July 4th, 1776 — will forever be remembered as the creation of an everlasting blueprint of the free world. It was on this day that the Declaration of Independence was unanimously adopted by Congress, resulting in the beginning of the American Revolutionary War and ending with the country of America as we know it. And while the 18th century was a historic moment for America and its grueling battle for freedom, unknowingly, it was a pivotal time in the field of cardiology, bringing forth significant medical discoveries that would forever change the way the heart was understood.
More than a century before America was declared independent, the pioneering work of physician William Harvey was published, detailing the anatomy of the heart and circulation in 1628. Stephen Hales successfully demonstrated the relationship between blood in the arteries and blood pressure. The mid-18th century would usher in more clues as to how the heart worked. Surprisingly, early doctors cared less about the field of cardiology and more about understanding why chest pain or angina pectoris occurred (from the Greek agkhon which means “strangling”). The discipline of cardiovascular medicine was born and with it more questions than answers.
As American colonists dumped tea into the Boston Harbor, an important paper was in the making. Physician William Heberden published an influential study on chest pain in the 1770’s. Boston’s own, John Collins Warren, was a surgeon who co-founded the influential New England Journal of Medicine, authoring a paper on chest pain. Shortly after, John Wall made a connection between chest pain and clogged arteries, creating a revolution that would lead to clot busters and eventually the modern stents we use now to open them. The 18th century created the necessary groundwork for inventions like the stethoscope, pacemakers, and ultrasounds.
So as we enjoy Independence day and our holiday weekend and give thanks to our nation’s founding fathers, we remember the early pioneers across the world who at a tumultuous time in American history, created the underpinnings of cardiovascular medicine.