Prairie Doc: Science or Magic? | The community

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  Prairie Doc: Science or Magic?  |  The community

Da Vinci famously conceptualized human flight during the Renaissance, but it took 400 years of research and experimentation before the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk. Only 54 years later, the Russians launched Sputnik 1, and 12 years after that, Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon.

Advances in the understanding of antisepsis taught surgeons to wash their hands and their instruments, and survival rates after surgery steadily rose. The first appendectomy happened in 1880. The first kidney transplant was in 1953.

Hundreds of years ago, the Chinese blew pulverized smallpox scabs into the noses of susceptible individuals, and eventually, variolation — the deliberate, controlled exposure of an individual to smallpox — was practiced throughout the world. Smallpox contracted naturally carried a death rate of about 30 percent. Variolation improved the odds significantly — only one to two percent of people died.

Today, surgeons can repair heart valves without opening the chest, and address spina bifida while an infant is still in the womb. Death as a result of surgery is uncommon in all but the direst of circumstances.

Story Highlights

  • Mendel’s experiments with plants demonstrated inheritance in the mid-1800s. Over the next 100 years, researchers across the world built upon each other’s discoveries, until Watson, Crick and Franklin finally identified the structure of DNA. The human genome project was launched nearly 40 years later, and within 15 years, the entire human genome had been mapped.

  • In 1846, ether was used for surgery for the first time. Surgeons could operate on patients without inflicting excruciating pain from the knife.

In 1796, Jenner started inoculating children with cowpox, thus conferring immunity to smallpox, and the modern vaccine era began. Since the late 1800s, vaccines against many once terrible diseases have been developed.

As technology has advanced, it has been easier to identify the organism that causes a disease. It took almost 15 years to determine that polio was caused by a virus rather than bacteria, and another 40 years to learn that there were in fact three different strains of the poliovirus. It took only two years to identify HIV.

Science accelerates, and science rises to new challenges. Basic science advancements are translated into new or improved technologies faster than ever before. Researchers across the world can collaborate, replicate, build upon or, as importantly, refute each other’s findings. We have tools today that even da Vinci could not have imagined, and they enable us to do things that would have seemed like magic to previous generations. Science fiction author Arthur C. Clark once wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Thankfully, understanding how these technologies developed helps us appreciate the difference. Dr. Debra Johnston is part of The Prairie Doc team of physicians and currently practices family medicine in Brookings, South Dakota.