Alexander Graham Bell and the Birth of Telemedicine

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Sure, new smartphones and tablets, with their ever-improving cameras and sensors, represent dizzying possibilities for telemedicine. But it’s worth remembering the humble telephone is still the communication mode of choice for the majority of telemedicine transactions in the world today.

Written by Nicholas Genes, MD, PhD

It’s been said that the very first phone call, in Boston on March 10, 1876, (“Mr. Watson, come here! I want to see you”) was actually a request for medical assistance. In his autobiography, Thomas Watson recounted Alexander Graham Bell had spilled bat- tery acid on himself on that fateful day, and was simply calling for help (Bell never told stories of the first phone call, and Watson’s au- tobiography was published years after Bell’s death).

While details of that day will probably never be certain, it’s clear Alexander Graham Bell often had medicine on his mind. Bell taught elocution to the deaf, his mother and wife were both deaf, and his interests in telephony developed alongside his interests in helping the deaf communicate.

What’s generally credited as the first telemedicine encounter came just a few years later, as Bell’s inven- tion proliferated. In 1879, an anonymous writer in the Lancet reported a case where a mother phoned their family doctor in the middle of the night, concerned that her baby’s cough was the croup. The doctor asked to “lift the
child to the telephone and
let me hear it cough.” He then proclaimed, “That’s not the croup.” The family was relieved and reportedly slept well.

Alexander Graham Bell was also involved in an early example of high-tech bedside diagnostic testing, in 1881. President Garfield had been shot near the lumbar spine. His surgeons had trouble locating the bullet, despite multiple attempts at probing the wound (worse yet, Lister’s sterile technique was not in widespread use). As days turned to weeks, Bell applied his telephone’s amplifier to another of his inventions, called the Induction Balance, creating a functional metal detector. When the device passed near metal, users would appreciate a ringing sound, transmitted through an earpiece.

Bell tested the device on Civil War veterans with known lodged bullets, and a side of beef in which a bullet had been hidden. It worked, but in the White House it failed to find the president’s bullet (Garfield’s doctor limited the search to avoid moving the patient too much; autopsy later showed they were looking on the wrong side). Garfield eventually died – not from the initial injury but from the resulting infection.

Bell died in 1922. On the day of his funeral, at 6:30pm EST, all telephone service in the U.S. and Canada was shut down for a minute – the 13 million phones in use at the time went silent. Nearly a hundred years later, it’s hard to imagine anything stopping, or even delaying, so much instantaneous communication – even a telemedicine consult.


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