Before medical innovation was considered innovation

It’s easy to get caught up with the idea that we’re currently living in perhaps the biggest wave of healthcare innovation, with Silicon Valley and scores of startups elsewhere jumping in feet first with digital health efforts and new approaches to the life sciences. But it’s important to remember that bursts of innovation have occurred […]

It’s easy to get caught up with the idea that we’re currently living in perhaps the biggest wave of healthcare innovation, with Silicon Valley and scores of startups elsewhere jumping in feet first with digital health efforts and new approaches to the life sciences.

But it’s important to remember that bursts of innovation have occurred in previous periods, and medicine is no exception.

Take, for example, The Knick, which in addition to being filled with all sorts of debauchery and early-century wickedness also highlights what were then considered cutting-edge medical practices.

Wired points out a lot of them, but here’s a few of the highlights: nose reconstruction because of syphilis and some of the earliest uses of X-ray equipment, without the knowledge of how long-term exposure can cause harm.

“That was an era of great invention and an era that created the middle class. You had the development of electricity, the telephone, the automobile, the airplane, the radio,” Stanley Burns, the show’s medical advisor and founder of the Burns Archive, told Wired. The archive provides historical photographs for The Knick for purposes of historical accuracy.. “You had all these conveyances—it looked like an age of miracles. Medicine mimicked that.”

Still, the world of medicine was fraught with woes, with patients dying from what would now be considered routine procedures gone array. Nevertheless, some elements of practice remained for hundred more years.

More from Burns:

“I just came back from my medical reunion and one of the doctors said that he will never forget his most embarrassing moment,” Burns says. “He went to a lecture and the doctor was saying, ’50 percent of what I’m telling you is not going to be true.’ One of the students raised their hand and said, ‘Well then why do we have to learn it all?’ And the doctor said, ‘Because we don’t know which 50 percent.’”

Topics