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Hypodermic syringe

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Technology to inject drugs into the body is a recent development. Hypodermic syringes (hypodermic means ‘beneath the skin’) consist of a hollow needle attached to a syringe. They pierce the skin and inject substances into the bloodstream. They are also used to extract liquid such as blood from the body.

In the 1850s the French veterinary surgeon Charles Gabriel Pravaz and the Scottish doctor Alexander Wood developed a syringe. It had a hollow needle fine enough to pierce the skin. Syringe barrels were initially made of metal, but by 1866 they were made from glass (the needles remained metal). This enabled doctors to see what medication remained in the barrel.

By the late 1800s hypodermic syringes were widely available, though there were few injectable drugs (less than 2% of drugs in 1905). Insulin was discovered in 1921. This drug had to be injected into the bloodstream, so it created a new market for manufacturers of hypodermic needles and drugs.

Hypodermic needles were sterilised and reused until the development of disposable syringes. In 1956 the New Zealand pharmacist Colin Murdoch invented the disposable plastic syringe. Using disposable syringes can prevent diseases such as AIDS being spread through reuse of syringes.

Hypodermic syringes have been associated with drug addiction since their invention. Alexander Wood and his wife became addicted to injected morphine after Wood experimented with the pain-relief drug to treat neuralgia, a pain perception disorder. Wood’s wife was the first woman to die of an injected drug overdose.

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Bibliography

R Kravetz, ‘Hypodermic Syringe’, The American Journal of Gastroenterology, 100 (2005), pp 2614–2615

G Lawrence, ‘The hypodermic syringe’, Lancet, 359 (2002), p 1074

P Rosales, A history of the hypodermic syringe, 1850's-1920's, unpublished PhD thesis, Harvard University, 1998

N Howard-Jones, ‘A critical study of the origins and early development of hypodermic medication’ Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 2 (1947), pp 201-249

Glossary:

Syringe

An instrument used for injecting or withdrawing fluids. The open end of the syringe may be fitted with a hypodermic needle for injection into the bloodstream.

Aids

Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is a disease caused by infections resulting from a weakened immune system due to the HIV virus. It leads to failure of the immune system and is usually fatal. It is spread through direct contact with bodily fluids.

Addiction

The condition of being addicted, or unable to live without, a particular habit, substance or pursuit.

Neuralgia

Spasms of pain which extend along one or more nerves.