The microscope

In time, the microscope made the existence of a whole tiny world irrefutable. This amazing device was invented in the 1590s, probably either by Hans Janssen, working with his son, Zachariah, or by Hans Lippershey, all of whom were eyeglass makers in Middelburg, the Netherlands.

Robert Hooke's microscope

Robert Hooke's microscope

The microscope was possibly a byproduct of the invention of the telescope, and it definitely benefited from the fact that a great many people were wearing eyeglasses by the end of the 16th century.

The compound microscope, multiple lenses in a tube, like the device Robert Hooke used to make his famous study of cells, was invented before the simple, single-lens model like the one Anton van Leeuwenhoek used when he discovered microorganisms.

The Nobel Committee has awarded four prizes for microscopes, the most recent three for Physics:

  • Richard Zsigmondy won in Chemistry in 1925 for his development in 1903 of the ultramicroscope, which allowed him to view objects that were below the wavelength of light.
  • Frits Zernike won in 1953 for his invention in 1932 of the phase-contrast microscope, which makes colorless or transparent objects visible.
  • Ernst Ruska won in 1986 for the electron microscope, a superior design for magnification that he developed in 1938.
  • Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer won in 1986 for inventing the scanning tunneling microscope in 1981.  This amazing instrument makes the atoms in an object visible — in three dimensions!

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Making birth possible for millions

For the first time ever, the Nobel Prize committee has awarded one of its coveted medals — and $1-million-plus in prize money — to a scientist who worked in the area of reproduction.

The British biologist Robert G. Edwards won the Nobel Prize in "physiology or medicine" today for pioneering in vitro fertilization with a colleague, Patrick Steptoe, a gynecologist and medical researcher who died in 1988. The pair's efforts led to the birth of the first "test tube baby," Louise Brown, on July 25, 1978.

Since then, four million babies have been born with the assistance of IVF, in which sperm and egg are united outside the mother's body and then transferred to the womb.

The Nobel Committee waited more than 30 years to make the award. Edwards, who spent most of his career at Cambridge University, is 85 years old and "not in a position to understand the honor he has received today,” a colleague, Dr. Michael Macnamee, was quoted as saying in a New York Times article by Nicholas Wade.

Edwards and Steptoe unlocked many of the secrets of the human reproductive system on their way to success with IVF. They tried 40 embryo transfers before they achieved a pregnancy, which turned out to be ectopic. The second try led to the birth of a daughter to Leslie and Gilbert Brown of Oldham, in Greater Manchester, England.

Like virtually all medical visionaries, Edwards and Steptoe were subjected to vitriolic attacks. The British medical establishment withheld all manner of support from them, even after Louise Brown's birth.

But the joy of millions of families all over the world who were able to hold their own babies as a result of IVF technology eventually quelled the critics.

Louise Brown, herself the mother of a three-year-old boy, said of the award today: "It's fantastic news; me and Mum are so glad that one of the pioneers of IVF has been given the recognition he deserves. We hold Bob in great affection and are delighted to send our personal congratulations to him and his family at this time."

Alexis Carrel

In 1894, Marie Francois Sadi Carnot, the president of France, was stabbed by a would-be assassin in Lyons. By today's standards, the wound was not severe; however, the knife severed the portal vein in his abdomen. Carnot bled to death because up to that point, no one had figured out how to repair blood vessels.

Alexis Carrel
Alexis Carrel

One man undertook to change that, Alexis Carrel, a student in Lyons who was appalled by Carnot's death, in his hometown, while a number of physicians stood by and watched.

But consider the problem — repairing a tiny, elastic, living tube, part of a network of tubes of different sizes and functions, so that it would retain its ability to channel many gallons of blood every day, birth to death, without a hitch.

The story is that Carrel — Dr. Carrel by 1900 — studied with Marie-Anne Leroudier, one of the most proficient needlewomen in Lyons (her work was exhibited at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893), learning to make minute, uniform stitches. He developed a triangular system that allowed him to rapidly close up a vein or artery end-to-end without having the stitches adhere to the opposite wall, ushering in the birth of vascular surgery.

Carrel came to the University of Chicago in 1904, where his prodigious 21 months' work as an assistant to G. N. Stewart at the Hull Laboratory laid the groundwork for transplantation surgery. That work was the basis for Carrel's becoming the first scientist working in the United States to win the Nobel Prize for medicine, in 1912. Carrel soon moved on to the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York.

(Carrel's collaborator at the U. of C., Charles Claude Guthrie, was miffed that he was not included in the Nobel Prize. Guthrie possibly lost points with the Nobel committee for his subsequent experiments in St. Louis with head transplants.)

Carrel was a complicated man, compassion and curiosity mixed up with arrogance and resentment. He was a eugenicist — that is, he subscribed to the false science of "perfecting" the human race by eliminating traits judged to be inferior — and he was also an enthusiastic believer in the miracle cures at the shrine at Lourdes. At the time of his death in 1944, in Paris, he was working on a project for the collaborationist Vichy government.

Not all blood is the same

In 1900, the Austrian chemist, botanist and medical researcher Karl Landsteiner realized that not all human blood is alike, that some people's blood contains substances that are toxic to other people's blood.

That began to solve the mystery of why some people who received blood transfusions were fine, while others became ill and often died.

Karl Landsteiner
Karl Landsteiner

Landsteiner subsequently discovered three of the four genetically determined blood groups or types, O, A and B. A couple of years later, Alfred von Decastello and Adriano Sturli, Landsteiner's colleagues in Vienna, identified a fourth blood group, AB. While about 30 blood types have been discovered, the original four essentially cover everyone.

In 1910, at the Heidelberg Institute for Experimental Cancer Research in Germany, Ludwig Hirszfeld and Emil von Dungern demonstrated that blood type is an inherited trait.

In the speech he made when he accepted the Nobel Prize in 1930 for his work, Landsteiner described the mystery blood presented, and how he and his fellow researchers unraveled its secrets.

In 1922, Landsteiner moved to the Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research in New York, where he discovered an extremely powerful blood antigen he called "the Rh factor."

Today, hospital personnel make sure they know a mother's blood type in case she needs a transfusion. She will also be tested for her Rh factor because it can pose a danger to her baby's well being.

Speaking of medical detective stories…

Who doesn't love them? Aren't curiosity and a desire to improve the human condition two of the most interesting traits a person can display?

Paul de Kruif's 1926 book, Microbe Hunters, is an  early, influential collection of some great medical detective stories, 12 important successes in the field of microbiology, which were achieved by extraordinary medical detective work.

Microbe Hunters dramatizes the journeys, among others, of  Anton van Leeuwenhoek, the first microbiologist; Sir David Bruce, who traced African sleeping sickness to the tsetse; and Walter Reed, who led the team that discovered that yellow fever is caused by mosquitoes.

Medical historian William Summers was one of many dazzled as a teen-ager by the book, which he says "inspired a generation or more of budding young microbiologists."

Microbe Hunters has sold millions of copies and is still in print, but from a modern perspective, the book is flawed -- De Kruif presents detailed conversations between historical figures, for example.

Even when it was written, the book had its detractors, Summers writes. Ronald Ross, a researcher who won the Nobel Prize in 1902 for identifying the parasite that causes malaria, describing its life cycle and explaining how it comes to infect human beings, successfully sued to prevent publication in the United Kingdom of the chapter about his work.

But De Kruif was one of the most successful medical science writers of his time, and when readers take up a book like Richard Preston's The Hot Zone, about the Ebola virus, they are reading an account profoundly influenced by Microbe Hunters.

The conquest of infectious disease is important to obstetrics.  Infection was the leading cause of maternal mortality until well into the 20th century -- and it still is in many parts of the world.