Neil Snowise: Medical breakthroughs…what would you choose?

If you had to choose the major medical breakthroughs of the last century, how easy would this be and what would you select? This was the challenge for the Royal Mail who are about to issue six UK stamps to celebrate British medical breakthroughs. They’ve chosen varied topics which demonstrate the wealth and diversity of British discoveries which have given benefits to patients worldwide.Two stamps feature the discovery of drugs which have revolutionised medical treatment. Sir James Black, who died earlier this year aged 85, synthesized propranolol, the first beta-blocker, in 1962 giving huge new benefits to cardiology, portrayed on the 1st class stamp. Black had a brilliant academic career, linked to a remarkable one in the pharmaceutical industry.  In the 1970s he left ICI for Smith, Kline, and French and developed cimetidine (Tagamet) to treat stomach ulcers.

Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin is featured on the 58p stamp. In 1928, Fleming noticed that mould had developed accidentally on a set of culture dishes being used to grow staphylococci. The mould had created a bacteria-free circle around itself. This key development hailed the start of the era of antibiotic therapy; the important work of pathologist Howard Florey, and biochemist Ernst Chain who developed the extraction of penicillin. He has also featured on previous stamps.

Surgical developments are celebrated on the 60p and 67p stamps. After several early failures, John Charnley designed a two-component hip replacement in 1962.  The metal component was placed in the femur, which was hollowed out during surgery. The plastic acetabular cup was cemented into the pelvis. The two parts combined to make a similar joint to a natural one, becoming the gold standard for this type of surgery.

In 1949, at St Thomas’ Hospital, Harold Ridley performed the first cataract extraction combined with an artificial lens implantation, pioneering the surgery that would restore the sight of millions of people around the world. The ophthalmic establishment was opposed to his innovations initially, but opinion changed over time. At the end of the 1980s he himself had the lenses in both his eyes replaced. “I am the only man to have invented his own operation,” he reflected.

The 88p stamp reflects the work of Ronald Ross, who discovered the transmission of malaria in 1897. Ross studied malaria between 1881 and 1899, initially in Calcutta. He was able to find the malaria parasite in an Anopheles mosquito that he artificially fed on a malaria patient.

Subsequently Sir Ronald Ross Institute of Tropical Medicine was established as a division of the faculty of medicine at Osmanaia Medical College, Hyderabad.  By all accounts, he was a very talented man with interests outside medicine – his obituaries describe him as also being a poet, playwright, writer, and painter.

A much more recent discovery is celebrated by the 97p stamp. Godfrey Hounsfield, an electronics engineer, developed the CT scanner whilst working for EMI.  EMI, at that time, were concerned principally with the manufacture of records and electronic components and had no experience of radiological equipment.  In 1971, the first individual to benefit from the prototype machine was a patient with a suspected brain lesion at Atkinson Morley’s Hospital, Wimbledon.
The pioneers who discovered or developed these breakthroughs have all been nationally and internationally recognized – all of them received knighthoods and with the exception of the two surgeons, they were also the recipients of the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine during the 20th Century. Who knows what we will be celebrating at the end of the 21st century and whether the discoveries to come will be equally momentous?

Neil Snowise is a pharmaceutical physician in clinical development,  Bath.

The stamps feature in the new issue of the BMJ, as “picture of the week.”