10 Groundbreaking Medical Advancements of the 20th Century

The 20th century produced such a plethora of discoveries and advances that in some ways it changed the face of medicine. The rapid progress of medicine in this era was reinforced by enormous improvements in communication between scientists throughout the world. Here are 10 fantastic and ground-breaking medical advancements of the 20th century, one from each decade!

1906: The Year Of Vitamins!

Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins suggested the existence of vitamins (initially termed “accessory food factors”) and concluded that they are essential to health. He received the 1929 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. His works include Newer Aspects of the Nutrition Problem (1922), The Problems of Specificity in Biochemical Catalysis (1931), and Chemistry and Life (1933).

1913: The First Cardiologist

Dr. Paul Dudley White became one of America’s first cardiologists, a doctor specializing in the heart and its functions. He explored the electrocardiograph and its potential as a diagnostic tool. Paul’s sister died at an early age from rheumatic heart disease and his father, from coronary heart disease. These losses might have shaped his interest in this field.

1922: Insulin Is In The Market

In this decade insulin was used to treat diabetes for the first time. On January 11, 1922, Leonard Thompson, a 14-year-old diabetic who lay dying at the Toronto General Hospital, was given the first injection of insulin. However, the extract was impure and Thompson suffered a severe allergic reaction. A second dose was injected on January 23, completely eliminating the glycosuria that was typical of diabetes without causing any obvious side-effects.

1937: Blood Banks Were Now Available

Bernard Fantus started the first blood bank at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, using a 2% solution of sodium citrate to preserve the blood. Refrigerated blood lasted for ten days.  World War II spurred Fantus on as he wanted to use the blood from people in the stateside to save the lives of U.S. soldiers who were overseas. He thus spent years in the laboratory perfecting methods of transfusion.

1943: Streptomycin’s Birthday

Microbiologist Selman A. Waksman discovered the antibiotic streptomycin, which later is used in the treatment of tuberculosis and other diseases. In 1952, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The Selman A. Waksman Award in Microbiology is given in his honor by the National Academy of Sciences. 

1954: A Life-Saving Transplant

Dr. Joseph E. Murray performed the first kidney transplant between identical twins in this decade. In operating room 2 of the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, Murray transplanted a healthy kidney donated by Ronald Herrick into his twin brother Richard, who was dying of chronic nephritis.  Murray shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1990 with E. Donnall Thomas for their discoveries concerning “organ and cell transplantation in the treatment of human disease’’.

1967: A New Life

South African heart surgeon, Dr. Christiaan Barnard performed the first human heart transplant. On December 3, 1967, Barnard transplanted the heart of an accident victim, Denise Darvall into the chest of 54-year-old Louis Washkansky. Washkansky regained full consciousness and was able to easily talk to his wife, before dying of pneumonia 18 days later.

1978: The Unusual Baby

The very first test-tube baby was born in the U.K. In 1977, Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards successfully carried out a pioneering conception which resulted in the birth of the world’s first baby to be conceived by in-vitro fertilization (IVF), Louise Brown on July 25, 1978, in Oldham General Hospital, Greater Manchester, UK.

1983: Causative Agent Of The Biggest Epidemic Was Found

HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, was identified. In 1983, Luc Montagnier’s team at the Pasteur Institute in Paris discovered HIV‑1. In 2008, Luc Montagnier and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi from his team were awarded the Nobel Prize for the isolation and characterization of HIV-1.

1996: The Year Of Successful Cloning

Dolly, the sheep, became the first mammal cloned from an adult cell. Dolly was cloned by Keith Campbell, Ian Wilmut and their colleagues at the Roslin Institute. She had three mothers: one provided the egg, another the DNA, and a third carried the cloned embryo to term.


1. Medical Advances Timeline. Available from: https://www.infoplease.com/math-science/health/medical-advances-timeline (Accessed on 27 November 2019)

2. History of Medicine. Available from:  https://www.britannica.com/science/history-of-medicine/Insulin (Accessed on 27 November 2019)

3. Frederick Gowland Hopkins. Available from:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_Gowland_Hopkins (Accessed on 27 November 2019)

4. Paul Dudley White. Available from:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Dudley_White (Accessed on 27 November 2019)

5. Insulin. Available from:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Insulin (Accessed on 27 November 2019)

6. Bernard Fantus. Available from:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernard_Fantus (Accessed on 27 November 2019)

7. Selman Waksman. Available from:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selman_Waksman (Accessed on 27 November 2019)

8. Joseph Murray. Available from:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Murray (Accessed on 27 November 2019)

9. Christiaan Barnard. Available from:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christiaan_Barnard (Accessed on 27 November 2019)

10. History of in-vitro fertilization. Available from:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_in_vitro_fertilisation#First_baby (Accessed on 27 November 2019)