Contributions of Benjamin Franklin in the Field of Medicine

July 31, 2013

Benjamin Franklin, in his time, was recognized and respected throughout the world. Portraits of Franklin hung in English homes even while we were at war. European women wore coats with buttons bearing his image. The infatuation with the man and his image inspired the mockery of Louis XVI of France, who gave one woman the gift of a chamber pot with Franklin's face inside the bowl.
As a man who had only two years of formal education, Benjamin wanted to improve life. He is known for many inventions and theories. Many of his works, such as publishing Atlantic Ocean currents to make travel faster and safer, are less well-known. Here, we look at his medical and health works. It is important to also note that Franklin gave his inventions to the world. He would often publish them in journals, allowing others to prove and advance his work.

Flexible Catheter

When his brother had a kidney stone, Franklin witnessed the process of inserting hard metal tubes into the urethra daily. Franklin designed and ordered from a smith a catheter made of silver with flexible joints, which he coated with gut.
Note that Franklin later credited Francesco Roncelli-Pardino, an inventor in the early 1700s, with inventing a flexible catheter before Franklin.
Today, a variety of polymers are used for the construction of catheters, including rubber, silicon, nylon, polyurethane and latex, among others.

Bifocal Lenses

Ben lived his life reflecting on his own condition and finding ways to alleviate it so that others who would be in the same situation will not suffer the same way as he did. In fact, he opted not to patent his inventions since all of them are meant for the use of everybody. As he aged, he experienced eyesight issues, needing reading glasses when immersed into his most favorite hobby. But he needed to switch his reading glasses with other eyeglasses to accommodate his farsightedness problem. Hence, he kept on changing from one type of eyewear to another. To avoid such hassle, he thought of putting both types of lenses in one frame. He suggested it to his optician in France or London, and this gave birth to bifocal lenses that we are using up to this day.
Bifocal spectacles have served millions of people over the past 200 plus years. They are attributed to one Benjamin Franklin. By the 1750s, Benjamin had to use glasses, and he admitted that he could barely distinguish a letter from a large print without them. As he reached old age, he found himself becoming both far- and near-sighted and needed two pairs of glasses for outdoors and to examine something close. Swapping the two pairs soon became frustrating, and he decided to cut the two lenses into halves and joined them in one frame. This was done in 1784 and allowed him to use one for reading and the other to see further without having to swap the two pairs of eyeglasses. In the bifocal glasses, the long distance lenses were on top while the reading lance was at the bottom. In this case, it would be easier to use them both without much frustration.

Franklin's Theories

Franklin had a great interest in topics related to health. Many beliefs about health and diseases in those days were superstitious, but he applied enlightened reasoning in his studies concerning afflictions of the human body.

Common Cold

Many people in the 18th century believed that the common cold was as a result of wet clothing and dampness in the air. However, Franklin performed observations on sailors who often wore wet clothes but were still healthy. After several years, he concluded that “people often catch cold from one another when shut up together in small rooms, couches and when sitting near, conversing so as to breathe in each other's transpiration.” This was before the discovery of viruses, bacteria and germs.

Lead Poisoning

Having worked for some time in the printing business, Franklin realized that working with warm lead type caused stiffness of his hands in addition to being sore. He also discovered that typesetters who warmed their type would sometimes completely lose the use of their hands.
After his visit to France (la Charite), where he observed patients who suffered from dry belly ache (dry gripes), he realized that a majority of them had been exposed to high levels of lead at their work places. From the observations, he concluded that “I have long been of the opinion that that distemper (dry gripes) proceeds always from metallic cause only, observing its affects among tradesmen, those that use lead, however, their traded, as grazers, type-founders, plumbers, potters, white lead-makers and painters.” These were some of the earliest discoveries of health risks related to exposure to lead.

Importance of Nutrients in Fruits

Franklin recognized that nutrients in fruits enhance one’s skin and gum health. With such observation, he recommends that this be included in the diets of sailors. This solved their common health problem, a vitamin C deficiency, which is now commonly known as scurvy.

Cardiovascular Exercise

Ben noticed that whenever he work with his dumbbells, his body temperature would rise and his heart would beat faster. As a person who underwent regular and strenuous exercise, he designed a complete training drill that involves vigorous workout. He suggested that this is essential to maintaining good health. This is now known as cardiovascular exercise.
Benjamin did not stop discovering things and opening portals of knowledge in the field of medicine. He determined the correct mode of transmission of common cold, lead posing, paralysis resulting from electricity and many others. The entire 84 years of his life were mostly spent learning new things and using his knowledge to make life less daunting. Indeed, he lived his life well.

First Hospital in America

Sensing the importance of the availability of healthcare to the public, he made the effort of writing in newspapers so that he could raise money from the public and establish up the first hospital in America.
The Pennsylvania Hospital
The idea to establish a public hospital came with Dr. Thomas bond, a friend of Franklin. However, he was unable to raise the funds by himself, and so he approached Franklin for help. Franklin was able to mount a public relations and information campaign that would support the hospital. The colonial government also agreed to support the hospital, and it became founded in 1751. Some of the missions of the hospital involved were:

  • Serving the mentally ill
  • Providing care for the poor

The hospital is considered the first public hospital in the United States. During that time, Franklin also came up with idea where the government (public) money could be combined with private donations and thus created the first matching grant.

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