Learn about Life in the 1920s

Many of the major developments in medicine that we take for granted today had their genesis in the 1920's and have contributed to increasing overall life expectancy. The list shown below of Nobel Prize Laureates and their discoveries highlights these important developments.

Mother Bandaging Son

Major Medical Breakthroughs included Insulin and Penicillin

Throughout the 1920s, new technologies and new science led to the discovery of vitamins and to increasing knowledge of hormones and body chemistry. New drugs and new vaccines were released following research begun in the previous decade. Sulfa drugs became the first of the anti-bacterial wonder drugs saving thousands of lives from bacterial and viral infections.

Doctors looked at the common cold and influenza to determine their causes and proposed preventative measures to protect against them. This was considered very important at the time because the influenza epidemic of 1918 that killed millions of people was still fresh in peoples minds. We now know it was the H1N1 influenza virus but at the time it was referred to as the Spanish Flu.

In 1920 Herbert McLean Evans discovered Vitamin E, and its anti-sterility properties, and Elmer V. McCollum discovered Vitamin D, its presence in cod liver, and its ability to prevent rickets, a skeletal disorder. Vitamins A, B, C, K, and various subtypes of each were also discovered during the 1920s.

Vaccines had already been developed for diptheria and scarlet fever leaving measles as the most common childhood disease. In 1920 discovery of the cause of measles by bacteriologist Dr N.S. Ferry and chemist L.W. Fisher enabled the production of a measles antitoxin. French researchers also perfected a tuberculosis vaccine that saved the lives of 98% of the infants treated in tuberculosis households. Other French researchers who were credited with the discovery of a diptheria anatoxin also produced the first tetanus anatoxin.

During the early twenties, factories, hotels, clubs and department stores began installing electrically powered hot air hand dryers in wash rooms to replace paper and cloth towels in an effort to improve hygiene and reduce waste.

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine: Laureates 1920 - 1930

  • 1930 Karl Landsteiner - "for discovery of human blood types"
  • 1929 Christiaan Eijkman, Sir Frederick Hopkins - "for discovery of various vitamins"
  • 1928 Charles Nicolle - "for work on typhus"
  • 1927 Julius Wagner-Jauregg - "for healing general paralysis by infection with malaria"
  • 1926 Johannes Fibiger - "for elucidating Spiroptera carcinoma and artificially inducing cancer in an animal."
  • 1925 The prize money was allocated to the Special Fund of this prize section
  • 1924 Willem Einthoven - "for the discovery of the mechanism of the electrocardiogram"
  • 1923 Frederick G. Banting, John Macleod - "for the discovery of insulin"
  • 1922 Archibald V. Hill, Otto Meyerhof - "for research on muscles, especially their generation of heat and the relationship between oxygen consumption and lactic acid metabolism "
  • 1921 The prize money was allocated to the Special Fund of this prize section
  • 1920 August Krogh - "for showing that the gas exchange in the lungs is ordinary diffusion"

Diabetes Reversal Report

Insulin - In 1920 Dr. Frederick Banting of the University of Toronto had an idea that would solve the dreaded diabetes disorder. Previous to this, a diagnosis of diabetes meant slowly wasting away to a certain death. Fred Banting and his colleague Charles Best were able to make a pancreatic extract which had anti-diabetic qualities which they successfully tested on diabetic dogs. Soon an entire research team was working on the production and purification of insulin. Other researchers assisted the discoverers to purify insulin for use on diabetic patients and the first tests were conducted on 14 year old Leonard Thompson early in January 1922. Following the publicity of the success of these tests there was a huge world-wide demand for insulin with some diabetes sufferers who were near death being saved.

Karl Landsteiner studied medicine at the University of Vienna, graduating in 1891. After working in various hospitals in Vienna for many years Landsteiner moved to the Pasteur Institute in Paris. His work there, together with that of other researchers, laid the foundations of our knowledge of polio. He will mostly be remembered for his discovery of blood groups in 1901, for which he received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1930. In 1919 he moved again to a small Roman Catholic Hospital at The Hague. Here he published, from 1919-1922, twelve papers on blood related issues. He left Holland after being offered a post in the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York and he moved there with his family. Here in collaboration with Levine and Wiener, he furthered his work on the blood groups, greatly extendeding the number of groups, and also in collaboration with Wiener discovered the Rh-factor in blood.

Willem Einthoven, of the Netherlands used the string galvanometer he invented in 1901 to create an electrocardiogram that was more sensitive than earlier inventions. Patients would immerse their hands and feet in containers of salt solutions from which the EKG was recorded. Einthoven assigned the letters P, Q, R, S and T to the various deflections recorded and described the electrocardiographic features of a number of cardiovascular disorders. In 1924, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discovery.

Penicillin was originally isolated from the Penicillium chrysogenum (formerly Penicillium notatum) mould. The antibiotic effect was originally discovered by a young French medical student Ernest Duchesne studying Penicillium glaucum in 1896, but his discovery was ignored by the Institut Pasteur.

It was then rediscovered in 1928 by Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming, who noticed a halo of inhibition of bacterial growth around a contaminant blue-green mould on a Staphylococcus culture. Fleming concluded that the mould was releasing a substance that was inhibiting bacterial growth. He grew a pure culture and discovered that the fungus was Penicillium notatum — he later named the bacterial inhibiting substance penicillin after the Penicillium notatum that released it. Fleming was convinced after conducting some more experiments that penicillin could not last long enough in the human body to kill pathogenic bacteria and stopped studying penicillin after 1931. It would prove to be the discovery that changed modern medicine.

In 1939, Howard Walter Florey and a team of researchers at Oxford University made significant progress in showing Penicillin's ability to kill infectious bacteria which eventually led to commercial production of penicillin.