Medical Imaging: Seeing the Body with New Eyes

While medical innovations have a long history, some of the most groundbreaking changes have come from medical imaging technologies. According to the FDA, “medical imaging refers to several different technologies that are used to view the human body in order to diagnose, monitor, or treat medical conditions.” This definition brings to mind state-of-the art testing, such as MRI or ultrasound, but its roots can be traced to the simple magnifying glass. In 1250 Roger Bacon developed the first magnifying glass that was intended for scientific use. By 1280, his innovation was being used to improve and correct farsightedness and quickly become a critical tool for surgeons. After a long period of stagnation in the development of medical imaging, there was a boom in the nineteenth century that has endured to today. In 1895, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen discovered the X-ray and the innovation completely changed the field of medical imaging—exploratory surgeries were no longer the only option to gain insight into internal medical problems. In 1901, Röntgen was awarded a Nobel Prize for this discovery.

The next major innovation in medical imaging came quickly thereafter with the advent of the electrocardiogram in 1903. Dr. Willem Einthoven created the first electrocardiogram machine, which weighed a whopping 600 pounds. The electrocardiogram is a device that shows the electrical activity of the heart through a visual monitor, providing insight into heart rhythm and function, and has completely changed the way we approach heart health from prevention to treatment. Soon after, Dr. Hans Berger discovered a similar technology that instead monitors electrical activity within the brain—the electroencephalogram. The device utilized electrodes, similar to the electrocardiogram, but Berger faced far more skepticism from the medical field and it took years for the technology to become fully accepted.MRI graphic

By 1952 Felix Bloch and Edward Mills Purcell were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work in developing nuclear magnetic resonance, although the work of many scientists contributed to the development over the course of history. The work of Bloch and Purcell eventually led to the first Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) procedure was performed on a human patient in 1977. MRI provides a far less harmful alternative to X-rays. MRI has made it possible to detect brain tumors, among many other medical issues or injuries in soft-tissue.

One of the great innovations in medical imaging was first reported in 1958: the ultrasound. The earliest knowledge of ultrasound dates back to 1842, and was reportedly inspired by research on bat echolocation by Lazzaro Spallanzani. Yale’s Dr. Edward Hon was the first to use the technology to observe fetal heartbeats in 1958. By 1965, the ultrasound was filed under a  commercial patent and became a staple technology in made doctor’s offices. While these technologies have shaped medicine today and saved countless lives, as of the 2011 the WHO estimated that as much as 75% of the world still lacks sufficient access to medical imagining technologies.