Modern medicine has transformed the way we live. Hundreds of years of research and development in genetics, surgical procedures and even animal care have eradicated many dangerous illnesses and saved millions of lives around the world. But with the sites of humanity’s greatest medical breakthroughs scattered across the globe they can be difficult to keep track of – until now.
In August, the element14 Community, the world’s largest engineering community, challenged 1,500 of its members to explore and mark global landmarks on a virtual “Atlas of Scientific Achievement” using trackable devices in its global geocaching project. Geocaching is similar to modern day treasure hunting. Participants hide small caches, or containers, at specific locations and record their GPS coordinates using Geocaching.com. Others then use the coordinates to attempt to locate the caches. Once found, many participants will repeat the cycle by moving the caches to new locations and recording their paths on the website.
Throughout the geocaching project, element14 Community members used trackable devices to build their own caches and marked more than 100 landmarks including government research centers, universities and historical sites spanning all seven continents on the atlas. As the caches were found and moved to new locations, some traveling as far as 5,000 miles, the project created a virtual circuit of geocaches across the globe.
Here are just a few of the sites that appear in the atlas. To learn more about element14’s geocaching campaign and see the full Atlas of Scientific Achievement, visit element14.com/geocaching
Berkeley, Gloucestershire: Creation of the Smallpox Vaccine
Smallpox is first believed to have appeared in northeastern Africa around 10,000 B.C. The disease ravaged society for years and at the height of its devastation in the 18th century, the “speckled monster” killed 400,000 people a year.
That changed in 1798 when Edward Jenner, an English physician and scientist, developed the world’s first successful smallpox vaccine. Jenner realized milkmaids near his home in Gloucestershire had developed immunity to smallpox after suffering from cowpox, and that transmitting cowpox from one person to another could prove to be a powerful form of protection.
The opportunity to test his theory came when a milkmaid named Sarah Nelmes contracted cowpox and went to Jenner for treatment. Using material taken from the cowpox lesions on Sarah’s hand, Jenner tested the theory by inoculating his gardener’s son. Two months later the boy was immune to smallpox. Since then, Jenner’s vaccination has been used in virtually every country, making smallpox the only infectious disease to have ever been eradicated.
Toronto, Canada: The Discovery of Insulin
Prior to the discovery of insulin, diabetes proved to be one of the deadliest diseases known to man. Strict diets designed to limit sugar intake often failed to fight off death for more than a few years and in some cases even hastened death through starvation. But in 1921, Dr. Frederick Banting began testing a new approach to treating the disease. Banting believed pancreatic digestive juices were harmful to antidiabetic secretion and approached Professor John Macleod at the University of Toronto with an idea to close pancreatic ducts and stop the flow of digestive juices.
After extensive testing in Toronto, Banting discovered the hormone known as insulin in the pancreatic extracts of dogs. In January 1922, 14-year-old Leonard Thompson became the first human with diabetes to receive insulin. As successful treatment began to save lives, Banting and Macleod were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine. While a cure for diabetes has yet to be discovered, insulin has helped millions of diabetics enjoy happy, meaningful lives.
New York City: Blood Plasma Discovered
Known as the father of the blood bank, Dr. Charles R. Drew first became interested in studying blood as a student at McGill University during the late 1920s. At the time, doctors and scientists had yet to discover a way to preserve blood, prompting Drew to focus his career on developing a solution. While interning at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, Drew discovered that blood plasma lasted much longer than whole blood, and could be stored for longer periods of time and still remain viable. He created a method to dry and replenish blood plasma when needed, enabling it to be substituted for whole blood in life-saving transfusions.
Drew’s breakthrough not only saved the lives of thousands of hospital patients, but it also came one year before the start of World War II—a fortunate and timely coincidence which saved countless lives. Blood transfusions needed to treat wounded soldiers were now readily available for the first. Drew worked tirelessly to organize the collection and processing of blood plasma from a wide range of New York hospitals as part of a special medical effort titled “Blood for Britain.” Years later, millions still benefit from Drew’s contributions to medicine.
Cambridge, England: DNA Structure Discovered
The discovery of DNA structure continues to influence medical and scientific fields decades after its discovery and is considered by many as the most important milestone of the 20th century. While the DNA double-helix was first made famous by physicist Francis Crick and biologist James Watson in 1953, the two could not have solved the mystery behind DNA’s molecular structure without some help.
Crick and Watson worked together at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, England, where they spent most of their time attempting to map out the structure of DNA. The young scientists initially decided upon a three-helical model until that theory was shown to be incorrect. It wasn’t until the two saw the X-ray crystallographic data of Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins that they modeled the DNA structure as a two-chain helix. This revelation gave rise to modern molecular biology and contributed to the development of new techniques in genetic engineering, rapid gene sequencing and modern forensics.
Palo Alto, California: First Successful Heart Transplant in a Dog
As a law student at the University of Michigan in 1941, Dr. Norman E. Shumway never dreamed he would one day reshape cardiac surgery, but that’s exactly what he did. After an aptitude test for the U.S. Army put Shumway on track to become a doctor, he switched to pre-medical training at Baylor University before receiving a Ph.D. in cardiovascular surgery from the University of Minnesota.
After Dr. Shumway became an instructor in surgery at Stanford University, he partnered with surgery resident Richard Lower to transport the heart of one dog into another. The surgery became the first successful heart transplant. Determined to perfect the technique, Shumway and his colleagues spent the next eight years raising survival rates of animals that underwent the surgery to nearly 70 percent.
Although Dr. Shumway died in 2006, he is still remembered as a pioneer of heart surgery. What’s more, Dr. Shumway’s methods paved the way for subsequent physicians to perform the first human heart transplant in 1967.
Cape Town, South Africa: First Human Heart Transplant
At 53, Louis Washkansky was suffering from a chronic disease. Little did he know he would soon be the first human being to successfully receive a heart transplant. On Dec. 3, 1967, surgeon Christiaan Barnard performed the operation at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa. Using the heart of a 25-year-old woman who had died a day earlier, Dr. Barnard’s surgical team successfully completed the nine hour surgery. After regaining consciousness, Washkansky was able to talk and even walk.
Although the revolutionary operation wasn’t able to extend Washkansky’s life for more than a few weeks, it provided the medical community with the valuable knowledge that a heart transplant could indeed be accomplished. Today more than 2,000 heart transplants take place annually in the U.S., helping to save the lives of thousands of patients.
Baltimore, Maryland: Discovery of the Restriction Enzyme
In the early 1960s, Swiss microbiologist and geneticist Werner Arber observed bacteriophage DNA degraded and eventually separated into pieces after invading certain strains of bacteria. Determined to explain this phenomenon, Arber hypothesized those resistant bacterial cells release enzymes in an attempt to keep their own DNA safe. This hypothesis was verified in 1970 by Hamilton Smith, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. Smith also became the first to successfully purify a restriction enzyme from a separate bacterium to show that it only separates DNA outside of the host cell.
Restriction enzymes have since transformed modern medicine, helping to manipulate, analyze and create new combinations of DNA sequences. This recombinant DNA technology is now used in a wide range of applications, including the large scale production of life-saving proteins such as insulin.
To learn more about element14’s geocaching campaign and see the full Atlas of Scientific Achievement, visit element14.com/geocaching.