15 Body Improvements That Seem Like Science Fiction

6 minute read

By Jordana Weiss

Medical technology has advanced to such a degree that we can replace limbs, transfuse blood, and repair damage that previously would have been fatal. Start a search to explore the impressive advancements in body improvements.

Science fiction, often the forerunner of human ingenuity, has predicted many of these improvements decades before they became a reality. Here are a few pieces of medical technology that previously seemed like science fiction.

1. The Wheelchair

The wheelchair was first depicted in art of the 5th century BCE. The first wheelchairs were more like moveable beds or wheelbarrows, designed to transport humans who could no longer walk on their own.

During the mid-6th century BCE, images of wheeled chairs started to be seen in China. The technology spread to Europe, and was soon available to people needing more mobility there. As of the 18th century, they were in regular use all over the world. Now, wheelchairs are motorized and can be used effortlessly.

2. Eyeglasses

The first recorded mention of eyeglasses was in 1286 by a Dominican friar named Giordano da Pisa, who preached a sermon praising their invention. Just a few years later, the art of making eyeglasses had advanced so far that there was a guild regulating eyeglass craftsmen.

By the 15th century, eyeglasses had spread all the way to China and the Far East. Later, it was American founding father Benjamin Franklin who took the technology available at the time and invented bifocals.

3. The IV

The first experiments using intravenous technology (IV) were conducted in 1656 by Sir Christopher Wren — not actually a doctor at all, but an architect. Luckily, his experiments were done on dogs.

He first used a sharpened quill attached to an animal bladder to intravenously medicate his test subjects, and had quite a lot of success. He also used his makeshift IV to transfuse the blood of one dog into another. It seems disgusting, but his methods eventually led to the discovery of the needle-based IV that we know today.

4. The Vaccination

The founding father of Immunology was named Edward Jenner, a brilliant man who first had the thought to expose people to a lesser form of disease (in his case, cowpox) in order to build up their immunity to a more dangerous disease (smallpox).

Jenner took pus from a young girl’s cowpox pustules and rubbed them on the arm of a young boy who had never been exposed to either cowpox or smallpox. Six weeks later, he exposed the boy to smallpox and discovered that he was immune. Although this isn’t the way we vaccinate our children now, the principle is still Jenner’s original theory.

5. Blood Transfusion

The first blood transfusion in history was done with Sir Christopher Wren’s quill IV back in the 17th century — he used dog’s blood. However, the first human blood transfusion was done by obstetrician James Blundell in 1818.

Luckily, the transfusion was successful as doctors of the time had no idea about blood types and how that worked. It wasn’t until 1901 that a doctor in Austria discovered the human blood groups, and in 1907, the first transfusion with cross-matched blood was successfully completed.

6. General Anaesthesia

The first time a doctor used anaesthesia in a procedure was in 1842. Crawford W. Long used a cloth soaked in ether to put a patient to sleep before he successfully removed a tumor from the man’s neck.

Unfortunately, he didn’t publish the results of his operation and all the credit for discovering general anaesthesia went to a dentist named W.T.G Morton, who used ether on a patient before a tooth extraction.

7. Antiseptics

Another important milestone in the history of medical technology is the understanding that cleanliness and proper hygiene is important in order to stop the spread of bacteria and germs. Previously, doctors would operate on corpses and then move on to their living patients before even so much as washing their hands.

Surgeon Joseph Lister used Pasteur’s theory on bacteria to prove that antiseptic surgery was much less dangerous for patients. He was the first to sterilize his instruments, and also discovered absorbable ligatures and the drainage tube.

8. Crutches

Although canes and walking sticks have been in use for at least 5000 years, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that commercially produced crutches became available to the general public.

These crutches, that we still use today, were the first to be adjustable, which made them ideal for wounded WWI soldiers to use throughout their recovery. Now, they’re made with aluminum tubing and vinyl, which make them both lightweight and strong.

9. Cardiac Resuscitation

Paul Zoll was the first doctor to develop a technique for restarting the heart using electrodes on a patient’s bare chest. At first, his technique was painful for patients, but eventually he figured out a way to use fewer electrodes with a longer pulse duration, and the process became closer to the way we see it today. He also had a hand in inspiring the implantable pacemaker device.

10. Dialysis

The first machine used for dialysis was invented by Dutch scientist Willem J. Kolff. Using spare washing machine parts and pieces of tin that he had lying around, Kolff created a machine that could help remove toxins from blood.

In 1943, after years of struggle under Nazi occupation, Kolff finally created a machine that successfully revived a female patient after 11 hours in a coma. After WWII ended, Kolff donated five of the machines that he had agonized over to hospitals around the world so they could learn about dialysis through his work.

11. Cochlear Implants

It was in the 1950s that French doctor Andre Djourno pioneered the first cochlear implant, a device the stimulated the cochlear nerve. This technology allowed deaf people to hear for the first time. Dr. Djourno refused to patent his invention, believing that medical technology should always remain in the public domain.

12. The Artificial Heart

It seems strange, but one of the men who helped pioneer the artificial heart started his career as a ventriloquist and TV actor. Paul Winchell created and patented the first prototype for an artificial heart along with Dr. Henry Heimlich, who everyone should know from the famous Heimlich maneuver.

At the time, this was a huge breakthrough because the supply of donor hearts has always fallen short of the need. Winchell and Heimlich’s artificial heart was used as inspiration for the Jarvik-7, the first device to be successfully implanted into a human.

13. In Vitro Fertilization

When in vitro fertilization became a successful and reliable method for helping couples conceive babies, many people were against it thanks to preconceived notions developed from reading Aldous Huxley’s 1934 book Brave New World. In his seminal work, Huxley depicted a bleak future where humans were conceived in test tubes.

Little did he know that the technology to make this viable was only a few years away. The first couple to attempt artificial insemination was Dolores and John Del-Zio, who worked with Dr. William Sweeney. Eventually, the controversy mounted and Sweeney was fired.

14. Prosthetic Limbs

The history of prosthetic and artificial limbs has been long and varied. In the Middle Ages, many people fashioned hooks to replace missing hands and used wooden pegs as a way of compensating for missing legs.

It was only after WWII that large sums of money were invested in more functional prosthetic technology. Military companies were incentivized to focus more on prosthetics than weapons following the end of WWII, and they created products that more closely mimicked the behaviour and appearance of real human limbs.

15. Modular Prosthetic Limbs

In addition to making prosthetic limbs that appear lifelike, scientists have been hard at work over the last few years making technological advances that allow humans to control their prosthetic limbs with their brains. This seems impossible, but the technology is there.

Eventually, engineers are hoping that by remapping the nerves that controlled the removed limb, the users will be able to feel sensation through the prosthetic. Unfortunately, the cost is still exorbitant. At the present moment, a custom-built limb can cost up to $500,000.

Jordana Weiss