovering the treatment for leukemia. In 1963, Dr. Mathé cured a patient of leukemia with a bone marrow transplant. He also later defined graft-versus-host disease, a secondary disease that often follows transplantation, by deducing that it was due to an immune reaction of the cells in the donor marrow against the autologous cells of the patient.

Helene D. Gayle, MD: HIV/AIDS research, public health

Helene D. Gayle was born on August 16, 1955, in Buffalo, NY. Dr. Gayle became one of the leading experts on HIV/AIDS. She had a special interest in the effects of AIDS on children, adolescents, and families, and closely studied the global consequences of HIV/AIDS. Dr. Gayle—who began her career at the CDC as an epidemic intelligence service officer—is hailed as a physician, researcher, executive, and global caregiver, and was named one of Forbes "100 Most Powerful Women." Her contributions to the study, control, and prevention of HIV/AIDS, along with other infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, have been significant. Dr. Gayle also held prestigious positions such as Assistant Surgeon General and Rear Admiral in the Commissioned Corps of the US Public Health Service.

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