20th Century Innovations

The first cheap, effective and relatively safe radiotherapy for cancer was devised about 1914 by an inventive Irish scientist, John Joly, who was professor of geology at Trinity College Dublin. Known internationally as the 'Dublin method', it used cheap and controllable radioactive radon gas rather than expensive radium. The radioactive source for this service was maintained by the Royal Dublin Society until 1952, when it was taken over by St Luke's cancer hospital.

Many Irish surgeons have devised new operations and techniques. Among them are two who specialised in prostate operations: Sir Peter Freyer, who developed the first safe operation to remove the prostate in 1900, and Terence Millin who improved the procedure in the 1950s.

An important drug for leprosy was discovered by accident in the 1950s by Irish medical scientists who were looking for a cure for tuberculosis, which is caused by a related bacterium.

They did not find a TB drug - and happily, antibiotics had been discovered by then - but a modified red dye taken from a lichen was successful against leprosy and went on to be widely recommended by the World Health Organization.

More recently, researchers working in Galway for the US company, Boston Scientific, developed a new approach to tackling blocked arteries: they combined a stent (a metal cylinder used to hold an artery open and maintain blood flow) with a cholesterol-busting drug, and a polymer to control the release of the drug.

Their device now generates €1 million in sales every hour for the company. This is part of Ireland's successful medical devices industry, that is part research and part manufacturing.

When medical research began in Ireland over 250 years ago, it was funded by donations, charities and philanthropists. These remain important, but today there is also significant State funding of health research, notably by the Health Research Board and Science Foundation Ireland.

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