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The Hypodermic Syringe: Greatest Medical Device of All Time?

hypodermic needle

An early hypodermic syringe kit. (Courtesy American Association for the History of Nursing)

Manufactured in the billions every year, the hypodermic syringe may be the greatest medical device ever invented.

Hypodermic syringes, along with the myriad of substances for which they are the prime, if not the only, delivery vehicle, have probably been responsible for saving more lives and alleviating more suffering than any other piece of medical technology.

The earliest confirmed experiments in intravenous injection were performed by Christopher Wren in 1656. Wren, curious if the effect of an intravenous injection would be as effective as oral administration, used a goose quill for the needle and an animal bladder for the syringe to administer opium to dogs.

The hollow metal needle was invented in 1844 by Irish physician Francis Rynd.

The first devices recognizable as hypodermic syringes were independently invented virtually simultaneously in 1853 by Scottish physician Alexander Wood and French surgeon Charles Gabriel Pravaz. These was first used to inject morphine as a painkiller.

In 1897, Maxwell W. Becton and Fairleigh S. Dickinson formed a medical device import company they named Becton, Dickinson and Co. (BD) and the following year the start-up paid $40 to acquire a half interest in the patent rights to an all-glass syringe developed by H. Wulfing Luer of Paris. Although the firm began by importing the syringes, in 1906 BD incorporated and started the first manufacturing facility in the United States specifically for producing hypodermic needles and syringes, and thermometers.

The next milestone took place in 1925 when BD introduced its Yale Luer-Lok Syringe. Designed and patented by Dickinson, it provided a simple, secure method of attaching a needle to and removing it from a syringe. Luer-lock connectors are standard for syringes in the United States to this day.

The first disposable syringes, still made of glass, were patented by Arthur E. Smith. Smith received eight U.S. patents for his disposable syringe between 1949 and 1950. But it was BD who first mass-produced the devices, in 1954, for Dr. Jonas Salk's mass vaccination program of one million American children with the new Salk polio vaccine.

The world's first plastic disposable hypodermic syringe was developed by Roehr Products (Waterbury, CT) in 1955. Called the Monoject, they sold for 5 cents each but doctors still thought it was cheaper to sterilize and reuse glass syringes.

New Zealand pharmacist Colin Albert Murdoch developed and patented one further refinement in 1956 to give us the disposable plastic syringe design that is still in use today. But once again it was Becton Dickinson, with its 1961 introduction of the Plastipak, that brought the disposable plastic device into wide use.

Although materials have improved and designs have been refined, the disposable hypodermic syringes in use today are virtually indistinguishable from those of more than 50 years ago.

New developments such as microneedles and transdermal patches may erode the hold of the disposable plastic syringe where microliter quantities of injectables are concerned. But for any larger amount, the plastic disposable hypodermic syringe is sure to be with us for a long time to come, saving and improving the lives of countless millions more.

Stephen Levy is a contributor to Qmed and MPMN.

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