The 1950s Medicine and Health: Overview

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The 1950s Medicine and Health: Overview

The 1950s saw great advances in the detection and cure of illness. The breakthrough that received the most publicity involved polio, a dreaded disease that had afflicted President Franklin Roosevelt and was particularly severe when contracted by children. Jonas Salk developed a polio vaccine that was administered by injection. Even though it only was partially effective, it was considered a godsend. As a result, Salk became the decade's most celebrated scientist-researcher. Almost immediately after the Salk vaccine was successfully tested and given to masses of Americans, Albert Sabin announced that he had developed a more advanced vaccine. Not only was this one more effective, but it could also be taken orally. Not long afterwards, polio, a disease whose mere mention resulted in shudders among the general population, was dramatically decreased as a threat to public health.

New surgical procedures revolutionized medicine. For example, heart surgeons could stop the blood flow within the human body, allowing them to repair faulty hearts. For the first time, artificial valves were implanted in hearts, and electric shock waves were employed to control heartbeats. Electric heart pacemakers were also developed to control the pace of the heartbeat. By the end of the decade, open-heart surgery was performed regularly. The success rate of such procedures increased steadily.

Another medical triumph came in 1957, when quick thinking on the part of health care professionals diverted an Asian flu epidemic in the United States through the use of a vaccine. However, not all diseases could be treated, let alone eliminated. While great strides were made in understanding and treating cancer, a cure proved to be elusive. At the same time, a definite and deadly link between cancer and cigarette smoking was established and publicized, much to the dismay of those in the tobacco industry. In response, they had tried to discredit the researchers who connected cigarettes and cancer.

New drugs were developed and introduced to combat a range of diseases. Many of these pharmaceuticals were life-saving additions to existing medical science. Some members of the medical profession were concerned, however, about the over use of other new drugs. In particular, tranquilizers, whose ingredients reduced anxiety and nervous tension, became wildly popular when they were first marketed early in the decade. People craved these "happy pills," and many doctors readily prescribed them. However, others in the medical profession felt that they were being not so much used as abused. Meanwhile, the growth of television as an advertising medium led to an increase in advertising claims by drug makers that the over-the-counter medicines they were marketing cured an assortment of illnesses. Such claims usually were not provable.

Despite all the breakthroughs in disease treatment, one medical specialty remained sorely ignored. Minimal efforts were made to assist the mentally ill, who by the thousands were left to die in understaffed, underfunded facilities. Another subject of concern was the quickly rising cost of health care. Millions were without health insurance; a serious illness that struck an uninsured family could cause financial ruin. Furthermore, what good were all the wonderful advances in medicine if they remained unaffordable? A debate began between those who felt the federal government should take over the health care profession and those who believed it should remain a for-profit business.

Finally, one of the biggest health stories of the decade focused on the September day in 1955 when President Dwight Eisenhower suffered, but survived, a major heart attack.

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The 1950s Medicine and Health: Overview