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Biomedicine in museums

The recent history of medical technology — piecing it together from memoirs and reminiscences

By December 7, 2009No Comments

One of the challenges for a museum of medicine intent on collecting recent and contemporary medical artefacts is to get an overview of the historical development of medical instruments, medical technological systems and the medical device industry.

Trade shows and their catalogues (published or online) are excellent sources. But memoirs and reminiscences of people who have been engaged in the trade show business can also be useful —  they add a more personal perspective to the dry historical data, they are more fun to read than catalogues, and you can probably construct a useful picture of trends by piecing their more or less idiosyncratic stories together.

Take for example Wolfgang Albath, a pioneer in laboratory medicine and one of the founding organisers of the world`s largest medical trade show, MEDICA in Düsseldorf,. He has just summarized, shortly, his view of some of the important trends in the last 40 years of medical hospital technology (in the 12 Nov online issue of European Hospital):

Medica trade show 1974

In summary, his view of the recent history can be described in three words: mechanisation, automation and digitalisation. When MEDICA started (in Karlsruhe) in 1969, it focused exclusive on laboratory diagnostics. Most lab analysis were then carried out manually and in pretty small series.

One of the few automatic systems was the Technicon Auto-Analyzer, introduced around 1960; for a contemporary evaluation of it, see here): “Based on a system of continuous flow analysis [the Technicon AA] revolutionised lab diagnostics and paved the way for analysers to work through organ-specific parameters in batches”.

In the 1970s came immunofluorescent techniques for detecting auto-antibodies and infectious agents, and in the 1990s advances in molecular biology opened new diagnostic opportunities at the picomolar level.

Iinformation and communication technology has not only made possible automation in the clinical lab, but all kinds of hospital practices. The first patient monitoring systems, which are now taken for granted in intensive care and neonatal unit, were introduced in operating rooms and wards in the mid-1960s. In the clinical laboratory, computer development made possible large-scale diagnostic tests in the 1970s.

Another area which depends heavily on IT  is radiology and medical imaging. In the 1960s “the triumph of real-time ultrasound diagnostics began”; in the 1970s came the CT-scanner; the first digital image archives, radiology information systems and laboratory information systems arrived in the mid-1980s; about the same time came MRI, and in the 1990s PET. 3D reconstructions of CT, MR and ultrasound images also became possible in the mid-1990s.

Surgery too has undergone enormous technological changes; eg., keyhole (laparoscopic) surgery began in gynaecology in 1969; the first keyhole gallbladder removal was performed in 1985 and in the early 1990s keyhole surgery in the abdomen. And then there is laser technology which has “lit up the medical sky” for 30 years, not least in ophthalmology, where doctors hardly cannot imagine work without lasers today.

While we are waiting for the sequel to Joel Howell‘s seminal Technology and the Hospital: Transforming Patient Care in the Early Twentieth Century (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), reminiscences like Albath’s are among the best ways to get an overview of the complexities of the recent history of medical technology. I haven’t made a systematic search for memoirs and reminiscences of similar kinds — but I’m convinced there are many out there, although they can be difficult to find.

(Btw, for a useful academic course syllabus for the history of medical technology, see here).

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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