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Medical devices and technology across the years

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2019 - Summer


As long as humans have had the ability to craft tools, they’ve been using them to solve medical problems. Over time, the tools have become increasingly complex and sophisticated.

6000 BCE

During the Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic times, knives, saws, and drills made of stones such as flint are used for surgery, amputation, and trepanation.

950 BCE

The world’s oldest prosthetic devices are toes for amputees, made in ancient Egypt of wood and leather.

300-500 CE

The Greeks and Romans set the patterns of modern surgical instruments with new tools, often made of bronze.


It is hard to credit any single scientist with the invention of spectacles, but Roger Bacon’s studies of optics lead to development of this visual breakthrough. Scholars and monks had used an early prototype held before the eyes or balanced on the nose.


Zacharias Janssen, a Dutch spectacle-maker, is credited with the invention of the compound microscope, although controversy remains regarding this claim.

In 1734,

Yale becomes the first college in America to obtain one. More than 50 years later, Yale lists a microscope as one of the “machines for a course in experimental philosophy.”


Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit, a Dutch-German-Polish inventor and instrument maker, invents the mercury-in-glass thermometer. The basic principles of the thermometer had been known to Greek philosophers 2,000 years earlier, while Galileo had invented a device to measure temperature called a thermoscope in the late 1603.


A French physician RenéLaennec, MD, invents the stethoscope—originally a trumpet-shaped tube—to cover the embarrassment of pressing his ear to the chest of a female patient.


Hermann von Helmholtz, a German physicist, invents the ophthalmoscope to examine the retina and other parts of the interior of the eye.


Independently of each other, Charles Gabriel Pravaz, MD, a French surgeon, and Alexander Wood, MD, a Scottish physician, develop the hypodermic syringe. The general principle of injection had been known for at least 1800 years—Greek and Roman physicians had used thin, hollow tools known as piston syringes to inject fluids into the body.


Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen, PhD, a German engineer and physicist, discovers X-rays. The first X-ray images in the United States were published a month later by Yale professor Arthur W. Wright, PhD, and the first clinical X-ray was taken at Dartmouth College that same week.


Willem Einthoven, MD, a Dutch physician, refines the electrocardiogram developed by a British physiologist and devises an instrument to record the heart’s electrical impulses.


Hans Berger, MD, a German physiologist and psychiatrist, expands on Einthoven’s work and develops a method for recording human brain waves through the skull known as electroencephalography or EEG.


An American engineer, Philip Drinker, creates the iron lung, a device that breathes for polio patients who can no longer breathe on their own.


German electrical engineers Max Knoll and Ernst Ruska design the first electron microscope, which magnifies tiny intracellular structures far beyond the capacity of light microscopes. George E. Palade and colleagues found the Section of Cell Biology at Yale in the 1970s, where they merge electron microscopy with biochemistry to lay the foundation of modern cell biology. Palade wins the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 1964, a year after his arrival at Yale.


The Soviet scientist Vladimir Demikhov makes the first artificial heart. It is transplanted into a dog, which survives for two hours after the surgery.


Willem J. Kolff, MD, PhD, a Dutch physician invents the artificial kidney, which evolved into modern dialysis machines.


John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley invent a semiconductor device called the transistor at Bell Labs. It becomes a key piece of virtually every electronic device, leading to the development of medical devices like cardiac pacemakers.


With dime-store valves, glass tubing, and a pump from an Erector Set, a Yale surgeon, William W.L. Glenn, MD, and a medical student, William Sewell, create an external heart pump for $24.80. Yale used the pump to study the patterns of coronary blood flow and devise methods for its safe removal from the open heart.


John Hopps, an electrical engineer, invents the first cardiac pacemaker. A year later, Paul Zoll, MD, a cardiologist in Boston, is credited with building on Hopps’ work and developing an external tabletop pacemaker for treatment of heart block. In 1959, the first use of a cardiac radiofrequency pacemaker in the Western Hemisphere takes place at Yale under the direction of William W.L. Glenn, MD, chief of cardiovascular surgery.


Edward H. Hon, MD, and Orvan W. Hess, MD, publish in Science a description of an electronic device to gauge fetal heart rate. Created by Hess, with Hon’s assistance, the device is first used at Yale New Haven Hospital in 1960.


Theodore H. Maiman, PhD, operates the first optical laser at Hughes Research Laboratories in California. Lasers have many uses in medicine, including surgery, kidney stone treatment, ophthalmoscopy, and cosmetic skin treatments.


Computer technology begins to merge with medical technology; it is now used to store medical records, control instruments, and perform robotic surgery.


Paul Lauterbur, PhD, applies magnetic field gradients to create nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) images. Along with physicist Peter Mansfield, PhD, he develops MRI techniques like echo-planar imaging. In 1979, with the arrival of Robert G. Shulman, PhD, Yale becomes a leader in magnetic resonance research, and Yale faculty are the first to use MRI to measure the brain’s performance of cognitive tasks.


Raymond Damadian, MD, is granted the world’s first patent in the field of MRI, after he discovers how to use magnetic resonance imaging for medical diagnosis. By 1977, Damadian completes construction of the first whole-body MRI scanner.


Robert S. Ledley, MS, DDS, a physiologist, radiologist, and biophysicist, invents whole-body computed tomography (CT) scans. His device builds on early designs by Sir Godfrey N. Hounsfield, a British electrical engineer, who developed the computerized axial tomography (CAT) scanner, which combines cross-sectional X-rays taken at different angles around the body.


Yale researchers William V. Tamborlane, MD, professor of pediatrics, and Robert S. Sherwin, MD, professor of medicine, develop the insulin infusion pump for people with diabetes. The pump provides a means of maintaining better control over insulin levels in children who would other-wise need multiple daily injections.


The first permanent artificial heart is implanted at the University of Utah. Until then artificial hearts had served as a bridge to transplantation. The heart was developed by Robert K. Jarvik, MD, who modified earlier models and on December 2, implants an artificial heart into retired dentist Barney Clark, who survives for 112 days.


Stuart Weinzimer, MD, and colleagues at Yale are at the forefront of efforts around the country to develop an artificial pancreas. The closed loop system of devices and software transmits blood glucose level readings to a device that controls insulin delivery.

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