Medical changes from 1945

Medical changes from 1945

There were many medical changes during World War Two but these changes continued after the war. In Britain, the biggest change was the establishment of the National Health Service (NHS) that provided free medical care for all regardless of wealth. Prior to this those who could not afford something like a penicillin jab had to go without or make the necessary sacrifices to get the necessary money. The NHS provided this for free.

Post-1945, many advances were made in the management of pregnancy and childbirth. This included the ability to induce labour and the use of epidurals to ease difficult pregnancies. As a balance to this, there was a move for less state intervention in childbirth and the development of the right for women to have more natural childbirth. In 1956, the National Childbirth Trust was set up. The chance of infant survival also improved as medical knowledge developed – as was seen in the work done to increase the survival rate of ‘blue’ babies. The greater use of scans after 1945 also helped to detect problems earlier.

More vaccines were developed to control childhood diseases. After the war the health of children was generally better than at any other time in history. Vaccines against polio, measles and rubella were developed in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Tests were also developed for defects in babies such as the amniocentesis for spina bifida and Down’s Syndrome. Treatments were also developed for children with heart disease.

After 1945, major advances were also made in birth control. In earlier times there had been advances in rubber sheaths but they were seen more as a protection against syphilis as opposed to a form of birth control. The cap or diaphragm had been developed in the 1880’s but its availability had been very much limited as people were kept in the dark as to its very existence. Marie Stopes did much to change attitudes as to give women more freedom when concerning birth control. However, pre-war social conventions had done much to prevent the total spread of her ideas throughout Britain. Many social conventions had been swept away during the war and by the 1950’s the contraceptive pill had been introduced as was seen as a way of giving women more control over their own destiny – and certainly taking this away from domineering men. By the 1960’s, the contraceptive pill was widely available, as was the IUD (Intrauterine device). This had first been developed in 1909 but was more widely available after 1945. Certain types of IUD were also linked to pelvic infection and septic abortions as late as the 1970’s and 1980’s. Such concerns did much to stymie its use.

Many very significant medical advances were also made after 1945. One of the most important was the discovery of DNA by Wilkins, Crick and Watson. These three were also helped by the work done by Rosalind Franklin. DNA is the substance that makes life – a human cell that contains genes, which are made up of chromosomes, the basis of living tissue. This has in turn allowed the study of disease caused by defective genes such as in cystic fibrosis and Down’s Syndrome. In recent years, researchers have been able to identify specific genes that are responsible for specific diseases.

New drugs have also been created post-1945. The success of penicillin during the war, prodded researchers to study other moulds. Streptomycin, found in chickens, was used successfully to treat TB. This treatment was pioneered primarily in America after 1946. Streptomycin was also found to be capable of treating many other diseases that penicillin could not. However, it was found that too much use of streptomycin could lead to the TB germ developing a resistance to its use. After 1951, streptomycin was used with Isoniazid in the fight against TB. This again was developed in America. By the 1970’s, five antibiotics existed which could be used against TB. In recent years, despite this array of drugs against TB, there have been fears that TB can be resistant to all drugs that have been developed to fight it. The recent rise of TB in the more depressed areas of Britain’s cities has concerned many doctors. The problems with streptomycin did lead scientists to study why drugs lost their effectiveness and also why some people suffered side effects when they were used and others did not. The development in pharmacology has been a major development since 1945.

Since 1945, there has been a greater use of steroids in medicine. These were used to relieve pain and inflammation. Cortisone was used in injection form to treat rheumatoid arthritis. Cortisone also had the important side effect of reducing the body’s immune system. This made it useful to prevent the rejection of skin and kidney transplants. This in turn lead to the idea of using drugs to suppress the growth of cancers using cytotoxins.

The use of ultrasound and magnetic resonance since 1945 has also made it easier to diagnose disease. Ian Donald, Professor of Midwifery at Glasgow developed ultrasound in the 1950’s for looking at unborn babies. Magnetic Resonance Imaging can be used to detect diseases without the use of radiation making it less harmful to the patient. Three-dimensional CAT scans can also be used. The less use of radiation the better as some patients can be harmed by exposure to large doses of radiation. MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) does away with this problem. The use of modern equipment such as the endoscope has also allowed for the internal examination of patients without the need for surgery.

Kidney dialysis was first tried in 1914 but only became more widely available in the 1960’s. The introduction of long term and repeated dialysis gave hope to patients who almost certainly would have died without this particular development.

Surgery in general has witnessed major developments since 1945. Far more operations can be carried out now on areas of the body that were rarely touched before 1945. Christian Barnard’s heart transplant was on an organ that few surgeons would have operated on. His pioneering surgery inspired others to do likewise and now heart operations are very common, as is surgery on organs such as the liver and kidneys etc. Microsurgery and keyhole surgery are common place now – as is the use of lasers in surgery. The major – though not exclusive – developments in surgery are as follows:

Post 1953: the development of a successful heart lung machine allowed more complicated heart surgery to take place. Techniques have improved greatly here with coronary bypasses to improve blood supply to the heart since 1953 and the replacement of heart valves since the 1960’s. Artificial arteries have also been developed to improve blood flow. After 1961, pacemakers were introduced to maintain a regular heart beat.

From 1960 on, lasers were used to treat eye tumours etc.

Transplant surgery has also developed aided by drugs like cortisone, azathioprine and cyclosporin which have helped to reduce rejection. The first successful kidney transplant was done in Boston in 1954; the first heart transplant was in 1967 (performed by Christian Barnard); the first liver transplant was in 1963; the first heart and lung transplant was in 1982 and the first brain tissue transplant was in 1987.

Since 1945, there have been major developments in replacement surgery. Hip replacement was pioneered by John Charnley, orthopaedic surgeon at Manchester Royal Infirmary. Since then, there have been knees and elbows have been replaced.

In the area of reproduction, the development of IVF by Patrick Steptoe, led to the first test tube baby – Louise Brown – born in 1978. Steptoe’s work has given much hope to those couples who want children but have had difficulties producing them. However, the issue of IVF brought with it many ethical issues which cause controversy to this day.

Since 1945, there have been massive strides in the treatment of cancer. The use of a combination of drugs, radiotherapy and surgery have greatly increased a cancer patient’s chances of survival. During the 1950’s, research linked smoking to lung cancer and other external factors have also been identified – such as excess sunlight potentially causing skin cancer. It is now thought that 15% of all cancers are caused by viruses.

The major disease that has tested the medical world since the 1980’s has been HIV/AIDS. In the 1980’s, government’s touted HIV as near enough a death sentence and in Britain issued public health warnings on television showing icebergs crashing into the sea. Now, just twenty years on, combination drug therapy offers sufferers hope and a huge amount of research has gone into finding a cure or vaccination for this world-wide disease. ‘New’ diseases have also come to the fore including the Ebola virus.

There is a vast difference in the medical world of 1945 to that of 2002. Developments within medicine would have been expected but they have been in leaps in the last decades. Diseases that would have almost certainly killed in 1945 to 1950 are now usually treatable and in many instances curable.


MLA Citation/Reference

"Medical changes from 1945". HistoryLearningSite.co.uk. 2005. Web.






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