The History of the Hypodermic Needle — Evolution with a Point!

History of the Hypodermic Needle

Although humanity has enjoyed the luxury of syringes since the Greeks, it was the invention of the hypodermic needle which allowed us to inject liquids into something other than pre-existing orifices.

Today, injections are a way of life for many people, not only diabetics. Whether for humans or our furry friends, life-sustaining injections are as common as applying bandages.

The history of the hypodermic needle comes from a simple idea, really; a hollow needle, small enough to push liquids below the skin. Simple in concept, yes, but good luck making a hypodermic needle while stranded on a desert island.

Making needles, especially the sort diabetics use, requires precision manufacturing. This begs the question; how did humans come up with this idea?

Need, as it turns out, is the mother of invention, and the history of the hypodermic needle traces its roots to the need to intravenous injections in the 19th-century. Back then, medical professionals needed to get medication into the body, specifically, painkillers, and the existing technology of the time simply wasn't up to the job of effective drug delivery. 

However, long before all that, there's a whole story of goose quills, animal bladders and little friendly rivalry. Here then, is the history of the hypodermic needle. Read on to discover the surprising journey of a healthcare staple.

 

The Greeks

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The hypodermic needle is tied inextricably to an older concept, the syringe. In the 1st century CE, Roman encyclopedist Aulus Cornelius Celsus mentions the use of early versions of syringes by the Greeks.

At the time, they were only good enough to push liquids into existing orifices. One couldn’t make a hole where there wasn’t one already on the body, not yet.

Early forms of syringes, not much more than tubes, have probably been around since before the 1st century in some form. It was a few hundred years later that the syringe started to take a modern form.

An Egyptian surgeon in the 9th century developed a syringe using a glass tube with applied suction. That one was good for enemas, sucking mucus out of the nostrils, that sort of thing.

For the next 700 years or so, this was about as good as humanity could get, and subcutaneous injections and blood transfusions were still more than half a century away.


 

Francis Rynd

L0003057 Portrait photograph of Francis Rynd.

To graduate from squishing fluids down tubes into (and out of) the body via orifices to injecting below the skin, humanity needed a tiny hollow needle.

Sir Christopher Wren is credited with successfully injecting drugs into a dog in at Wadham College in Oxford in 1656. Using a goose quill attached to a small animal bladder, Wren’s work proved that it could work, but his method was tough to duplicate.

It was an Irishman, Francis Rynd who invented the first hollow needle in 1844. On May 18, 1844, he injected Margaret Cox with painkillers.

Rynd’s work did not go far from there as most historians do not credit him for the invention. It seems Rynd didn't have the right publicist.

  

Regnier de Graaf

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Although the exact date remains unknown, de Graaf developed a metal barreled syringe in the 17th century.

He used it to trace the blood vessels of corpses, not the most glamorous work and possibly the reason his needle and syringe remained in the dark.

The practical use of such technology on live patients didn’t come into practice for another 200 years, independent of de Graaf’s work.


 

Charles Gabriel Pravaz & Alexander Wood

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In the early 1850s, Charles Pravaz and Alexander Wood both toiled on the creation hypodermic syringe of sorts, Wood in Scotland, and Pravaz in France.

Both French and Scottish inventors were on the same trail at roughly the same time. This is common with many inventions throughout history.

Also, back then, patents didn't go into Google’s worldwide database. They quietly sat in a file in an office somewhere in the country where the inventor filed them. 

But back to our heroes… As stated, need is and always was the mother of invention.

The Pravaz Syringe came into common usage around the same time Wood’s paper, “A New Method of Treating Neuralgia by the Direct Application of Opiates to the Painful Points” outlined his work.

For this reason, the two inventors share the credit for using the first hollow needles on live human beings, going down as true innovators in the history of the hypodermic needle. 

Letitia Mumford

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But don't think for a second that the history of the hypodermic needle is entirely down to men! 

In 1899, in New York, Letitia Mumford Geer submitted a patent for a one-handed syringe design. Prior to that, one had to have someone help with administration.

While, at the time, this was not greeted with rapturous applause (she was a woman after all!), history would prove to be on her side, and without her invention, the hypodermic needle would not be as practical and useful as it is today. 

 

Chance Brothers

The Chance Brothers

In 1946, two inventors who specialised in glass, the Chance Brothers in England, took the syringe one step closer to multi-use applications. They invented an all-glass syringe with a removable barrel and plunger.

Now, one could replace the parts of a syringe. This allowed medical facilities at the time a more financially viable method of using the technology.

Still, production and parts were not cheap. Humanity needed something more easily produced… something disposable, and the history of the hypodermic needle would not be what it is today without that most celebrated and maligned of inventions during the 1950s—PLASTIC.

 

Colin Murdoch

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The invention and use of polymers have been one of the single biggest changes in medicine in the last 100 years, especially with consumable medical supplies. The application to needles and syringes is one of the best examples of this, and the disposable plastic syringe was truly a gamechanger. 

Once humanity figured out how to make plastic versions of the trade tools once forged in metal and blown glass, accessibility came down to the everyday user-level while sanitary usage was also vastly improved. 

It was a man from New Zealand, Conklin Murdoch, who finally produced the plastic disposable syringe (with a metal needle, of course) in 1956. After Murdoch, patents popped up everywhere, on every continent in every developed country. 

So, the colourful history of the hypodermic needle has plenty of big players who have made it what it is today. The future, of course, is yet to be decided, however, the invention of the microneedle and other advances are paving the way for less invasive ways to administer drugs. 

Unfortunately, however, for now, children everywhere are still recoiling in collective fear during visits to the doctor's office—perhaps one day this won't be the case.

 

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