The advent and advancement of medical science ranks as one of the top three main influencers of the general advancement of the human species, alongside agriculture and industrialization.
Since the dawn of history, study of the human body, the diseases that attack it, and the remedies that can combat those diseases has been a constant obsession for some of our greatest thinkers and problem solvers.
In their drive to ward off the inevitable facing each and every human being from the moment of birth, doctors and scientists from the classic era all the way through today have been making steady progress.
But it's the breakthroughs — those rare moments in history that mark major turning points in the way medicine is practiced and perceived — that propel all of human civilization past major historical milestones.
Here are five of the most important advancements ever made by medical science. In one way or another, each and every one of us — you included — owes our lives to these technical achievements.
Viruses have led to some of mankind's deadliest, most widespread calamities, and they continue to do so as biological evolution presents medical science with new problems each and every year.
But some of the biggest battles have already been won.
Dr. Edward Jenner first introduced the idea of vaccinations in 1796, when he successfully prevented a young English boy from getting smallpox.
The idea was simple enough: Introduce a benign strain of a virus into the human body so that the immune system can develop a natural response.
Thanks to this simple but groundbreaking procedure, smallpox — the single-biggest killer of people in the 20th century — has been virtually eradicated from the face of the Earth.
Vaccination took another step forward thanks to Louis Pasteur, whose work with vaccines for such infectious diseases as rabies and anthrax contributed greatly to the widespread acceptance of vaccination as a standard preemptive medical practice in the 20th century.
Today, vaccination is prevalent in most of the developed world, with infants acquiring artificial immunity to a host of diseases before ever leaving the maternity ward — and contributing significantly to the steady rise in life expectancy since the turn of the 20th century.
Clean Water and Sanitation
Anybody who's seen the inside of a modern operating room would quake at the sight of how things used to be not so long ago.
Bare-handed amputations, scalpels being reused without sterilization, and open wounds exposed to unsanitized instruments were just a few elements of surgical procedures up to the beginning of the 20th century.
Nobody could have predicted how something as simple and apparent as sanitation could change the way high-risk, invasive procedures and hospital protocol are tackled.
Although impossible to quantify the raw numbers of lives saved, considering the death rates of patients going under the knife in the post-Civil War era and the post-World War I era, it's not a stretch to assume that millions owed their lives to better hospital conditions.
And it goes beyond the hospital and battlefield triage.
Water, the most fundamental molecular component of all life, has gone through a technological revolution of its own.
In the early 20th century, as many as 15% of infant deaths were attributed to unclean water. Today, that statistic is down more than 50-fold.
Vaccination was just one prong of fortifying our immune systems against the never-ending onslaught of new microbes and parasites.
Antibiotics, which came about by accident less than 90 years ago, rank alongside the most important breakthroughs of all time.
And this accident didn't require billions in research. In fact, the cost of the experiment that has saved hundreds of millions of lives was probably less than $5 in today's money.
In 1928, Sir Alexander Fleming left a Petri dish of Staphylococci bacteria uncovered and later noted that the bacteria had been killed by a mold which had contaminated the sample.
Upon further studying the mold, he discovered it was from a family called Penicillium notatum.
The mold gave the name to the first antibiotic, penicillin, and the rest was history. It is now estimated that at least 200 million lives were saved by this one medical breakthrough.
Extrapolating that through the generations, there's a very good chance that you would have never been born had this simple treatment not been administered to one of your ancestors.
Today, antibiotics are used to treat a laundry list of bacterial illnesses, preventing complications and untold numbers of fatalities every single year.
Whether it's at the dentist's office or at the hospital, most of us have had at least a couple experiences with X-rays.
But before the first X-ray image was ever taken, doctors had to make their diagnoses by one of two means: either working from external clues on the surface of the body or through exploratory surgery.
Neither was very reliable. One was often deadly.
Since that first eerie image was taken in 1895 (pictured below), however, radiology has become a science unto itself.
By 2010, it was estimated that over 5 billion X-ray imaging studies have been conducted worldwide.
In 2006, as much as 50% of total ionizing radiation exposure in the U.S. came from these devices.
And there is no end in sight, as computer and super-conductor technology continues to push forward this branch of medical science.
With modern imaging like CT (computer tomography) and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), the level of detail we can see has gone up orders of magnitude.
Today's best equipment can digitally dissect the human body into slices fractions of a millimeter thick, allowing for radiologists and surgeons to spot tumors, aneurysms, blood clots, and a host of other potential problems before they escalate.
We have you covered! Sign up for Tech Investing Daily's FREE newsletter, Wealth Daily, today and gain first access to actionable stock market commentary, regular IPO updates, and weekly technical analysis. Plus, if you sign up right now, we'll immediately send you our free report: "Baby Booming: 3 Health Care Stocks to Profit from the Aging Population."
People have been taking pills for centuries, with most of them doing next to nothing or nothing at all.
However, when the pharmaceutical industry merged with the science of molecular engineering, things really started to change.
With today's technology, the engineering, patenting, and modification of complex molecules has opened new doors both to curing diseases and to the study of how the human anatomy reacts to those compounds.
Chemical engineers and molecular biologists are now able to hybridize the effects of certain drugs with other drugs to create synergistic new products that can then be modeled in computer simulations before a single living organism undergoes trial testing.
Drugs can also, for the first time, be tailored to interact with their target cells on an exclusive basis, allowing for medications that are less dangerous, less invasive, and more effective at isolating specific problems.
Moving forward, this branch of medical science will work more and more alongside the rising field of nanotechnology, making the pills we take smarter, safer, more effective, and more versatile.
Fortune favors the bold,
Coming to us from an already impressive career as an independent trader and private investor, Alex's specialty is in the often misunderstood but highly profitable development-stage microcap sector. Focusing on young, aggressive, innovative biotech and technology firms from the U.S. and Canada, Alex has built a track record most Wall Street hedge funders would envy. Alex contributes his thoughts and insights regularly to Tech Investing Daily. To learn more about Alex, click here.