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250 Years of Progress, Here's to 250 More

A whole lot can happen in 250 years.

That’s partially because — and I guess this isn’t much of a surprise — 250 years is a long time. Long enough for a standard snail to circle the globe about 2.64 times (seriously, I did the math). Long enough for Niagara Falls to have receded more than 1,100 feet due to erosion. If you hopped in your car and decided to drive to Mars, going a steady 70 MPH would get you there with about 22 years to spare (which means if you take I-276 you juuust might make it).

Culture changes, too. Take, for example, music. In around 250 years, the world went from Mozart and Beethoven all the way through Brahms and Verdi, Louis Armstrong and Dave Brubeck, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, to … well, Justin Bieber and Katy Perry.

Maybe not everything has gotten better.

Medicine certainly has, though, and the Perelman School of Medicine — the nation’s first medical school, currently celebrating its 250th year — has been there to watch and participate in its evolution. Last year’s Did You Know project featured some great examples of Penn Medicine’s discoveries and innovations over the past 250 years, including: 

  • The first transfusion of human donor blood, in 1795;
  • The world’s first X-ray image, produced in 1890;
  • The discovery of the Philadelphia Chromosome, the first gene linked to cancer, in the 1960s; and
  • The opening of the nation’s first Coronary Care Unit, in 1963.

It’s an impressive list, no doubt, but one has to wonder what the next 250 years could bring when the past 250 have been so incredibly productive. I was listening to a podcast (Hardcore History, for those who are curious) not too long ago that discussed the nature of human progress, and how if you looked at a chart of said progress over the past 200,000 years, it would be almost entirely flat. You’d see little bumps here and there, but by and large you’d be staring at a flat line — until you got to the 18th and 19th centuries, and then the line would go nearly vertical. It’s ever on the rise, too, and that makes it difficult to really wrap your mind around where we could be by, say, 2265.

A few weeks ago, I took photos of a patient here named Mike Law. If that name sounds familiar, you might have spotted him on the news. He’s awaiting a heart transplant, but in the meantime doctors at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania replaced his heart with an artificial one. It runs on a small, battery-powered pack that looks an awful lot like a piece of carry-on luggage.

In conversation since that day, I’ve compared it to the sort of progress we’ve seen over the years in computers and technology. The phones we carry in our pockets are almost infinitely more powerful than the full desktop computers of only two decades ago. A 4GB flash drive was the size of a pack of gum and cost around $50 a decade ago — now, you can own a 32GB flash drive the size of your thumbnail for maybe $30. And here’s Mike Law, the man with a completely artificial heart, making his way out of the hospital with just a tiny power pack wheeling along easily at his side. 

Only five years ago, patients with total artificial hearts were tethered to a giant machine that kept them confined to a hospital floor. Three or four decades ago, Mike Law and his carry-on battery pack might have seemed like science fiction. Just imagine what the doctors of the 1760s would have thought.

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