Defibrillators are the electric paddles that restart hearts.

In 1957, Dr. Pantridge and Dr. John Geddes invented cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Eventually, he went on to innovate a portable defibrillator that weighed 70kg and ran from car batteries, installing it in a Belfast ambulance.

No sooner did the devices prove effective then, by 1968, they had shrunk to 3kg. Eventually, later in life, Pantridge developed the Automated External Defibrillator (AED). Significantly, this allowed the general public to use a defibrillator.

Subsequently, Pantridge worked with Prof. John Anderson to build the defibrillators and they received a patent on May 23, 1978.

Eventually, defibrillators were commercialized via tech transfer to HeartSine, which was sold in 2016 for $1.3B. Dr. Pantridge died in 2004 unmarried, with no heirs, and a reputation for being surly. His invention saved countless lives.

Birth Control Pill

“The church has ever opposed the progress of woman on the ground that her freedom would lead to immorality. We ask the church to have more confidence in women.”

Margaret Sanger, Co-Inventor of the Birth Control Pill & Founder, Planned Parenthood

Birth Control pills have an especially colorful history. Development of The Pill involved four protagonists.


Brilliant bio-met research Dr. Gregory Pincus focused on mammal reproduction. Dr. John Rock was an Ob-Gyn wishing to help his patients control their fertility. Margaret Sanger was the founder of Planned Parenthood and an outspoken eugenicist. Katharine McCormick was a wealthy socialite who believed in Sanger.

As a Harvard professor, Dr. Pincus had a promising career in reproductive science. He invented in-vitro fertilization and created a test-tube rabbit in 1934. Pincus allegedly then suggested to a reporter he could create test-tube babies, a quote he vehemently denied until his death. There was a public outcry and Pincus was denied tenure at Harvard as the popular press labeled him a real-life Frankenstein. Disgraced and displaced from academia, Pincus established his own research lab.

Margret Sanger found him Pincus and convinced him to help create a pill to regulate ovulation. Eventually, after a lot of work with animals, Pincus realized synthetic female hormones could theoretically trick women into believing they were pregnant, preventing ovulation and pregnancy.


To test the synthetic hormones, Sanger brought on Rock. Firstly, they asked female nursing students to try the pills. The side effects were terrible and all participants quit. Next, they tried the pills on women prisoners. Eventually, the prisoners soon refused, citing severe side effects. Subsequently, they tested the pills on women in Puerto Rico as a solution for infertility. They told the women to take the pills for a set amount of time then, after stopping, they’d be more likely to conceive a baby.

FDA Approval

Thanks to their unsuspecting test subjects, the group gathered enough data to convince the US Food & Drug Administration to approve their synthetic hormone for use as a fertility treatment. Drug company Searle released their pill under the trade name Evovid. No sooner was Enovid approved than both Sanger advertised that the pills prevented pregnancy.

Eventually, in 1960, the FDA approved Enovid as a birth control pill.

Markedly, Searle’s Enovid, created by Pincus and Rock, produced strong side effects. It was quickly overtaken by an oral progesterone synthesized in 1951 by Dr. Carl Djerassi and produced by Syntex. Eventually, Djerassi became known as the “father of the pill”. Historians may have wanted to scrub the original record due to some of the questionable ethics of the original team. Djerassi became fabulously wealthy, despite having little involvement in the initial work.

DNA Sequencing

DNA sequencing creates a map of DNA. The process reads DNA like a computer reads a hard drive. Eventually, the technology will allow scientists to understand and manipulate life functions.

In 1955, Sanger discovered how to sequence DNA, which would later win him the Nobel Prize. He is one of four people in the world to win the Nobel Prize twice.

In 1977, the first full DNA sequence was performed. Allan Maxam and Walter Gilbert created a chemical-based method that allowed purified samples of DNA to be sequenced without further cloning.

Progress proceeded rapidly. By 1987, Sanger sequencing machines could generate about 1,000 base pairs per day. By 2001, automated genomic sequencing centers generated up to 10 million base pairs per day. In 2005, new instruments were released that allowed the inexpensive sequencing of entire genomes. These were called “next-generation sequencing,” illustrating the difference of the STEM crowd from their more creative classmates. This period is referred to as the “democratization” of sequencing due to the low-cost and potentially high-impact sequencers.

Next-generation sequencers were highly parallel, with many base pairs being sequenced at the same time. They worked at a tiny scale, typically on a chip. The sequencers were fast, low-cost, and read a small amount of DNA rather than a large part of the strand.

The Human Genome Project, sequencing an entire person, started in 1990 and completed in 2003; it cost about $1 billion. Today, sequencing an entire genome takes about an hour and costs about $100.

DNA sequencing is seen as the key to future medicine. For example, scientists can eventually sequence a person, a virus, and devise a specific medicine that kills a specific virus in a specific person. The method is already in primitive use in the field of oncology, where customized immune “t-cells” are tuned to kill cancer cells. When it works, patients report being able to literally see cancer tumors melt away after being injected. While the medical technology promises to eventually be a Star-Trek like system — take a scan and give a shot that cures anything — it is still in its infancy.

Portable Ventilator

Ventilators breathe for people when they cannot breathe on their own.

John Emerson was a physician focused on breathing devices who developed the first mass produced iron lung.

Building on Emerson’s work, Bird developed the portable ventilator and, later, created a company, Bird Corp., to commercialize it. Bird Corp. created a home ventilator in 1965, the Mark III. In 1971, Bird created the first infant ventilator.

In 1978, Bird sold his company to 3M. in 1949 but founded two other companies, Percussionaire and Bird Medical Technologies (BMT), to commercialize other innovations. Both Percussionaire, BMT, and the original Bird medical products group in 3M exist in 2018.

Ventilators, both portable and otherwise, vastly lowered mortality rates so much that they created an ethical issue. They can keep a person’s body “alive” despite that the person was brain-dead and would never wake up. Ventilators have led to an ongoing debate about what exactly constitutes death.

Polio Vaccine

Appearing out of nowhere in the late 1900s, polio terrified American communities in the early 20th century. 1 in 200 infections led to irreversible paralysis. Of those, 5-10% died from breathing paralysis. Iron lungs that breathed for polio sufferers also trapped them. The virus paralyzed President Roosevelt.

No sooner did the virus appear than entire families faced quarantine. If the child died then the families could not leaving the house to attend the funeral.

To promote the rapid dissemination of the vaccine Salk purposefully refused to patent his polio vaccine. Forbes estimated Salk forfeited about $7 billion dollars, adjusted for inflation through 2012.

Through research grants funding his lab Salk lived a comfortable life.

Salk did not win a Nobel Prize as his vaccine was not a core scientific breakthrough but, rather, a combination of prior work by others.

Contact Lenses

Leonardo DaVinci proposed the first contact lens idea in his Codex of the Eye, published in 1508. His invention involved putting a fishbowl over one’s head filled with water to refract light. This is arguably not his finest work though, in hindsight, he was onto something.

René Descartes picked up DaVinci’s work in 1636, proposing to place a glass tube filled with water directly on the cornea. While better than the fishbowl, and arguably effective, it did not allow people to blink.

In 1801, English scientist Thomas Young proposed gluing 1/4th-inch water-lenses to eyes with wax. Despite this, he managed to survive with an intact reputation.

John Herschel proposed molding the cornea to produce lenses to correct vision. In 1888 Fick and Girard both invented two types of glass lenses that worked but were large and uncomfortable. Terms like “excruciating eye pain” and “suffocating the eyes” are found in the literature.

Kevin Tuohy invented the modern plastic lens, filing a patent in 1948. Tuohy’s discovery was an accident. While working on a lens that covered the entire eye he cut it too small and decided to try it anyway. He found it remained in place and corrected vision.

Tuohy’s company, Solex, went on to win a few key patent cases and receive royalties for contact lenses through at least the 1950s. Eventually, their patents expired and other companies created better corneal contact lenses.


Dialysis machines do the work of kidneys, cleaning the blood of impurities.

After two years of experimentation on terminal patients, 15 who died, Kolff successfully kept a woman suffering renal failure alive with his “artificial kidney” dialysis machine.

After WWII he donated the machines to hospitals around the world then immigrated to the US in 1950. He continued improving his machine, making it both more effective and smaller.

Eventually, he miniaturized it enough to make it portable allowing patients to receive dialysis at home. By 1973, 40 percent of American dialysis patients received home treatment. Due to skyrocketing healthcare costs only 10 percent of American dialysis patients are eligible for home treatment today.

Not only did he invent the dialysis machine but also he helped innovate other artificial organs including full-blown artificial kidneys and the heart-lung machine. Eventually, his work served as inspiration for the invention of the artificial heart.


“I did not invent penicillin. Nature did that. I only discovered it by accident.”

Sir Dr. Alexander Fleming

Few medical discoveries impacted life expectancy and quality of life more than antibiotics. Before their discovery, simple wounds were often fatal. For example, during the US Civil War, most soldiers eventually died from infection, not from their wounds.

No sooner did he return to his lab on Sept. 3, 1928, than Dr. Alexander Fleming, a bacterial researcher, noticed that bacterial growth was oddly inhibited in one of his petri dishes. At first, he called the agent inhibiting the growth, Penicillium, “mould juice” but later changed the name to Penicillin.

Subsequently, many other scientists worked over time refining his innovation into a usable drug, with work rapidly progressing during the onset of WWII. Florey and Chain worked on the core drug and Heatley figure out how to manufacture it in bulk. Fleming, Chain, and Florey shared the Nobel Prize.

Following in the footsteps of other great scientists, Fleming donated his patent rights to the US and UK governments, ensuring penicillin could be widely produced at low cost.

King George VI knighted Fleming in 1944. Although he lived well as a respected academic researcher most financial compensation flowed to others.


Pacemakers use electrical impulses to keep hearts beating regularly.

In 1926 Australian anesthesiologist Dr. Mark Lidwill inserted a needle into the heart of a newborn and used an electric pulse to control the baby’s heart, saving its life.

Lidwill’s cardiac pacemaker has saved countless lives since. Like Banting and Best, the inventors of insulin, Lidwill refused to patent his invention. However, Lidwill remains most famous in his native Australia for being the first person to catch a rare Black Marlin fish. Articles about the innovator of the pacemaker often write as much about the fish as the pacemaker.

Eventually, the first real pacemaker was implanted by Swedish Dr. Ake Senning, a heart surgeon, into Arne Larsson, a Swedish engineer. It failed after eight hours. Subsequently, Larsson underwent more than two dozen surgeries, going through countless pacemakers. He lived until 2002, eventually dying of cancer entirely unrelated to his heart problems.

There were countless incremental external pacemakers. Eventually, Wilson Greatbatch invented the implantable pacemaker and miniaturized pacemaker batteries, a vital part of the invention.


Insulin keeps diabetics alive.

Banting and Best discovered insulin, winning them the Nobel Prize.

Banting stole most of the credit, but historians argue they co-discovered insulin together. They won the Nobel Prize together. Banting despised Best and the two never spoke again.

To continue his work, Banting received a lifetime annuity by the Canadian government. Best was a professor.

Eli Lilly & Co. commercialized and mass-produced insulin. However, the British Medical Research Council held the patent. Their goal was to prevent a monopoly on insulin that would drive up the price and harm diabetics.

The World Health Organization estimates about 8.5 percent of the people in the world over 18 have diabetes. In 2019, insulin costs are skyrocketing, especially in the United States. Insulin will be a $40 billion USD market by 2020.

“Do not enter upon research unless you cannot help it. Ask yourself the “why” of every statement that is made and think out your own answer. If through your thoughtful work you get a worthwhile idea, it will get you. The force of the conviction will compel you to forsake all and seek the relief of your mind in research work.”

Sir Frederick Banting