10 Famous Doctors Who Shaped 21st Century Medicine
Published June 20. 2021
The millennium, which began in AD 1000 and ended in AD 2000, encompasses the latter half of the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Age of Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution, and modern era. As the millennium concludes, it is intriguing to think about the people who significantly impacted medicine. So let us take a minute to recognize physicians for their efforts to maintain and restore the health and well-being of their patients, communities, and society as a whole.
With this, we provided a list of ten famous doctors in chronological order who have transformed the face of medicine and how it is widely practiced through investigation, innovation, hard work, and devotion.
1. Edward Jenner, MD, FRS, FRCPE: Discovered vaccinations
Dr. Jenner was an English physician who pioneered the smallpox vaccine and was known as the “Father of Immunology.”
Edward Jenner was born on May 17, 1749, in Berkeley, Gloucestershire, the son of the town vicar. He was apprenticed to a local surgeon at the age of 14 and then trained in London. In 1772, he returned to Berkeley, where he practiced medicine for the rest of his life.
He was widely mocked. Critics, particularly clerics, stated that inoculating someone with diseased animal material was unpleasant and unholy. However, the clear benefits of vaccination and the protection it gave won out, and immunization became common very quickly.
Dr. Jenner rose to fame and spent most of his time researching and consulting on vaccine advancements. Moreover, he explored various other fields of medicine and was also interested in fossil collection and horticulture. Later on, he died on January 26, 1823.
Moreover, his efforts were believed to have “saved more lives than the work of any other human.” Indeed, smallpox was responsible for the deaths of 10% to 20% of the population during his lifetime. As a result, the World Health Organization declared smallpox eradicated from the world in 1979.
2. Elizabeth Blackwell, MD: First female physician in the US
Elizabeth Blackwell, the daughter of Hannah Lane and Samuel Blackwell, was born in Bristol, England, in 1821. When Elizabeth was 11 years old, her family migrated to America for financial reasons, along with her father’s desire to aid in the abolition of slavery. Unfortunately, her father passed away in 1838. However, his children, as adults, advocated for women’s rights and backed the anti-slavery struggle.
Elizabeth Blackwell stated she became interested in medicine when a dying close friend said that she might have been spared the worst of her pain if her doctor had been a woman. However, because she had no idea how to become a physician, she sought advice from numerous physicians acquainted with her family. They told her it was a good concept, but it was impossible because it was too expensive, and women were not allowed to attend such classes.
Nonetheless, Dr. Blackwell reasoned that if the notion was excellent, there had to be a method to implement it, and she was drawn to the challenge. She persuaded two physician friends to let her spend a year studying medicine with them, and she applied to every medical school in New York and Philadelphia. She also applied to twelve different colleges in the northeast, and in 1847, she was admitted by Geneva Medical College in western New York state.
The teachers, anticipating that the all-male student body would never accept a woman joining their ranks, permitted them to vote on her entrance. Despite the hesitation of most students and teachers, they still voted “yes.” She graduated top in her class on January 23, 1849. Dr. Blackwell encountered several challenges as a woman during her medical school career, including discrimination. She was frequently compelled to sit alone in lectures and was barred from participating in specific laboratories. Moreover, she was regularly rejected by the locals for daring to break free from her traditional status as a woman.
As her health deteriorated, Dr. Blackwell retired from medicine in the late 1870s, though she continued to advocate for reform. She passed away on May 31, 1910, in Hastings, Sussex.
3. Daniel Hale Williams, MD: First successful open-heart surgeon
Dr. Williams was the eldest son in a family of eight. His father died of TB when he was just ten years old. To live with relatives, the family relocated to Baltimore, Maryland.
He decided to further his education, and he served as an apprentice under Dr. Henry Palmer, a very renowned surgeon. Dr. Williams received his M.D. from Chicago Medical College in 1883. Then, he practiced medicine in Chicago, when the city had only three other black doctors. Also, he assisted the Equal Rights League, a black civil rights organization that was active during the Reconstruction Era.
Dr. Williams’ practice developed as he treated both black and white patients. He was regarded as a conscientious and skillful surgeon. In 1889, he was appointed to the Illinois State Board of Health, now known as the Illinois Department of Public Health, where he worked on medical standards and hospital rules.
Furthermore, he practiced when racism and bigotry prevented African Americans from being admitted to hospitals and barred black doctors from being on hospital staff. He also performed the first reported and successful pericardium surgery to repair a wound in the United States.
He established the Provident Hospital and Training School in Chicago, IL, the country’s first non-segregated hospital and an accompanying nursing school for African Americans. It was the first hospital in the United States to be owned and managed by African Americans, and it is currently known as the Provident Hospital of Cook County. Dr. Williams died on August 4, 1931, in Idlewild, Michigan.
4. Sir Alexander Fleming, MD: Discovered penicillin
Sir Alexander Fleming was a Scottish physician-scientist best known for developing penicillin. The easy discovery and use of the antibiotic agent saved millions of lives. Because of this discovery, he earned the 1945 Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine, together with Howard Florey and Ernst Chain, who devised procedures for large-scale isolation and manufacturing of penicillin.
Hugh Fleming and Grace Stirling Morton gave birth to Alexander Fleming on August 6, 1881, in Lochfield Farm, Scotland. Dr. Fleming was educated in Scotland before moving to London with three brothers and a sister to continue his childhood education at the Regent Street Polytechnic.
He did not immediately enter medical school; instead, he worked at a shipping office for four years. He graduated with honors from St. Mary’s Medical School at London University in 1906. Dr. Fleming had no plans to pursue a career in research. Instead, he developed his marksmanship while serving as a private in the Territorial Army’s London Scottish Regiment.
To keep Dr. Fleming at St Mary’s and allow him to join the rifle club, the club’s captain persuaded him to seek a career in research rather than surgery, as the latter would require him to leave the school. He was a captain in the Army Medical Corps when World War I broke out.
During this time, he witnessed the deaths of many of his fellow troops, not only as a result of fighting wounds but also due to an infection that could not be managed. Antiseptics were the principal means of infection control, although they usually did more harm than good. At first, his research was rejected, but Dr. Fleming persevered and discovered lysozyme, an enzyme with weak antibacterial activity, in 1922. Furthermore, this would pave the way for his next major discovery, Penicillin.
Sir Alexander Fleming died of coronary thrombosis at home on March 11, 1955. He’d been suffering from what he thought was gastrointestinal trouble for a few weeks. On March 11, when his wife called their family physician about the beginnings of sickness and reassured her that a house visit was not required. Furthermore, he died as a result of the coronary incident within minutes. His cremated remains were interred in St. Paul’s Cathedral.
5. Helen Brooke Taussig, MD: A pioneer in pediatric cardiology
Dr. Helen Brooke Taussig is regarded as the “Founder of Pediatric Cardiology” due to her pioneering work on “blue baby” syndrome. Dr. Taussig, surgeon Alfred Blalock, and surgical technician Vivien Thomas devised a procedure in 1944 to cure the congenital cardiac abnormality that underlies the syndrome.
Since then, their operation has saved hundreds of lives and is regarded as a pivotal step in the evolution of adult open-heart surgery during the next decade. Dr. Taussig also played a role in averting a thalidomide birth defect disaster in the United States by testifying the Food and Drug Administration about the disastrous effects of the drug in Europe.
Dr. Helen Taussig was born in 1898 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Frank W. Taussig, a well-known economist, and Harvard University professor Edith Guild, one of Radcliffe College’s founding students. Her mother died when she was 11 years old. Her grandfather, a physician with a keen interest in biology and zoology, may have impacted her decision to pursue a career in medicine.
Despite having dyslexia, Taussig excelled in college. In 1917, she graduated from the Cambridge School for Girls. After studying at Harvard Medical School and Boston University, because of her interest in cardiac research, she then transferred to Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine to pursue it.
Furthermore, she received the renowned Lasker Award in 1954 for her work on the blue baby operation, and in 1959, she was appointed as a full professor at Johns Hopkins University. Thus, she became one of the school’s first female professors.
Dr. Taussig founded the specialization of pediatric cardiology and was the first woman to be elected president of the American Heart Association in 1965. She was also the first woman to receive the highest accolade awarded by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Additionally, President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded Dr. Taussig the Medal of Freedom in 1964. Later on, she died on May 20, 1986, in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.
6. Charles Richard Drew, MD: Father of the blood bank
Dr. Charles Richard Drew was born on June 3, 1904, in Washington, DC. He was an African American surgeon and researcher who founded America’s first large-scale blood bank and trained a generation of black physicians at Howard University.
His father, Richard, was a carpet layer and the financial secretary of the Carpet, Linoleum, and Soft-Tile Layers Union—the union’s only non-white member. His mother, Nora Burrell Drew, was a Miner Normal School graduate who never worked as a teacher.
Dr. Drew revolutionized the blood collection process by establishing a centralized place where donors could donate. He also had all blood plasma checked before export and worked hard to guarantee that the plasma was handled solely by competent employees to avoid contamination. His work served as the foundation for what would become the American Red Cross Blood Bank.
Moreover, his innovative work was recognized by awards and honors such as the 1942 E. S. Jones Award for Research in Medical Science from the John A. Andrew Clinic in Tuskegee, AL; the 1944 Spingarn Medal from the NAACP for his work on blood and plasma; and honorary doctorates from Virginia State College (1945) and Amherst College (1947).
Dr. Drew died on April 1, 1950, in Burlington, North Carolina, due to injuries incurred in an automobile accident while on his way to a conference. Despite the immediate and professional care he received from white physicians at a local hospital, it was no avail. His terrible death spawned a recurrent story that it happened because the white hospital didn’t admit him or a transfusion, although such accounts have been thoroughly discredited. Nevertheless, he left a significant legacy, expressed in his blood bank work and especially in the Howard University College of Medicine graduates, despite his untimely death.
7. Michael Ellis DeBakey, MD: Pioneer of cardiovascular surgery
Dr. Michael Ellis DeBakey, an American surgeon, was a great physician, educator, and medical statesman. His work altered cardiovascular surgery, elevated medical education standards, and affected national health care policy over a 75-year career. Moreover, he invented scores of surgical treatments, including aneurysm repair, coronary bypass, and endarterectomy, which save thousands of lives each year, and he was a pioneer in heart transplantation as well.
He is famous for being the first to employ Dacron grafts for vascular repair. The DeBakey Dacron Graft is now utilized worldwide, including in the surgical treatment of aortic aneurysms, which Dr. DeBakey underwent himself at the age of 97. In addition, he placed the first mechanical pump to support a diseased heart in 1963. He received various honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of Science, and the Congressional Gold Medal.
Dr. DeBakey practiced surgery until he was 90 years old, and he estimated that he had conducted over 60,000 operations and mentored thousands of surgeons over his career. Unfortunately, he suffered a dissecting aneurysm in 2006, which was treated by surgeons he had trained, using techniques he had developed more than 50 years previously. Furthermore, he recovered well and died two years later, on July 11, 2008, from natural causes.
8. Virginia Apgar, MD: Inventor of the Apgar Score
Dr. Virginia Apgar, the first woman appointed as a full professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, developed the Apgar Score. It is the first systematic tool for assessing the newborn’s transition to life outside the womb. Dr. Apgar’s revolutionary study on the effects of anesthetic during childbirth and her advocacy for the prevention of birth abnormalities continue to benefit newborn babies. Moreover, she made numerous advances to the field of obstetric anesthesia, including establishing the link between infant Apgar Score and the effects of labor, delivery, and maternal anesthetic.
Dr. Apgar was born on June 7, 1909, in Westfield, New Jersey. She was the youngest of three children born to insurance executives Charles E. Apgar and Helen May Apgar. Her father, an avid inventor, and astronomer may have influenced her early interest in science and medicine.
She never retired and remained busy until before her death, although she was slowed in her latter years by growing liver disease. As a result, she died on August 7, 1974, at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, where she had trained and worked for most of her life. Friends, coworkers, and former students praised her for her warmth, vivacity, and wicked sense of humor, as well as her acute intelligence and professional competence. In 1994, she received a commemorative U.S. postage stamp, and in 1995, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
- Georges Mathé, MD: Discovered treatment for leukemia
Dr. Georges Mathé was born in Sermages, France, on July 9, 1922. He demonstrated in preclinical tests of bone marrow transplantation that donor cells survived and replicated only in recipients who were first irradiated to weaken their immune systems.
Although conducting such investigations in clinical trials was difficult, fate presented Dr. Mathé with an opportunity to test his beliefs in 1958. Several Yugoslav physicists were exposed to radiation due to a nuclear accident, and Dr. Mathé saved all but one of them from radiation sickness by infusing them with donor marrow.
As a result, Dr. Mathé was one of the first doctors to execute a human allogeneic bone marrow transplant, effectively establishing a treatment for leukemia. Moreover, he used a bone marrow transplant to cure a leukemia patient in 1963. Later on, he also identified Graft Versus Host Disease. This secondary condition frequently occurs after transplantation, deducing that it was caused by an immunological reaction of the cells in the donor marrow against the patient’s autologous cells. Dr. Mathé died in the Villejuif Hôpital Paul-Brousse in France on October 15, 2010.
10. Helene D. Gayle, MD: HIV/AIDS research, public health
Dr. Helene D. Gayle was born on August 16, 1955. She is the CEO of The Chicago Community Trust, one of the nation’s largest community foundations. The Chicago Community Trust has mobilized people, ideas, organizations, and resources for over a century to improve fairness, opportunity, and prosperity for everyone.
She rose to prominence as a top HIV/AIDS expert. Dr. Gayle was particularly interested in the effects of AIDS on children, adolescents, and families, and she conducted extensive research on the global ramifications of HIV/AIDS. She began her career as an epidemic intelligence service officer at the CDC and is regarded as a physician, researcher, executive, and global caregiver and was named one of Forbes’ “100 Most Powerful Women.” Additionally, her contributions to HIV/AIDS research, control, prevention, along with other infectious diseases, like tuberculosis, have been remarkable.
There are some professionals who society cannot function without. Living without them is akin to committing suicide without knowing it. Doctors appear to be the most visible of these occupations. If you have any doubts about this, look at undeveloped countries where doctors go on strike for various reasons; statistics consistently show a rise in mortality. This is to emphasize how vital they are in any country. Without these famous doctors, we wouldn’t have the knowledge to cure any sickness and prolong life and use their research to continually further our studies to preserve life as it is.
About The Author
As a professional writer at many renowned websites Krizzia Paolyn has covered a wide range of topics in many industries. Her knack for uncovering important truths and conducting thorough research on each topic she writes about has helped thousands of people across the world.