The History of Clinical Trials

|

The Washington Post has a fascinating story about the doctors who ended the '40s-era epidemic of "retrolental fibroplasia," which caused blindness in premature babies–and along the way created the modern clinical trial method, the basis for most medical research ever since.

Of all the elements on the periodic table, oxygen is the one that seems most to symbolize life and health itself. Could extra oxygen be dangerous to tiny babies struggling to survive? It seemed inconceivable!

But it was true. Two doctors proved it more than a half-century ago in a clinical experiment run in the wards of a hospital in Washington. The medical world didn't believe them, at least not enough to change routine practice. So a second, bigger experiment was conducted at more than a dozen American hospitals.

Fifty years ago this summer, the preliminary results of that trial were published. They changed medical history. Almost overnight, physicians stopped automatically giving supplemental oxygen to preemies, ending the epidemic of retrolental fibroplasia (RLF), as the disease was called then. (It is now known as retinopathy of prematurity.)

But the study's results did something else equally important and historic. They convinced many American physicians of the usefulness of randomized controlled trials, which had been "invented" less than 10 years earlier in Britain. Not least, the study taught doctors they couldn't assume that what seemed like a good idea—extra oxygen—would necessarily lead to a good outcome.

"Doctors have to approach their patients, and what they think they know, with a certain amount of humility," said Steven Goodman, a physician at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health and editor of the journal Clinical Trials. "This is one of the trials that taught us humility."

Whole thing here.

NEXT: Reading, Writing, and Urination

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. What a load of crap. Oxygen is good. Michael Jackson sleeps in an oxygen tent. Look how he turned out.

  2. Due to these recent developments, it is my recommendation that all oxygen be cut off from infants immediately.

  3. I also sleep with monkies and small boys. What’s your point?

  4. Just to annoy the compulsive religion bashers, let’s give the Bible its due on initiating clinical trials circa 500 BC. (And since the passage mentions eunuchs and youths it might even be relevant to Michael Jackson):

    Daniel 1: 8ff:

    And the chief of the eunuchs said to Daniel [regarding Daniel’s different diet], “I fear my lord the king, who assigned your food and your drink; for why should he see that you were in worse condition than the youths who are of your own age? So you would endanger my head with the king.”

    Then Daniel said to the steward whom the chief of the eunuchs had assigned over Daniel. . . .”Test your servants for ten days; let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then let our appearance and the appearance of the youths who eat the king’s food be observed by you, and deal with your servants according to what you see.”

    So he listened to them in this matter, and tested them for ten days. At the end of ten days it was seen that they were better in appearance and fatter in flesh than all the youths who ate the king’s food.

    So the steward took away their food and the wine they were to drink, and gave them vegetables.

    +++++++++++++

    This was done btw at Babylon National Institutes of Health, today Abu Ghraib prison.

  5. BASH RELIGION!!! BASH RELIGION!!! BASH RELIGION!!! BASH RELIGION!!! BASH RELIGION!!! BASH RELIGION!!! BASH RELIGION!!! BASH RELIGION!!! SOMEBODY PLEASE STOP ME!!!

  6. and don’t forget to support LIBERAL MEDIA. (bashing islam isn’t bashing religion – say you think that the recently-konked-off pope wasn’t really a voice for freedom, just wanted to swap out one form of control for another, woah, you’re in trouble with the brainwashed masses)

    CRB – look: defenseless babies!

  7. “Doctors have to approach their patients, and what they think they know, with a certain amount of humility,”

    Alas! Would that they did! There is more arrogance per capita among doctors than in the leftist media!

  8. I heard a funny joke a few weeks ago.

    Q: What’s the difference between a Ph.D and an M.D.?

    A: When the PhD doesn’t know the answer to a question, he says, “I don’t know.” When an MD doesn’t know the answer to a question, he says, “it is not known.”

  9. Chuck, or how about he diagnoses it as “idiopathic”!

  10. Q: What’s the difference between a Ph.D and an M.D.?

    A: You don’t need to go through a government monopoly of PhD’s to obtain any life-saving items you might need in the PhD’s area of expertise.

  11. My favorite has always been:

    Q: What do you call someone who graduates last in his class from medical school?

    A: Doctor

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.