“An apple a day keeps the doctor away!” Or does it? While some may recall a time when cure-all tonics solved every ailment, leeches were used to extract blood and doctors made house calls, it’s undeniable that the medical field has seen some of the most fascinating transformations over the last 100 years. After all, does your doctor still make house calls, use snail slime to treat warts or prescribe arsenic to treat fevers or headaches? We certainly hope not!
Much like common “cures” used in early medicine, there were also dozens of strange devices like birth chairs, Civil War bone chain saws and dental screw forceps that, thank goodness, are now considered barbaric and highly unsafe. Whew! But, did you know that aside from these horrific devices, some of the most common medical equipment found in doctors’ offices and at hospitals today have actually been around just as long?
Taking a look back over the last century to see how much the field of medicine has advanced, we couldn’t help but wonder which devices have lasted this long and how much they’ve changed. Aren’t you curious? Join us for a sneak peek at 20 scary images of medical equipment then and now! Will you recognize some of these early contraptions that have transformed into some of the most advanced medical equipment today? Let’s find out!
#20 – Incubator
“Oh baby, baby!” While the majority of babies are born under ideal circumstances that allow them a brief stay at the hospital before going home with their proud parents, some babies require a little more tender, love and care especially if they’re born prematurely. That’s where the neonatal intensive care department and incubators come into play! Invented by Dr. Martin Couney of Germany, incubators were first put to use in 1896 shortly before Couney settled in the United States where he showed off his new invention by putting babies on display in the contraption on the bustling Coney Island boardwalk. No, we aren’t kidding!
Thankfully by the mid-1940s, Couney’s outrageous exhibits were well on their way to becoming another weird footnote in medical history as advances in technology helped modernize his original incubator design. Now widely used today to maintain ideal conditions for newborns, incubators have increased the survival rates of babies across the world thanks to the use of oxygen hoods, ventilators, climate control, nutritional and medication tubes and more! All of this and to think the incubator all started like a circus display on New York’s legendary boardwalk.
#19 – Amputation Knife
One of the most tragic facets of medicine throughout history and even today are amputations, which are performed for a variety of reasons from a diseased limb or gangrene to preventative measures, war injuries, punishment for crimes or even acts of terrorism. Long before anesthesia was invented, amputations were incredibly risky for patients until Dr. Robert Liston of Scotland proved to be a true pioneer of surgery with “the fastest knife in the West End” clocking in with amputations in three minutes or less. As a result of his speed, patients had greater odds of survival and decreased pain. So what was his trick?
Liston attributed his speed and success to his invention of a knife made from high quality metal that featured a blade measuring between six and eight inches long. Quickly becoming known as the Liston Knife and widely used in the American Civil War, it was only a matter of time before Liston’s technique and invention spread around the world. A prized item among collectors today, the original Liston Knife has seen dozens of improvements since its debut and is now transformed into a sleek and unthreatening design that’s far different from those early (and incredibly unsanitary) torturous hooked blades of centuries past.
18 – Holter Monitor
At the heart of the matter! One of the newer medical inventions on our list, the Holter Monitor is also named after its inventor, experimental physicist Norman “Jeff” Holter of Helena, Montana. Inspired by a cardiologist in the 1950s who expressed his need for a wearable heart monitor for his patients, Holter teamed up with Bruce Del Mar to create a portable monitor that could be worn by patients and would allow doctors to see their heart activity over a longer span of time using electrodes attached to a patient’s chest.
As with most inventions, the original Holter Monitor was so large and cumbersome that patients had to remain in their doctor’s care while wearing it since it required nearly 100 pounds of equipment when it first debuted in the 1940s. Finally released for commercial production in 1962, the Holter Monitor has shrunk tremendously and is now approximately the size of an iPhone and allows patients to go about their normal activities and even exercise without being bogged down by tangling cords and the excess weight of a bulky device.
#17 – Dental Chair
“Smile and say ‘Cheese!’” From cavities and fillings to root canals and crowns, getting some people to go to the dentist is like pulling teeth! But, can you imagine going to the dentist’s office before dentistry became mainstream? Believe it or not, one of the biggest changes over the years hasn’t been to the tools themselves but to the actual dental chair. In 1790, American dentist Joseph Flagg actually modified a standard writing chair with a head and arm rest to improve the comfort of his patients and give him more room for his instruments. It would be decades, however, until the dental chair would recline all the way back.
By the early 1800s, a rocker was used for a prototype as dentists started designing their own chairs before manufacturing companies took over and produced a variety of designs utilizing pumps to lower and raise patients for convenience and comfort. As time passed, metal replaced wood in what resembled space-age ergonomic chairs before 1958 when John Naughton invented the plush and reclining dental chair as we know it today. Too bad they haven’t managed to improve those pesky drills that cause so much pain, comfortable chair or not!
#16 – Back Brace
Just put your back into it! Sometimes, our bodies can betray us in unnatural and uncomfortable ways such as the curvature of the spine, which is otherwise known as scoliosis. Affecting people since the beginning of time, scoliosis was first documented as being treated in the fifth century BC in what was known as the Hippocratic technique in which patients were stretched in multiple prolonged sessions with the hopes that the maneuver would eventually straighten their spinal deformities. After nearly a half century without positive results (duh!), the treatment was modified but it wasn’t until the 16th century when back braces debuted.
Back braces from the early 20th century looked horrific and even managed to make early dentist chairs look tame when it came to resembling torture devices. So just how bad were they to actually wear? The early contraptions required people to wear oversized, heavy metal back braces for years at a time while dealing with limited mobility in terms of eating and moving not to mention pain and exhaustion. Though back braces today are finally smaller, functional and more discreet with the option to wear them under clothing, one of the greatest issues doctors continue to face is encouraging patients to consistently wear them.
#15 – Crutches
Much like back braces, crutches have been used for thousands of years and actually date back to ancient Egypt where walking sticks were first used to improve mobility. As to whether or not they were ever used for injuries or simply as a classy instrument, that’s still up for debate! It wasn’t until 1917, however, when the modern version of the crutch began to finally take shape after Emile Schlick patented the design. Years later, A.R. Lofstrand, Jr. improved the invention by adding a height-adjustable feature that transformed them into the customizable crutches we know and use today.
In addition to the standard design, forearm crutches are also widely used thanks to Thomas Fetterman who contracted polio at a young age and was forced to use crutches long before padded or gel tops were invented. By his 40s, Fetterman’s intense shoulder pain and limited mobility inspired him to invent a shock absorbing system for crutches that would help long-term crutch users avoid additional pain and discomfort. Now standard on most brands and styles of crutches as well as canes, Fetterman is an industry leader who has helped drastically change the face of the ancient walking stick!
#14 – Prosthetics
Did you know that a Greek diviner once cut off his foot and replaced it with a wooden one to escape the Spartans? Just as crutches and back braces have Egyptian roots, prosthetics also date back to ancient Egyptian times where a warrior queen named Vishpala actually wore a prosthetic wooden toe (heck, it even looks pretty good considering its age!). Over the years, prosthetics evolved to match the prosperity and culture of the era as they transformed from simple wooden toes to iron fists, bronze arms and copper legs.
It wasn’t until the 20th century when prosthetics actually became functional rather than a fashion statement or sign of prosperity as they were produced from plastics and became readily available to those in need. Today, things have only gotten better in prosthetic technology as some limbs are mechanical and can completely emulate a normal limb, taking an amputee’s mobility to even greater heights. What’s even better is that doctors and scientists have teamed up to make prosthetics appear like normal limbs, which is a long way from Egypt’s first wooden toes!
#13 – Head Mirror
“The Doctor is in!” When you imagine a doctor, chances are you see a physician wearing a white lab coat with a funny-looking mirror on his head—but, do you know what the mirror actually does? First used in 1743 by a French male midwife named Levert who was fascinated by throats, head mirrors rose to popularity in the mid-1800s as doctors discovered they could use them to reflect light from behind the patient’s head for a shadow-free illumination of the inner ear, nose and throat cavities.
Although they’re still used by specialists today, head mirrors have mostly been replaced by pen lights or otoscopes, which are smaller handheld tools that have the same purpose but offer a clearer view without the bulkiness of head gear. Nevertheless, though they might not be seen at the doctor’s office, head mirrors have been associated with doctor’s long enough that they’re a standard at Halloween costume parties when children and adults don scrubs, white lab coats stethoscopes and head mirrors for a night of trick or treating straight from the 18th century!
#12 – Pacemaker
“Straight to the heart and you’re to blame…” When it comes to physical matters of the heart, cardiologists are experts in knowing every ventricle and valve, every artery, beat and vein. But what happens when the heart doesn’t beat as it should? John Alexander MacWilliam asked the same question in 1889 when he debuted his invention—the pacemaker—that regulated the heart’s rhythm between 60 and 70 beats per minute using electrical impulses. Inspiring others around the world to create similar versions, it wasn’t until 30 years later when an implantable version finally became available.
After decades of ongoing study by the likes of American physiologist Albert Hyman, electrical engineers Earl Bakken and John Hopps as well as a number of other innovators, Arne Larson became the first to receive an implantable pacemaker in 1958. He received 26 additional devices up until his death at 86 years old in 2001 and, ironically enough, outlived the pacemaker inventor and his surgeon. As for current pacemakers, they are constantly being improved with the latest devices designed to be the size of a pill and inserted into a patient’s leg without the need for invasive surgery.
#11 – Gurney
If you’ve ever been to the emergency room or ridden in an ambulance, you’ve likely had a seat or taken a ride on a gurney. Known in other parts of the world as a stretcher, litter or pram and often used by emergency, military and rescue personnal, gurneys were derived from a horse-drawn cart that was patented by J. Theodore Gurney in 1883. Because they were made of wood and offered very little support or flexibility, the earliest gurneys were often detrimental to patients with severe neck or back injuries.
Like most other equipment on our list, the gurney has also evolved over the years to add support for patients as well as convenience for first responders. Gurneys today have latches that hook into an ambulance’s interior to keep patients from bouncing or sliding around the cab. They are also adjustable in height so that patients can be rolled on the gurney to prevent further injury for both the patient and medical personnel. There are even a variety of designs and sizes to fit helicopters, boats and other emergency response vehicles!
#10 – Gamma Knife
Have you ever heard of radiosurgery? Used to treat cancer patients with radiation since the late 1940s, Lars Leksell of Elekta AB in Stockholm, Sweden thought to make the process easier and more effective in 1967 with the invention of the Gamma Knife. First used to treat brain tumors using high intensity and heavily concentrated cobalt radiation, the device finally made its way to the United States in 1979 as a gift to Dr. Robert Wheeler Rand of the University of California Los Angeles.
Considered cutting edge in the 1960s, early versions of the Gamma Knife resembled a giant hair dryer from outer space or perhaps a larger version of Darth Vader’s helmet. (May the force be with you!) Still just as effective today in treating brain tumors while offering very few complications, the modern version of the Gamma Knife has obviously improved (sorry Star Wars fans) and looks like a giant pod where patients rest on a motorized table and receive treatment.
#9 – EKG
Having already seen the portable Holter heart monitor, next on our list is a machine that offers an even better and more comprehensive picture of the heart’s activity—the electrocardiogram or EKG. First developed in 1794 as a galvanometer to monitor the heart’s activities using electricity, it wasn’t until the mid-1800s when EKGs used electrodes on the hearts of frogs to measure cardiac activity. By the early 1900s, a huge breakthrough was made when Dutch physician and physiologist Willem Einthoven invented the first practical and working electrocardiogram.
Despite its initial size clocking in at over 600 pounds, the EKG proved to be an incredible invention thanks to its accuracy in measuring human heart activity, which earned Einthoven the 1924 Nobel Prize in Medicine. As with so many other devices on our list, technological advancement has continued over the last century but the greatest improvement to the EKG came in the late 1920s when it was reduced to a 30-pound portable device that allowed doctors to read the results and determine the proper treatment plan with greater efficiency and accuracy, not to mention driving patient satisfaction off the charts (no pun intended!).
#8 – Ventilator
Whether you call it a ventilator or a respirator, these lifesaving devices have the same function of helping patients breath by regularly moving air into and out of the lungs. Commonly seen in home-care or intensive care units as well as in operating rooms, ventilators were first developed in the 20th century when the polio outbreak wreaked havoc and led to the early development of the Iron Lung or negative pressure ventilator. After the invention of the “Drinker Respirator” in 1928, John Haven Emerson made a few improvements and introduced the first modern version of the ventilator in 1931.
Once massive pieces of equipment (though much smaller than EKG machines), ventilators have drastically decreased in size over the last 80 years with the newest models resembling a laptop and weighing 14 pounds, which opens patients up to a world of opportunity in terms of mobility. There’s even a new modular concept that allows hospital departments to customize ventilators to meet the needs of their patients without having to purchase an entire fleet of costly and rarely used equipment. Sounds like a real bang for the hospital’s buck, if you ask us!
#7 – Hospital Bed
A far cry from the hard-backed gurney or stretcher seen in emergency rooms and ambulances, hospital beds may have mattresses and sheets but they’re a far cry from your bed at home. Recognized by their adjustable side rails, the first hospital beds appeared in England in the mid-1800s before an Ohio-based mattress company known as Andrew Wuest and Son patented an elevated hospital bed in 1874. By the early 20th century, Willis Dew Gatch of the Indiana University School of Medicine, transformed the design into a three-segment bed that’s now one of the most common used beds today.
Known to be incredibly uncomfortable in their early development especially for long term patients, hospital beds have come quite a long way since the modern push-button bed was invented in 1945. Today, beds can average an upwards of $1,000 each and feature everything from lockable wheels, adjustable side rails and a variety of elevation options as well as alarms that alert nurses when a patient exits the bed or needs assistance. Heck, most beds even have built in television remotes and speakers that give an entirely new meaning to “surround sound!”
#6 – Oxygen Mask
From jet pilots, scuba divers, mountain climbers and astronauts, oxygen masks are common in a variety of fields especially in medicine. Used long before the first World War in limited applications such as resuscitating patients, oxygen was later used to treat gas inhalation injuries during the war, which led to the development of oxygen masks and tank oxygen for field use. Originally produced in the 1930s in a one-size fits all application featuring a cone shape and hooked to a massive oxygen tank, the use of oxygen exploded after the war as physicians began adopting the practice around the world.
Over the next few decades, oxygen masks transformed to meet the needs of various applications and industries (divers, astronauts, pets, aviators, etc.) to include optional nasal tubes as well as fully adjustable and disposable masks covering both the nose and mouth without the added feeling of claustrophobia. Today, even the massive oxygen tanks have been replaced with lighter and more compact options that give wearers greater mobility and confidence in not having to lug around a massive tank or hide behind the dreaded oxygen cone!
#5 – Endoscope
Yikes! So that’s what an endoscope is for? One of the most dreaded words for any patient to hear, an endoscopy is the process in which a physician uses an endoscope—or imaging device—to see inside body cavities such as internal organs like the throat or esophagus. First developed in the early 1800s by a German physician named Philipp Bozzini, the endoscope was used for the first time (and long before any doctor had access to electricity) by Antonin Desormeaux, a urologist in Paris, to examine the urinary tract and bladder of his patient.
Over the years, the endoscope has drastically advanced with technological improvements that have extended the practice into several different forms and instruments such as the bronchoscopy (bronchus), arthroscopy (joints) and colonoscopy (colon). Additionally, the introduction of fiber optics in the 1950s led to the development of Rod-lens endoscopes which enhanced the technology so much that doctors are now able to take educated guesses at the level of hemoglobin in a patient’s blood.
#4 – MRI Scanner
Quite possibly one of the most impressive forms of modern medical technology the world has ever seen is the MRI Scanner, which is also one of the newer inventions to make our list. Officially known as a Magnetic Resonance Imaging device, the scanner was invented by Paul C. Lauterbur in 1971 whose work was based on the research of physician and scientist Erik Odeblad in the 1950s. By 1972, physician Raymond Damadian of the State University of New York patented the first MRI scanner to detect cancer in patients.
With the help of highly funded research over the last four decades, MRI technology has improved dramatically to the point that it received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2003 for its applicability in the medical field. Averaging anywhere between $500,000 to $1.5 million and now offering an open-ended scanner for claustrophobic patients who often panic in the original tube design, the MRI Scanner has proven to be incredibly versatile and accurate in diagnosing everything from injuries to illnesses.
#3 – Defibrillator
“Charge to 300 and clear!” While the head mirror might be the most common stereotype of doctors in popular culture today, the defibrillator just might come in second. Seen on medical dramas where doctors yell out “Charge to 250, push one of epi and clear!”, defibrillators are paddle-like devices that are used to treat life-threatening cardiac rhythms by shocking the heart muscle directly. So who came up with the invention and how? The first defibrillator was used in 1899 by Jean-Louis Prevost and Frederic Batelli in Switzerland when they discovered that a small shock in dogs could restore the heart to a normal rate.
Four decades later in the 1930s, Dr. Albert Hyman (who also worked on developing the pacemaker) invented a way to use defibrillation technology on humans as an alternative to injecting drugs straight into a patient’s heart. Instead, Hyman injected a hollow steel needle into the heart to deliver an electric shock in what became known as the Hyman Otor method. Over the years, the defibrillation process has obviously been streamlined into various methods with two of the biggest advancements occurring in the late 1950s when portable units were introduced and again in the 1970s when implantable devices gave new life to cardiac patients.
#2 – X-Ray Machines
“Toe bone connected to the foot bone, foot bone connected to the heel bone!” If you’ve ever broken a bone or visited the dentist, there’s a good chance that you’ve had an x-ray. The x-ray was first discovered by English chemist and physicist William Crookes who was testing electrical discharge tubes when he discovered its many uses. He then used x-rays to photograph his wife’s hand only to discover he could see her wedding ring as well as the 27 bones that made up her fingers, hand and wrist.
With his discovery, Crookes saw the use of x-rays travel beyond hospitals and into odd places like shoe stores where people were desperate to find the perfect fitting shoe (sadly, we aren’t kidding!) However, as people finally discovered just how detrimental x-ray exposure could be, the process was restricted to hospital use on an exclusive basis. These days, modern safety measures have made a huge impact on x-ray use in patients leading to a variety of forms such as mammography and orthopantomograms, which is exactly what the dentist does when he takes a “picture” of your teeth from ear to ear!
#1 – Wheelchairs
Can you pop a wheelie? Ending our list with one of the most popular medical devices, the wheelchair is an overly simple invention that has evolved over the years into a high-end means of transportation for many patients with mobility issues. Dating back to the fifth century BC when disabled people used wheeled chairs to get around, the technology was certainly lacking in the early design especially when it came to comfort and convenience. Everything changed, however, in 1933 when mechanical engineers Harry Jennings and Herbert Everest introduced the first collapsible wheelchair.
Offering unique insight into the design because of his own disability after breaking his back in a mining accident, Everest’s collaboration with Jennings was a game changer as their lightweight steel design has stuck around for decades. During the 1940s, the industry saw another change as electrical powered chairs made the rounds among wealthier clients who were the only ones who could afford such high-priced chairs. Now, after years of modifications and refinement, electrical-powered wheelchairs are much more affordable and are seen buzzing around everywhere from neighborhood sidewalks to airports, shopping malls and grocery stores.