The height of medical science used to be applying leeches and administering useless poisons, like mercury. Undoubtedly many patients were killed by harmful treatments, and few if any were helped. Have historians of medicine estimated the year when calling a doctor first had a net positive impact on your chances of survival?

  • $\begingroup$ Most childhood vaccinations date to around 1900, and antibiotics to about 1950. There was little beneficial medicine before these two things happened, and if you use life expectancy as a measure, there has been little progress since then. Cuba has healthcare outcomes better than those of the US, and its medicine is basically at the 1950 level. $\endgroup$
    – user466
    Feb 11, 2017 at 1:52
  • $\begingroup$ Vaccine (published 1798) against smallpox is a well-documented improvement. Other mileposts include Paracelsus telling his medical students to throw away their books and learn from the patients' outcomes. That was sometime in the 16th century. $\endgroup$
    – Whit3rd
    Feb 12, 2017 at 4:26
  • $\begingroup$ Leeches are used medicinally even today, and mercury was somewhat effective for treating syphilis, while nothing better was known. Galen used treatments far more sophisticated than that already in antiquity, and even ancient Egyptians used surgical tools. The answer to your question is likely "since the stone age", if the net effect of the craft was negative societies would not have perpetuated it for very long. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Feb 16, 2017 at 21:31
  • $\begingroup$ Answering this question is very difficult because how do you measure this? There are way too many factors involved, e.g., demographic factors (birthrates, deathrates, etc.), subjective factors like "quality of life" (longer lifespan doesn't necessarily mean healthier (more years ⇏ better quality health)), etc. $\endgroup$
    – Geremia
    Apr 10, 2018 at 17:18

1 Answer 1


The problem with this question is that nobody can measure this "net impact", especially in the past. Very ancient (stone age) remains show that surgeries were performed, and not only on the limbs but also on the scull. Perhaps it helped in some cases and harmed in other cases, but how can one perform any statistics of this sort?

Even in the recent time, we know of course that average life expectancy increased dramatically, but how much of this can be attributed to medicine, and how much to the general improvement of life conditions (hygiene etc.)?

Nevertheless some milestones can be marked of course. Invention of smallpox vaccine in the late 18th century certainly had enormous effect. Also the discovery of germs as causes of many diseases in 19th century, antiseptic, and discovery of antibiotics in 20th century. There is no doubt that these discoveries saved many millions of lives.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.