Medical Advances of the 1950s

by admin - November 21st, 2013

The end of polio is often considered the most important medical advancement of the 1950s

The 1950s is a decade where there was no shortage of advances, whether it be in cinema, television, or automobiles. However, one of the most understated yet important of these advances comes in the form of the medical advances of the decade. The major reason medicine came to the forefront of attention during the 1950s was because of Vannevar Bush, a science advisor to the president during World War II who, in 1945, presented to the president his Science: The Endless Frontier report, without which so many of the important medical discoveries that will be discussed here might not have come into existence. Another reason for these advances came because of Truman’s Fair Deal, which was noted for its support for health care regulation. “Truman called for more medical facilities, both to expand health care and to train new physicians, dentists, and nurses.” (Dunar 32)

One of the most notable of these advances was the discovery of a cure for tuberculosis, a disease that had previously claimed so many lives. “In 1950, British physician Austin Bradford Hill demonstrated that a combination of streptomycin and para-aminosalicylic acid (PAS) could cure the disease.” Another important new medication was cortisone, a new development that helped in the treatment of arthritis in a way that had never been done. Medication to be used in treating patients with medical problems also began to come into existence, the three most notable being monamine oxidase, used for those with hypertension, rauwolfia alkaloid, which could be used as a tranquilizer drug, and Thorazine, a drug initially made by France to serve as an allergy medication but ended up being used for patients dubbed as being psychotic as it slowed down their bodily processes.

The 1950s was also when an effective birth control was created as the sexual revolution brought on a need to prevent unintended children. Margaret Sanger, Katherine McCormick, Russell Marker, Gregory Pincus, and Carl Djerassi were involved in the creation of this oral contraceptive that came about after Djerassi first tried to synthesize cortisone from dinosgenin, but soon began turning his attention to the production of ptogesterone. It was discovering the chemically synthesized compound progesterone prevented ovulation in females, preventing childbirth.

Another important development came in the form of new technology that helped in medical treatment and research. For example, in 1953 the first open-heart surgery was performed which could finally be done because of the invention of the heart-lung machine by John H. Gibbon Jr. “In 1951, image-analyzing microscopy began and by 1952, thin sectioning and fixation methods were being perfected for electron microscopy of intracellular structures, especially mitochondria.”

Out of all of the new medical developments in the decade, the most important is arguably the discovery of a vaccine for polio. Jonas Salk created his vaccine to end the conquest of polio with the funding from the March of Dimes. The Salk vaccine relied on the new technology of growing viruses in cell cultures, specifically in monkey kidney cells (first available in 1949), and once testing was done it was tested on diseased human HeLa cells. Preliminary testing for the vaccine began in 1952 and when its success was realized it was released to the general public two years later, eliminating polio’s reputation of always being a lethal disease. However, several years later in 1957 Albert Sabin created an attenuated oral version of the treatment and in today’s society countries are divided on which to use.

Overall, the medical developments during this decade provide an in-depth look into the society of the 1950s. The period of prosperity provided the funding needed to create these much needed treatments to end these previously lethal diseases, new technologies were discovered to have beneficial effects when used in medicine, and the newly found feelings of sexuality provided a need for a contraceptive to prevent unwanted child birth. Arguments did break out during the decade with these new philosophies, most notably with Truman and the American Medical Association. Despite the many positive aspects of it, the Fair Deal did create controversy because of a proposal for national health insurance. “The AMA attacked the plan as ‘socialized medicine.’ Despite a strong counterattack by the administration, spearheaded by Federal Security Administrator Oscar Edwing, Congress defeated the proposal, and granted only a small appropriation for building more hospitals.” (Dunar 33) Overall, even actions meant to provide beneficial good for all could bring about feuding in the government, but despite it all the many gains of the 1950s make it one of the most important for medicine.

— Shawn C.

3 Responses to “Medical Advances of the 1950s”

  1. Page says:

    This is an eye opening post. I never even thought about what the scientific world was like in the 1950s and now I realize that so much was going on. I find it a bit comical but very necessary that birth control came about in this period, being how sexuality began to become more openly accepted. One comment I would like to add on is how the Polio vaccine was tested. Shawn mentions that the vaccine was tested on diseased human HeLa cells but there is a bit more to that story. HeLa stand for Henrietta Lacks. Lacks was a poor black woman whose cells were taken and cultured without her knowing or permission. It was Lacks cells that became a very important tool and medicine that led to not only developing the polio vaccine but also in vitro fertilization, gene mapping, and cloning. Lacks’ cells were and still are being cultured, bought, and sold by the billions. Scientists are making millions off of her cells yet Henrietta Lacks and her family remain poor and unrecognized. This shows how African Americans were treated with such disregard and lack of appreciation back in that period. I am amazed to learn how much medicine had advanced in the fifties.

  2. Erin Rice says:

    Shawn’s post as well as Page’s comment provided a lot of information about the fifties that I did not know. Many times, the fifties are characterized by pop culture elements or the stereotypical image of the housewife– however, the scientific advancements made in the fifties often go unnoticed. I find it unjust that Henrietta’s cells are still being used for scientific research, yet her family is not receiving any of the profits for research that has, and most likely will, help many of others. It is also ironic, because the 1950s were also a decade of change in regards to civil rights for African Americans– yet, in this decade, Henrietta’s cells were used for research and, as Page mentioned, her family is still not recognized.

  3. Janelle Platt says:

    While reading this post I was shocked to see how many advances were made in the fifties that affect our culture today. The creation of an effective birth control correlates with our understanding of a beginning of open sexuality that was rising during this time. Overall, I was surprised that these advances have been made over fifty years ago because I usually associate advances in science with the 1980s and 1990s.