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Contributor Information

Steven Rourke
Freelance writer

Disclosure: Steven Rourke has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Grace Ellis

Disclosure: Grace Ellis has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.


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The Most Influential Physicians in History, Part 4: The Top Ten

Steven Rourke; Grace Ellis  |  March 18, 2016

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Slide 1

In this last installment of our four-part series, we dig into the achievements of the individuals we've named the top 10 most influential physicians in history, identifying the contributions that they made to medical practice, the context of their findings, and how they changed society as we know it.

Now it's your turn. Are there physicians we've left off of the list? Go here to submit your own nominations.

Image from Dreamstime

Slide 2

#10 Louis Pasteur (1822-1895)

Although not a medical doctor, French scientist Louis Pasteur is responsible for discoveries—including the theory of molecular asymmetry, the processes of pasteurization and fermentation, and the development of vaccines against fowl cholera, rabies, and anthrax—that are too influential in medicine for him to be excluded from this list.[1-3]

The son of a sergeant major, the young Louis Pasteur was encouraged to seek a scientific education. After receiving his doctorate from École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris, he earned early renown for his theory of molecular asymmetry, an important contribution to our understanding of structural chemistry.[3]

Several important accomplishments followed Pasteur's appointments to chemistry departments at the University of Strasbourg, Lille, and ENS, including[3]:

  • His understanding that microorganisms cause fermentation (in opposition to the accepted theory of "spontaneous generation");
  • The process of pasteurization, which he initially applied to the French wine industry and then to milk and other perishable products;
  • His support for "germ theory" as the cause of disease, which he used to help save the French silk industry; and
  • The creation of vaccines by attenuation, which he applied to fowl cholera, anthrax, and rabies.

The Institut Pasteur was opened in 1888 and continues to be one of the most important biomedical institutions in the world,[4] with a mission to "help prevent and treat diseases, mainly those of infectious origin, through research, teaching, and public health initiatives."[5]

Images from Dreamstime and courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Slide 3

#9 Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893)

Jean-Martin Charcot's extraordinary contributions to medicine were rooted in his ability to connect clinical observations with disease pathologies—a departure from the standard practice of the time.[6] Through his meticulously documented patient cases and extensive bank of postmortem data, Charcot, trained as a pathologist, created a system of classification that provided a conceptual framework—and order—to many diseases, notably in neurology.[6]

A native of Paris, Charcot was a polyglot and brilliant student who excelled in his medical training. He was interested in varied specialties, including pathology and neurology. After a series of internships at Hôpital de la Salpêtrière, he was appointed professor of pathological anatomy at the Université de Paris, which proved to be a turning point in his career.[7]

Charcot is considered one of the fathers of modern neurology, both for his system of classification of diseases and his work on multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the brain's vascular supply, epilepsy, "hysteria," Charcot's joint, and pioneering medical photography, among many other accomplishments.[6,8]

As chief physician and director ("The Caesar of Salpêtrière")[7] he helped to establish Hôpital de la Salpêtrière as an important center for research and treatment. There he taught a generation of well-known clinicians, including Sigmund Freud, Charles Babinski, Gilles de la Tourette, and Alfred Binet.[8-10]

Images from Dreamstime and courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Slide 4

#8 Edward Jenner (1749-1823)

Considered one of the founders of immunology, the British physician Edward Jenner was the first person to deliberately use vaccination to control an infectious disease.[11] Through his innovative research, Jenner made the connection between cowpox and smallpox and—although it's argued that he did not discover the theory of vaccination—created the first functional vaccine against smallpox and supporting evidence for its safety and efficacy. This led to the replacement of variolation to prevent smallpox[12] and ultimately to the eradication of the disease in the 1970s.[11,13]

The son of a vicar, Edward Jenner apprenticed with a local surgeon before receiving academic medical training at St. George's Hospital, London, with one of England's most respected surgeons and experimental scientists, John Hunter.[11]

It is estimated that at the time of Jenner's work, smallpox ("the speckled monster") killed 400,000 people annually in Europe alone, leaving most survivors with deep scarring and many with blindness.[14] As is often the case with paradigm-changing ideas, Jenner's theory was met with derision and he was ridiculed.[15] Nevertheless, Jenner dedicated himself to the propagation of vaccination and fine-tuned his original methodologies. His research provided the framework for much of modern immunology.

Images from Dreamstime and courtesy of National Institutes of Health

Slide 5

#7 Ibn Sina/Avicenna (980-1037)

Ibn Sina (known as Avicenna in the West), the Persian physician, philosopher, mathematician, theologian, physicist, and poet, held perhaps the greatest influence on medicine from the 11th to 17th centuries,[16,17] and in the words of Sir William Osler, was the author of "the most famous medical textbook ever written."[18]

A child protégé, Ibn Sina lived during a vibrant, stimulating intellectual period and was influenced by the large school of "philosopher-scientists" of the Medieval Islamic world as well as teachings from further afield (such as those of Aristotle and Galen[17]), which he was able to access at Sultan Bukhara's Royal Samanid library.[17]

Today, 240 of Ibn Sina's works remain,[17] including The Book of Healing and his massive Al-Qānūn fī al-ṭibb (Canon of Medicine), for which he is best known in the western world of medicine. The Canon is a systematic, comprehensive survey of the field of medical knowledge, that, when translated into Latin, became the standard medical textbook throughout Europe.[19] In it, Ibn Sina wrote about anatomy; etiology and symptoms; hygiene, health and sickness; therapeutic nosology; dietary treatments; "materia medica"; "head-to-toe diseases"; "diseases that are not specific to certain organs"; and a compendium of more than 700 "compound drugs."[17]

Ibn Sina's careful observations contributed to a wide range of medical fields, including anatomy, pathology, nephrology, cardiology, and urology. He is cited as a founder of preventive medicine[20] as well as an early visionary of evidence-based medicine.[17]

Images from Dreamstime and courtesy of National Institutes of Health

Slide 6

#6 Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564)

Born into a Belgian family of prestigious physicians, Andreas Vesalius is considered a father of modern anatomy. Through his meticulous human dissections, he helped correct age-old anatomical misconceptions.[21,22]

Vesalius undertook his training in Paris, Leuven, and Padua (where he became chair of surgery and anatomy). Greatly influenced by Claudius Galen, Vesalius's work on human cadavers provided a clearer understanding of human anatomy than had been derived from animals. The publication in 1543 of De Humani Corporis Fabrica, which he both wrote and illustrated, helped to establish anatomy as a subject grounded in human dissection. As the first comprehensive textbook of human anatomy, it became an important reference for future generations.[23,24]

Fame followed, and just like his father and grandfather before him, Vesalius was appointed physician to the Holy Roman Emperor.[23]

Images from Dreamstime and courtesy of National Institutes of Health

Slide 7

#5 Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

Challenging and controversial, the father of psychoanalysis was undoubtedly one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century. Freud changed the practice of psychiatry and psychology while altering the way that people—in Western societies, at least—thought of themselves and their lives.[25,26]

Freud received his early medical schooling in Vienna before undertaking further training in neuropathology in Paris with Jean-Martin Charcot, who shared his interest in hysteria and hypnosis. Returning to Vienna, Freud developed his theory of the unconscious mind, the role of dreams, the unconscious spoken slip, and the role of sexual drive in personal psychology—theories that rocked the establishment and shocked society at large. He also established a private practice, seeing countless patients whose cases helped him to develop the theory of psychoanalysis.[27,28]

Although entire libraries have been written on the implications and influence of Freud's theories, the introduction of psychoanalysis presented a new framework for researching, understanding, and treating a range of psychological symptoms and conditions.[29] It's fair to say that Freud's work has had a large and lasting impact on Western culture and medical practice.

Images from iStock and courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Slide 8

#4 Sir Joseph Lister (1827-1912)

Known as the father of antiseptic surgery, Joseph Lister had the acumen to apply Pasteur's work on the etiology of fermentation to the process that causes infection and gangrene. By applying germ theory to surgery, Lister changed the path of patient outcomes and surgical practice, laying the foundation for modern surgery.[30]

Lister, born in England to a Quaker family, studied and worked in both London and Scotland and was an eager surgeon from a young age, attending the first operation conducted under anesthetic in 1846.[31] In the early years of his surgical practice, little was known about infection and the role of germs in spreading disease. Surgery was dangerous—35% of amputations resulted in infection owing to unsterile practices.[32] Lister's work was a departure from previous theories.

To limit infection, Lister experimented with the use of dressings soaked in carbolic acid, hand-washing, sterilization of instruments, and spraying the theater during operations.[30] Outcomes were transformed, and despite initial outcry at his "farfetched" theories, his methods were adopted the world over, permitting advances in surgery to multiply. Lister's theory that bacteria must not enter a wound remains one of the cornerstones of surgery, even if antiseptics are no longer used for this purpose.[33]

Images from Dreamstime and courtesy of National Institutes of Health

Slide 9

#3 Ignaz Semmelweis (1818-1865)

The Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis was influential in establishing sanitary conditions in surgery and the healthcare setting by demonstrating—using vigorous statistical methodologies—how the simple act of handwashing dramatically lowered death rates after childbirth.[34] He became known as the "savior of mothers."[34]

Semmelweis famously compared puerperal fever (childbed fever) in two maternity wards at the General Hospital in Vienna: one staffed by all female midwives and the other by doctors and medical students. After several failed theories and without an understanding of germs, he was able to prove that the higher incidence of illness and death in the physician-run ward was due to insalubrious conditions. Morbidity and mortality plummeted once doctors began washing their hands with chlorine after postmortems and operations and scrubbing up between patients.[35,36]

Born in what is now Budapest, Semmelweis studied at the University of Vienna, switching to medicine after a false start in law. He opted for obstetrics and obtained a position at the Vienna General Hospital. Later in his career, following mid-19th century political turmoil and controversy, he returned to Budapest for a position at the University of Pest.[37]

Although Semmelweis's theory ultimately ushered in decent sanitary conditions in operating theaters and hospitals, he was ridiculed by the medical establishment of the time. This was the origin of the expression "the Semmelweis reflex"—a tendency to reject new theories when they contradict established practice or understanding.[36]

Images from Dreamstime and courtesy of National Institutes of Health

Slide 10

#2 Hippocrates (c. 460-c. 375 BCE)

For pairing the observation of clinical signs with rational conclusions, Hippocrates is considered the father of Western medicine. Through the teachings ascribed to him, Hippocrates was perhaps the first to consider disease to be the result of naturally occurring forces rather than something attributable to the gods and superstition. He helped establish medicine as a separate scientific discourse, laying the foundation for the clinical practice of medicine and playing a groundbreaking part in the development of the role and ethics of the physician through the Hippocratic Oath.[38-40]

With few remaining contemporary accounts, the reputation of Hippocrates started to gel in the Hellenistic period, roughly one century after his death, when the Museum of Alexandria collected his works—the Corpus Hippocraticum—for its library.[38] Of the roughly 60 remaining treatises, it appears (owing to varying styles) that Hippocrates may have written few of them, although they share a common philosophical underpinning. In this light, the teachings of Hippocrates might be considered the culmination of a movement fueled by the life and discoveries of the man himself.

Hippocrates developed an extensive understanding of how the body works. His writings describe theories on the interconnection of organs, thoughts related to diagnosis and prognosis, methods for treating wounds and setting bones, and theories of disease, including its prevention through diet, sleep and exercise.[41]

Images from Dreamstime and courtesy of National Institutes of Health

Slide 11

#1 Sir William Osler (1849-1919)

Often referred to as the "doctor's doctor"[42] and the father of modern clinical practice, the Canadian Sir William Osler achieved extraordinary influence over modern-day medicine, most importantly through his support of clinical experience (or "bedside" learning) for medical students.[43-45] Osler's The Principles and Practice of Medicine: Designed for the Use of Practitioners and Students of Medicine, published in 1892, became the standard textbook for physicians around the world and helped cement the movement away from exclusively textbook-based education towards clinic-based learning.

The youngest of nine children[46] and from a small town in rural Ontario, Osler completed his medical degree at McGill University. He held leading academic positions at McGill, the University of Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins (where he revolutionized the education of medical students by having students follow his "rounds"), and finally Oxford University.[44] With his emphasis on bedside manner and compassionate care, William Osler had more influence on the behavior and education of his fellow clinicians—and, by extension, their patients—than any other physician in modern times.[47,48]

Some of his famous aphorisms:

Listen to your patients; they are telling you the diagnosis.

The practice of medicine is an art, not a trade; a calling, not a business; a calling in which your heart will be exercised equally with your head.

Images from Dreamstime and courtesy of National Institutes of Health

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