Can medicine make me healthier?

Imagine a world without life-saving organ transplants and medical scans. In the last sixty years, scientists have developed incredible new ways to diagnose and treat illness. We also know much more today about how lifestyle affects our health.

Tolerance of transplants (1953)

Peter Medawar FRS, Frank Macfarlane Burnet FRS

Medawar was trying to improve skin grafts for burns patients when he made a discovery that brought in the age of organ transplants. Working on an idea of Burnet’s, he showed that the rejection of skin grafts was an immune response – and that mice could overcome this response if they were exposed to the new tissue early in life.

This paved the way for successful organ transplants. Later, Greg Winter FRS and Herman Waldmann FRS built on the same idea to develop the idea of humanised monoclonal antibodies – highly specific, cloned proteins that pinpoint and fight infections. "

Smoking and cancer (1956)

Richard Doll FRS, Austin Bradford Hill FRS

Today it seems obvious that smoking causes cancer. But until the 1950s, few scientists worked on the kind of statistics needed to prove such links. Doll and Bradford Hill studied two surveys of doctors, published in 1954 and 1956, and found convincing evidence that tobacco smoking increased the risk of developing lung cancer.

Today, similar mathematical techniques underpin the epidemiological studies that help set public health policy."

Scanning for illness (1977)

Peter Mansfield FRS

While X-rays give detailed pictures of bones, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) reveals disease in soft tissue. The patient lies inside a huge magnet, and a tuned radio wave pulses harmlessly through coils around their body. The resulting signals from the hydrogen nuclei in the body can then be decoded to reveal an image slice through the brain, spine, joints or organs.

Mansfield was the first person to produce a useful image using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), and he received the Nobel Prize in 2003."

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Sovereign Science

An exhibition to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, the Royal Society's patron.

See all the discoveries.

Great British Innovation Vote

The Great British Innovation Vote is a public vote held in March 2013 to discover the nation's favourite innovation of the last 100 years. Many of the discoveries and inventions on this page are featured in the poll.