Medicine may be a science, but even scientists will gaze into a crystal ball once in a while. With an inside track on medical developments and the general optimism that comes with the desire to heal, it makes sense that medical scientists might see a brighter future in terms of human health.
Here, five medical predictions that famously missed their mark — though not for want of trying.
1. The cure for the common cold
In 1955, Arkansas physician Dr. Lowry McDaniel told the American Medical Association convention that by the year 2000 the common cold “will be only a memory,” reported the International News Service. But bringing that prediction to fruition is easier said than done. With over 100 different viruses that could cause a cold, finding a medicine that fights all of them is nearly impossible.
Although the common cold doesn’t get the kind of research attention and funding other, deadlier diseases get, there are hopeful signs. The Common Cold Project at Carnegie Mellon University and the Common Cold Center in the UK are among those still seeking a cure for the common cold.
2. Humans will live to be 150
In the mid-20th century, many doctors were predicting longer lives for humans. Society should prepare for a 150-year lifespan before the end of the 20th century, warned California biologist Bernard Strehler at a 1974 meeting of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. Not to do so, Strehler added, would be “to ignore the rather clear handwriting on the palace wall,” United Press International reported.
He had reason to be optimistic. The human lifespan has mostly increased over the last 75 years. But the average lifespan is nowhere near the century and a half mark. And we’re doing everything — even using worms — to find out why. Some believe that it’s because we haven’t found cures for life-shortening conditions such as cancer and heart disease. Others have suggested that aging is itself a disease, and as such we need to cure it. So it may be a while before hitting The Big One-Five-Oh becomes the norm.
3. Fake foods will eliminate famine
President John F. Kennedy told the World Food Congress in 1963, “We have the means, we have the capacity to eliminate hunger from the face of the earth in our lifetime.” In 1968, scientists thought that synthetic food might be the way to do it. Since then, we have come up with a few ideas. We have made meat substitutes from soy and other plants, and researchers are even producing meat-like food in the lab. But so far, the imitators have proven to be more expensive than their real-deal counterparts, making them impractical as a means to ending famine, so the wide distribution of artificial food is still a long ways off.
4. Insulin pills will replace injections
We have Dr. McDaniel to thank for this prediction as well. The International News Service reported that McDaniel told the AMA in 1955 “[that] insulin will be given in tablet form for the control of diabetes.” And we’ve actually been trying to make it happen. So, what’s the holdup? The problem is that it’s difficult to make an orally administered insulin pill that would not get destroyed by the digestive process. Right now, pills for diabetes do exist, but they work only peripherally to normalize blood sugar, and they don’t contain insulin.
5. X-rays will be a hoax
British physicist and temperature-scale creator Lord William Thomson Kelvin is widely reported as saying this in the late 1800s. In his book, “The Life of Lord Kelvin,” biographer Silvanus Thompson wrote, “When [the] discovery of the X-rays was announced at the end of 1895, Lord Kelvin was entirely skeptical, and regarded the announcement as a hoax.” It’s not clear why he doubted it, and accounts vary as to whether or when Kelvin changed his mind. We do know that today, the medical community still uses X-rays for everything from checking the status of your teeth or bones to identifying remains. There’s even an effort underway to create a faster, laser-enabled X-ray for patients. Maybe this technology is just an elaborate, century-spanning hoax, but medicine won’t be giving it up any time soon.