The History of the Syringe

needles and syringes

Syringes are pretty basic, standard items that are used daily in the medical industry. Their design is fairly simple and straightforward, and completely effective for their purpose.

It’s not a medical tool we think about too much, it’s there, it gets used, and it’s disposed of.

But did you know that this commonplace device has a rich and varied history dating back thousands of years? It had quite the journey to get to where it is today.

A syringe is a simple pump consisting of a plunger that fits tightly into a cylindrical tube. The plunger can be pulled and pushed along inside the tube, allowing the syringe to pull in or push out a liquid or gas through the opening at the end of the tube. That open end may also be fitted with a hypodermic needle, a nozzle, or tubing to help direct the flow into and out of the tube.

The word “syringe” is derived from the Greek word syrinx, meaning “tube”.

The first syringes were used in Roman times during the 1st century AD. They are mentioned in a journal called De Medicina as being used to treat medical complications. Then, in the 9th century AD, an Egyptian surgeon created a syringe using a hollow glass tube and suction.

In 1650 Blaise Pascal invented a syringe as an application of fluid mechanics that is now called Pascal’s law. He used it in testing his theory that pressure exerted anywhere in a confined fluid is transmitted equally in all directions and that the pressure variations remain the same.

An Irish physician named Francis Rynd invented the hollow needle and used it to make the first recorded subcutaneous injections in 1844. Then shortly thereafter in 1853 Charles Pravaz and Alexander Wood developed a medical hypodermic syringe with a needle fine enough to pierce the skin. Alexander Wood experimented with injected morphine to treat nerve conditions. He and his wife subsequently became addicted to morphine and his wife is recorded as the first woman to die of an injected drug overdose.

In 1899 Letitia Mumford Geer of New York was granted a patent for a syringe design that permitted the user to operate it one-handed.

However things got more interesting and advanced in 1946 when Chance Brothers in England produced the first all-glass syringe with an interchangeable barrel and plunger. This was revolutionary because it allowed the mass-sterilization of the different components without needing to match up the individual parts.

Shortly thereafter Australian inventor Charles Rothauser created the world’s first plastic, disposable hypodermic syringe made from polyethylene at his Adelaide factory in 1949. However, because polyethylene softens with heat, the syringes had to be chemically sterilised prior to packaging, which made them expensive. Two years later he produced the first injection-moulded syringes made of polypropylene, a plastic that can be heat-sterilised. Millions were made for Australian and export markets.

Then in 1956 a New Zealand pharmacist and inventor Colin Murdoch was granted patents for a disposable plastic syringe. It was closely followed by the Plastipak – a plastic disposable syringe introduced by Becton Dickinson in 1961. In 1974 African American inventor Phil Brooks received a US patent for a “Disposable Syringe”.

These days syringes are used, not only in the medical and health industry, but in various other areas too. They can be used in certain forms of cooking to inject liquids into certain foods. They are also commonly used to refill ink cartridges for printers, inject glue or lubricants into hard-to-reach places, for precision measurement when mixing liquids, and even to feed small animals when they are being hand-reared.

Indeed, there are few medical tools so commonplace, and yet so indispensable, as the plastic disposable syringe.

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