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Two salesman, a start-up company and the greatest medical invention of all time

The hypodermic injection (comprising syringe and needle together with the substance that it delivers) is thought to be a piece of medical technology responsible for saving more lives and alleviating more suffering than any other.

Proving its worth by the billions, the hypodermic injection is critical in the fight to end the current world-wide pandemic by delivering vaccines for Covid-19 to millions of people across the globe every day. The World Health Organization says that “vaccines are a critical new tool in the battle against Covid-19” and that “safe and effective vaccines will be a gamechanger.”

The history of the humble injection is an interesting one dating back to the 17th century. The earliest confirmed experiments of intravenous injections were in 1656 and since then, fundamentally, not much has changed. Sir Christopher Wren is perhaps best known for his architecture, which includes his masterpiece St Paul’s Cathedral, and not for the fact that it was him that first experimented to see if drugs administered intravenously had the same effect as when given orally. He did this by injecting wine and ale into a dog’s veins using an animal bladder as a syringe and goose quill as a needle.

In 1844 Wren’s design was refined when Irish physician Francis Rynd injected painkillers using a hollow mental needle. Margaret Cox presented with dental and facial pain that Rynd treated by “injecting fifteen grains of acetate of morphia, dissolved in one drachm of creosote… [into the nerves] … by four punctures of an instrument made for the purpose.” This account is widely considered to be of the first hypodermic injections.

Shortly after, in 1853 French surgeon Charles Pravaz developed the first metal syringe and added the hollow needle to the end rather than the tube, refining Rynd’s idea further. Scottish physician Alexander Wood used this device to inject morphine into a patient and published details of the innovation in a paper called “A New Method for Treating Neuralgia by the Direct Application of Opiates to Painful Points” in the Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal (1855).

The word “hypodermic” is credited to London surgeon Charles Hunter who in 1858 combined the Greek words hypo “under” and derma “skin” to describe subcutaneous injection.

Later, in 1897 Maxwell Becton and Fairleigh Dickinson, two salesmen that met on a business trip, founded Becton, Dickinson and Company (also known as BD). A medical technology company that in 1898 paid $40 for half interest in patent rights to an all-glass syringe. In 1906 they started the first manufacturing facility in the United States and in 1924 manufactured the first syringe designed specifically to deliver insulin.

Between 1949 and 1950 Arthur E. Smith was awarded eight US patents for the first disposable syringe but it was BD who mass-produced the devices for Dr Jonas Salks mass polio vaccination programme. This design was refined further by Colin Murdoch in 1956 and the design is still in use today. Once again, however, it was Becton and Dickinson’s start-up company that brought the product to the mass market.

The history of the now commonplace device is a rich tapestry of scientific minds, a desire to explore the unknown and relieve human suffering, an architect, and a drunken dog. But it was two salesman and a start-up company that made the greatest medical invention of all time accessible to the masses and paved the way for vaccination programmes, like the one we see in the fight against Covid-19 today, to be rolled out in large scales. Partner & Patent Attorney Dr Elliott Davies said “it’s human nature to want to improve and develop, and the story of the hypodermic syringe is a classic example of this human endeavour. Developments in medicine and medical devices are always well received, not least by those who need them most, and particularly in these “COVID” times where we all look for urgent answers to previously unknown problems.”

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