Timeline of Discovery

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Timeline of Discovery

Note: The following entries represent just a sampling of biomedical discoveries at Harvard Medical School and its affiliated institutions.

1799 Benjamin Waterhouse introduces the smallpox vaccine to the United States and helps gain acceptance for the new procedure.

1843 Oliver Wendell Holmes identifies the cause and prevention of puerperal fever, also known as childbed fever.

1846 John Collins Warren, the School’s first dean, provides the first public demonstration of anesthesia in surgery.

1886 Reginald Heber Fitz provides the first clinical description of appendicitis; he also advocates performing appendectomies.

1890s–1910 Theobald Smith identifies the mechanism of insect-borne disease transmission, discovers the cause of scurvy and develops the concept of heat-killed vaccines.

1914 Paul Dudley White introduces the electrocardiograph to the United States.

1922 Elliott Joslin introduces insulin to the United States and subsequently founds Joslin Diabetes Center.

1923 Eliot Cutler performs the world’s first successful heart valve surgery at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, today part of Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

1925 Marius Smith-Petersen devises a three-flanged nail to secure the bone in hip fractures.

1927 Philip Drinker invents the iron lung to help polio-paralyzed patients breathe.

1927 William Hinton develops a blood test for the detection of syphilis.

1929 In a first, the newly developed Drinker Respirator (iron lung) saves a polio patient at Peter Bent Brigham in collaboration with Children's Hospital Medical Center, today Boston Children’s Hospital, and the Harvard School of Public Health.

1930s–1940s Fuller Albright recognizes the disease of overactive parathyroid, develops an effective treatment for vitamin D-resistant rickets and provides insights into the treatment of osteoporosis.

1933 James Gamble and colleagues give the first demonstration of the need to replace intracellular fluid and electrolytes in those subjected to extreme loss of food and water.

1938 Robert Gross performs the first successful closure of the patent ductus arteriosus, a congenital heart defect of infants, ushering in an era of corrective heart surgery for children.

1942 While treating victims of the Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston, Massachusetts General Hospital physicians demonstrate the efficacy of a new approach to burn treatment and the value of new blood bank and emergency-response plans.

1945 A Mass General researcher perfects the use of Pap smear to detect cervical cancer.

1946 At Boston Children’s, Louis Diamond describes Rh disease, a condition resulting from incompatibility of a baby’s blood with the mother’s, and develops a transfusion procedure that replaces the blood of newborns affected by Rh disease.

1947 Carl Walter, John Merrill and George Thorn perfect the Kolff-Brigham artificial kidney for clinical use.

1947 Working at Boston Children’s, Sidney Farber is responsible for the first successful pediatric remission of acute leukemia.

1948 The first series of successful operations is performed at Peter Bent Brigham for repair of stenotic mitral heart valves.

1949 John Enders, Thomas Weller and Frederick Robbins grow poliovirus in culture, paving the way for polio vaccines. Their technique also leads to vaccines against measles, mumps, rubella and chickenpox.

1949 Doctors at Robert Breck Brigham Hospital, now part of Brigham and Women’s, become the first to administer cortisone, a steroid treatment, to patients with rheumatoid arthritis.

1949 Helping women with diabetes who wish to have children, Joslin physician Priscilla White introduces the White Classification of Diabetic Pregnancies, a widely used method to categorize patients’ risk and tailor treatments accordingly.

1950s Sidney Farber and colleagues at what is now Dana-Farber Cancer Institute achieve the first remissions in Wilms tumor of the kidney, a common form of childhood cancer. By prescribing the antibiotic actinomycin D in addition to surgery and radiation therapy, they boost cure rates from 40 to 85 percent.

1951 McLean Hospital researchers discover brain proteolipids, a new class of molecules necessary for brain structure and function. This discovery provides a basis for understanding normal brain development and abnormalities underlying psychiatric illness.

1952 Surgeon Joseph Murray performs the first successful kidney transplant on identical twins at Peter Bent Brigham.

1954 The first clinical trials of oral contraceptives get underway at Boston Lying-In Hospital, now part of Brigham and Women’s.

1957 In a key advance toward the improved understanding of brain structures, McLean researchers develop a procedure for extracting and identifying brain lipids.

1960s Dana-Farber researchers develop the means to collect, preserve and transfuse platelets to control bleeding.

1960 Mass General clinicians become the first to use proton beam therapy to treat tumors of the eye, neck and brain.

1960 The first implantable cardiac pacemaker is developed at Beth Israel Hospital, today part of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

1962 A surgical team, led by Ronald Malt, at Mass General performs a replantation of a severed arm, thus achieving the first successful reattachment of a human limb.

1962 Bernard Lown becomes the first to use direct electric current to restore the rhythm of the heart.

1964 Mass General innovators make practical for the first time the long-term storage of human blood.

1965 Working at Joslin, William Beetham and Lloyd M. Aiello pioneer pan-retinal coagulation, a treatment that uses lasers to halt the sight-stealing proliferation of blood vessels in people with diabetes.

1968 Mass General clinicians pioneer telemedicine, the practice of medicine over closed-circuit television.

1969 Mass General cardiac surgeons collaborate in the development of an intra-aortic balloon catheter.

1970s Dana-Farber researchers develop a combination therapy program for soft-tissue sarcomas, resulting in a 50 percent response rate.

1970s Dana-Farber researchers clone the gene ras and demonstrate that, when mutated, this gene—the first known human oncogene—helps spur the development of many common human tumors.

1970s Mass General researchers pioneer the positron emission tomography (PET) scan, an imaging technique that made possible one of the first noninvasive looks at functional changes within the brain and other organs.

1973 Clinicians at the Boston Hospital for Women, now part of Brigham and Women’s, develop noninvasive fetal heart monitoring, enabling a safer and more accurate way to detect fetal distress during labor.

1974 Mass General dermatologists Thomas Fitzpatrick and John Parrish introduce the field of photochemotherapy, which uses light and special medications to treat disorders such as psoriasis.

1976 C. Ronald Kahn, recruited to Joslin, discovers alterations in the receptors associated with insulin resistance, found in obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

1977 Stephen C. Harrison in the HMS Department of Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology is the first to determine the structure of an intact virus particle, leading to the understanding of the mechanisms of viral entry and assembly.

1978 Stuart Orkin and his team at Boston Children’s develop new DNA sequencing techniques for the reliable prenatal diagnosis of several genetic defects that cause thalassemia, a deadly form of anemia.

1979 Mass General radiologists pioneer the use of MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging, to diagnose illness and injury.

1980s–present Researchers at Harvard Medical School and affiliated institutions make numerous key discoveries in the HIV/AIDS field.

1981 Researchers at Mass General, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Shriner’s Burns Institute create the first artificial skin made from living cells.

1981 Mass General researchers develop a technique for reversing the premature onset of puberty in girls.

1982 Biological Chemistry and Genetics researcher Jack Szostak and collaborators show that the telomeres at the ends of chromosomes are maintained by a widely conserved mechanism, paving the way for the discovery of telomerase, a critical enzyme in aging and cancer.

1983 Using a pulsed dye laser, Mass General researchers become the first to treat the congenital birthmarks known as port-wine stains without scarring.

1983 James Gusella leads the HMS Genetics team that finds a genetic marker for Huntington’s disease, a fatal inherited condition. This same gene-finding technique later enables scientists to find genetic markers for other inherited diseases.

1984 Genetics scientists, led by Philip Leder, create the first genetically engineered mouse model of cancer, subsequently dubbed the “oncomouse.”

1984 Cell Biology researcher Howard Green and colleagues become the first to grow human skin in large quantities in the laboratory, allowing skin replacement in patients with extensive burns.

1984 Brigham and Women’s researchers launch a series of national clinical studies known as the Thrombolysis in Myocardial Infarction (TIMI) trials, which demonstrate that new clot-busting drugs can save heart muscle and improve patients’ chances of surviving a heart attack.

1986 Boston Children’s researchers identify a retrovirus as the probable cause of Kawasaki disease, an infectious illness occurring predominantly in children under five.

1986 Investigators at Boston Children’s isolate and locate on chromosome 21 the gene for the brain protein found in the degenerative nerve tissue of people with Alzheimer’s disease.

1987 Mass General researchers contribute to the discovery of the first gene associated with inherited early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

1987 Louis Kunkel and colleagues at Boston Children’s discover the gene that causes Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

1988 Mass General researchers develop laser treatment for removal of pigmented lesions and tattoos.

1989 Judah Folkman and his research team at Boston Children’s produce a synthetic compound that inhibits the growth of blood vessels associated with tumors.

1990s Alfred Goldberg and HMS colleagues conduct basic investigations that lay the foundation for the first proteasome-inhibiting cancer therapy.

1992 The structure of diphtheria toxin is discovered, which leads to the discovery of a safer, more economical vaccine.

1992 Brigham and Women’s researchers discover that a protein (amyloid beta) thought to be an early, causative feature of Alzheimer's disease is also present in healthy individuals and that patients with Alzheimer's produce too much of this protein or cannot break it down properly.

1993 Massachusetts Eye and Ear clinicians pioneer the use of photodynamic therapy for neovascular macular degeneration.

1993 HMS Genetics researcher Gary Ruvkun codiscovers small regulatory RNAs called microRNAs, revealing a new world of RNA regulation at an unprecedented small scale.

1993 Innovators at Mass. Eye and Ear develop a surgical method to restore speech, swallowing and normal breathing in patients with paralyzed vocal chords.

1993 Dana-Farber scientists identify the gene that causes an inherited form of colon cancer, which leads to diagnostic screening to determine whether people are predisposed to contract the disease.

1993 Mass. Eye and Ear researchers discover VEGF, a molecule implicated in diabetic retinopathy and age-related macular degeneration, the most common forms of blindness.

1994 National clinical trials, led by Beth Israel Deaconess investigators, demonstrate that a new oral drug called zileuton effectively improves lung function after an asthma attack and reduces asthma symptoms over a month-long period.

1994 In studies of wound repair, HMS researchers at Boston Children’s find a key molecule, known as PR-39, that binds growth factors and proteins necessary for the mending process.

1995 Brigham and Women’s surgeons perform the nation's first triple-organ transplant, removing three organs from a single donor—two lungs and a heart—and transplanting them into three individual patients, giving each a new lease on life.

1995 Joslin clinical researchers identify blood glucose levels that limit kidney disease.

1996 McLean scientists discover the first evidence of a chemical abnormality in nerve-cell function in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s, a finding that ultimately leads to the first treatments for the disease approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

1996 Building on insights into the functioning of the human immune system, Dana-Farber researchers, led by Lee Nadler, devise a way to neutralize immune system cells responsible for graft-versus-host-disease, a potentially dangerous side effect of organ and tissue transplants.

1997 An HMS Cell Biology team discovers a novel gene, p73, which resembles the powerful tumor-suppressor gene p53, but unlike its counterpart, p73 is found on only one chromosome and acts in ways quite different from its famous relative.

1997 Investigating how aspirin reduces inflammation, Brigham and Women’s scientists discover that aspirin targets COX, an enzyme involved in the formation of prostaglandins and thromboxanes, compounds that are part of the inflammatory response.

1998 Surgeons at Beth Israel Deaconess perform the first adult live-donor liver transplant in New England.

1999 Ushering in a powerful new way to detect nascent cancers, Ralph Weissleder and colleagues at Mass General develop molecular probes that fluoresce upon contact with tumor enzymes, allowing the detection of minute clusters of tumor cells.

2000 McLean researchers identify four types of brain abnormalities associated with abuse and neglect experienced in childhood.

2001 Studying a tiny cluster of nerve cells behind the eye, HMS Neurobiology researchers discover a pathway involved in how the brain’s circadian clock sends signals that control the body’s daily rhythms.

2002 Researchers at HMS and Joslin identify a pathway linked to the cartilage deterioration and bone attrition of rheumatoid arthritis.

2002 Paul Ridker and colleagues at Brigham and Women’s find that C-reactive protein predicts the chances of developing heart disease, leading to new guidelines for predicting cardiovascular disease.

2003 Research conducted in resource-limited nations by the HMS Department of Social Medicine, now Global Health and Social Medicine, provides the first hard evidence that people infected with multidrug-resistant tuberculosis can be treated successfully by developing community-based outpatient treatment models.

2003 Beth Israel Deaconess researchers pinpoint the source of preeclampsia, a life-threatening complication of pregnancy and one of the leading causes of maternal and infant mortality worldwide.

2004 Led by Stuart Orkin, Boston Children’s scientists identify the first regulatory molecule that puts the brakes on the proliferation of blood stem cells and also preserves the integrity of those stem cells, enabling them to produce functional blood cells over a long period of time.

2004 HMS Cell Biology researchers discover the architecture of the first transmembrane protein-conducting channel, paving the way for an understanding of how proteins are transferred.

2005 Mary-Elizabeth Patti and colleagues at Joslin show that poor prenatal nutrition permanently damages the function of insulin-producing cells in the embryo’s pancreas, raising the risk that the child will later develop Type 2 diabetes.

2005 In studies to combat the herpes simplex virus type 2, the most common form of genital herpes, David Knipe in HMS Microbiology and Immunobiology develops a replication-deficient vaccine called dl5-29, which stimulates the immune system from inside host cells, a quality other vaccines lack, and becomes a leading candidate in human vaccine trials.

2006 Dana-Farber researchers identify a molecular mechanism in the liver that explains how eating foods rich in saturated fats and trans-fatty acids causes elevated blood levels of "bad" cholesterol and triglycerides, increasing the risk of heart disease and certain cancers.

2006 HMS Genetics researcher George Church introduces revolutionary "next generation" DNA sequencing technologies.

2007 Investigators, led by Donald Ingber, director of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, demonstrate how to turn cells on and off using magnets, leading to potential ways to correct cellular functions that diseases interrupt.

2007 Researchers at Brigham and Women’s and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard discover a gene involved in rheumatoid arthritis, a painful inflammation that affects 2.1 million Americans and can destroy cartilage and bone within afflicted joints.

2007 Dana-Farber scientists, led by Bruce Spiegelman, identify a molecular switch in mice that turns on the development of beneficial brown-fat cells, which generate heat and counter obesity.

2008 HMS Cell Biology researchers discover necroptosis and its inhibition by small-molecule inhibitors of RIPK1, which leads to clinical studies of RIPK1 inhibitors as potential therapies for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and Alzheimer’s disease.

2008 Dana-Farber scientists achieve a medical first by using a targeted drug to drive a patient's metastatic melanoma into remission.

2009 Boston Children’s stem-cell researchers, led by George Q. Daley, finds that LIN28, a protein abundant in embryonic stem cells, is aberrantly expressed in about 15 percent of all cancers, revealing a possible new target for drug development.

2009 An HMS Genetics team, led by Stephen Elledge, uses a technique called RNA interference (RNAi) to dial down the production of thousands of proteins and determine which are required for cancer cells to survive, exposing a hidden set of drug targets for possible new cancer therapies.

2009 Joan Brugge and HMS Cell Biology colleagues discover that in addition to cancer cells’ perishing via cell suicide, or apoptosis, they also can die of starvation by losing their ability to harvest energy, findings that point toward new tumor-killing strategies.

2009 Joslin scientists, headed by Aaron Cypess, demonstrate that adults still have energy-burning brown fat as adults, a discovery that paves the way for new treatments for obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

2010 An HMS Neurobiology team, led by Michael Greenberg, find that environmental stimuli activate certain sections of DNA, enhancing the process by which messenger RNAs are created, and that these “enhancer regions” play a role in driving gene expression, the first evidence of widespread enhancer transcription.

2011 Andrzej Krolewski and colleagues at Joslin identify two novel markers that, when elevated in the bloodstream, accurately predict the risk of kidney failure in patients with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.

2011 Challenging a half-century-old theory that chemotherapy works by targeting fast-dividing cells, Dana-Farber researchers report that cancer cells on the verge of self-destructing are especially vulnerable to chemotherapy.

2011–2016 Michael Chernew and J. Michael McWilliams, HMS Health Care Policy faculty, demonstrate that global budget models can lower health care spending while improving quality in commercially insured populations and Medicare.

2012 HMS Systems Biology researchers, led by Galit Lahav, use a combination of mathematical models and experiments to show that the tumor suppressor gene p53 uses pulsed signals to trigger DNA repair and cell recovery, and that the rhythm of these pulses carries crucial information.

2012 Analyzing more than 300,000 DNA sequence variations from Native American and Siberian populations, HMS Genetics researcher David Reich and colleagues reveal that North and South America were populated in three ancient waves of migration.

2012 Scientists, led by Deborah Hung in the HMS Department of Microbiology and Immunobiology and at Mass General and Brigham and Women’s, show that a detailed RNA signature of specific pathogens can identify a broad spectrum of infectious agents, forming the basis of a diagnostic platform to earlier determine the best treatment option for infectious diseases.

2013 In studies of aging factors, Amy Wagers and Richard T. Lee, HMS researchers in Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology, discover that a substance called GDF-11 reverses cardiac hypertrophy, or thickening of the heart muscle, an important contributor to heart failure.

2013 Roland Baron, of Harvard School of Dental Medicine and Mass General, reveals pathways by which the gene cathepsin K promotes bone resorption and formation, pointing to potential new therapies for osteoporosis.

2014 Scientists in the HMS Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, led by Derrick Rossi, reprogram mature blood cells into blood-forming hematopoietic stem cells, thereby extending the possibility of transplantation to patients for whom a histocompatible donor cannot be identified.

2014 Stem Cell and Reproductive Biology researchers, led by Douglas Melton, successfully generate mature human insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells from stem cells in vitro, which, when transplanted into mice, secrete insulin appropriately in response to glucose levels.

2015 A team at Mass General takes the first steps in creating a bioartificial replacement forelimb suitable for transplantation in humans.

2015 HMS Microbiology and Immunobiology scientist Arlene Sharpe and Dana-Farber researcher Gordon Freeman show that cancer cells hijack the PD-1 pathway, turning off the immune system. These findings translate into new treatments that free the immune system to fight tumors.

2015 Spearheaded by faculty in the HMS Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, a report by The Lancet Commission on Global Surgery reveals that 5 billion people are unable to access safe, timely and affordable surgery, leading to 18.6 million preventable deaths each year worldwide. The report also presents a blueprint for developing properly functioning surgical systems globally.

2015 Researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess discover that a pseudogene, an RNA subclass that has lost the ability to produce proteins, has a role in causing cancer.

2015 HMS Systems Biology scientists, led by Marc Kirschner, reveal the molecular processes involved in the disposal of malfunctioning or damaged proteins. These proteins are tagged with ubiquitin, which signals a cellular machine called the proteasome to pulverize the defective protein.

2015 In neurologic studies, Brigham and Women’s researchers discover a gene variant that may help patients with multiple sclerosis better respond to a certain medication.

2015 Peter Park, in the HMS Department of Biomedical Informatics, leads a study demonstrating for the first time that a large number of somatic (noninherited) mutations are present in the brain cells of healthy people and occur more frequently in the genes that neurons use most.

2015 Studying genes that cause deafness, researchers at Boston Children’s take key steps toward developing gene therapies to restore hearing.

2016 Andrew Kruse, an HMS scientist in Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology, is the first to reveal the molecular structure of the sigma-1 receptor, a cellular protein implicated in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a discovery that opens the door to potential therapeutic targets.

2016 Virologists at Beth Israel Deaconess find two candidate vaccines that provide complete protection from the Zika virus in animal models, suggesting a vaccine for humans may be feasible.

2016 McLean scientists link abnormalities in circadian rhythms to specific neurochemical changes in the brains of people with bipolar disorder that coincide with increased severity of symptoms in the morning.

2016 In studies of the microbiome, HMS Microbiology and Immunobiology researchers find an array of individual bacterial species in the human gut that work together to influence immuno-inflammatory responses.

2017 Studying cell samples from patients with rheumatoid arthritis at a level of detail not achieved in earlier studies, Brigham and Women’s scientists discover a striking subset of T cells that collaborate with other immune cells, a finding that helps illuminate a path toward more precise treatments focused only on the most relevant immune cells.

To learn more about research at HMS on the Quad and beyond, click here.

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Nobel Laureates 


Fifteen researchers have shared in nine Nobel prizes for work done while at Harvard Medical School.

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Deans of the Faculty

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The first administrative organization of Harvard Medical School after its founding in 1782 took place in 1816 with the appointment of John Collins Warren as dean. He was a founder of the New England Journal of Medicine and Surgery and the first surgeon to demonstrate the use of ether anesthesia. Learn about Warren and other distinguished doctors who molded Harvard Medical School into its current form. Click here for a full listing of past deans.

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Harvard Medicine Magazine


Since 1927, Harvard Medicine, formerly known as the Harvard Medical Alumni Bulletin, has featured doctors’ voices on topics ranging from the healing power of music to the neurology of humor. The magazine seeks to capture the work of the Harvard Medicine community and its power to make contributions to human health.

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Center for the History of Medicine


The Center for the History of Medicine at Countway Library is one of the world’s leading collections in the history of health care and medicine, attracting researchers from around the world to consult its rare books and journals, archives and manuscripts, photographs and prints, and art and artifact collections. The history of medicine plays a critical role in informing contemporary medicine, at the same time that it informs our understanding of the larger society within which medicine is embedded.

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