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It’s easy to walk to the store, grab a pack of disinfecting wipes, and superficially sanitize every surface in your home. In fact, you can decide what scent you want the wipes to come in, whether or not they should have a texture for scrubbing, and if you’re willing to spring for the name brand or are just going to stick to generic. 

In most parts of the United States, you can walk into a doctor’s office and receive treatment for any number of ailments with reasonable trust that it’s going to work. Thanks to scientists of the 1700s, during your yearly physical you’re able to receive immunizations for diseases that haven’t been a problem for centuries, and likely won’t be a problem for you, either. Even if you’re about to travel abroad, there are vaccinations and medical care available before you even leave the country to help ensure your safe return. 

In the 21st century, it’s easy to take for granted all the technology that surrounds us. We can get so caught up in new digital trends and the latest gadgets that it’s easy to forget that smallpox has been eradicated for decades and we no longer have to worry about germs in our living spaces (for the most part). In large part, our peace of mind is due to several key progressions of the 18th century. 


Bleach


While modern society knows bleach as a chemical compound used to disinfect surfaces or remove color from fabrics, the origin is quite different. Originally, “bleaching” referred to the process of lightening the color of linen or other fibrous compounds. This was achieved by stretching fabrics out in the sun and allowing the light to induce fading. In the late 1700s, however, Carl Wilhelm Scheele discovered chlorine and Claude Berthollet learned it could be used to accelerate the bleaching of fabrics. Shortly thereafter, Antoine Germain Labarraque discovered it’s usefulness as a disinfectant and deodorizer, leading to today’s conventional uses. 

Bleach plays an unmistakable role in regulating our modern scientific environments. Generally speaking, cleanrooms are disinfected using hydrogen peroxide or ammonium salt solutions to kill bacteria and fungi. This ensures a consistent, sterile environment where delicate tests can be measured accurately. Periodically, however, cleanrooms are treated with a bleach solution because of its unique sporicidal properties — meaning that it eliminates spores that other cleaners can’t.

While bleach is uniquely equipped to eliminate spores, it’s often unnecessary in basic home maintenance despite the prevalence of bleach-based cleaners. Cleanrooms use the solution intermittently because it’s too corrosive to use on a regular basis, requiring that sanitizing elements be switched up to mitigate potential surface and equipment damage. In a household setting, that level of disinfecting is rarely required and using bleach may actually put individuals at risk.

 

Deep Vein Thrombosis Treatment

Despite the first account of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) appearing in the Middle Ages, no evidence-based treatments were documented until the 1700s. Without the fundamental step forward in treatment, DVT may have remained a mysterious ailment (treated with bloodletting) for far longer. 

During the 17th century, DVT was believed to be caused by “evil humors” in the blood. As the humoral theory of medicine was slowly abandoned, doctors moved on to blaming pregnancy-related DVT cases on unused milk pooling in the legs of women who had recently given birth. Women were advised to breastfeed as a preventative measure.

It wasn’t until 1793 that Hunter presumed DVT was caused by clotting of the blood and proceeded to develop an evidence-based protocol for treating the symptoms. Patients received venous ligation above the blockage to prevent the clot from extending or moving and thereby causing further damage. This treatment method remained standard and was often administered in conjunction with bed rest and heat application. 

In the 20th century, anticoagulants were developed and became the favorable method of treatment. At current, the standard procedure is to prescribe blood thinners and the use of compression stockings or sleeves. An active lifestyle and healthy diet also go a long way in preventing DVT. 

 

Vaccinations

Perhaps most significantly, medicine in the 1700s gave us vaccinations. In the late-1700s, smallpox was being used as a weapon of war. George Washington ordered that all soldiers not previously exposed to smallpox be inoculated with the virus to minimize the military’s susceptibility. Inoculation appeared to produce a more mild infection than naturally-transmitted smallpox did, while still producing immunity to the disease. 

In 1770, a physician named Edward Jenner became interested in the prevention of smallpox through exposure to cowpox. His research was allegedly inspired by the tale of a dairymaid who believed herself immune to smallpox after having caught cowpox from working with the animals. In 1796, Jenner applied cowpox to an 8-year-old boy in an attempt to produce immunity. When exposed to smallpox 6 weeks later, the boy did not fall ill, and the first widely-documented case of smallpox vaccination was successful. 

Though Edward Jenner is often considered the father of immunology and is credited with developing the first methodology for vaccines, there are several individuals who predated him. An English farmer named Benjamin Jesty exposed his family to cowpox in hopes they would survive the smallpox epidemic. All members of his family did, though his discovery was not well-documented or widely publicized. Prior to Jesty, Jobst Bose performed a similar experiment, though less is known about the process and context. 

 

Modern Impacts

The 1700s were an incredible age for discovery and advancement. Science was able to progress as now-laughable theories fell to the wayside and evidence-based medicine began to take over. Many of the things we take for granted were born in the 18th century and created the opportunity for life as we know it. 

The sanitizing effects of bleach make high-level sterilization possible in labs and clean rooms and upped the level of cleanliness involved in surgical procedures. The fatality rate of DVT and PE dropped with the advent of venous ligation, a procedure that endured until just recently. Vaccinations introduced the world to disease prevention on a whole new level and paved the way for one of the largest facets of public health in the coming centuries. 

300 years from now, our advances may seem rudimentary to the scientists of the day. It’s little steps forward, though, that improve our quality of life and push the boundaries of science. Bleach and DVT treatments may not seem earth-shattering, but they certainly contribute to the quality of life we enjoy today.