In 1819, French physician René Laennec published a description of the cacophony of sick lungs, deciphered with his new invention: the stethoscope. Some 18 months later, doctors in New England read about his discoveries, delivered across the sea and by horseback to their offices in one of the early editions of what would become the venerable New England Journal of Medicine.
Laennec’s discoveries altered the practice of medicine in a way so fundamental that we see the effects each time our doctor listens to the sounds in our chest. Its among the first of many enduring changes in medicine that were documented by the journal and are being celebrated this year as the publication reaches its 200th anniversary.
The journal, now operated by the Massachusetts Medical Society, is marking the occasion with a special website, a series of articles, and a symposium in June meant to highlight how far the field of medicine has come in two centuries.
“This is an opportunity to take a look and see how much better off we are now than our forbearers,” said Dr. Jeffrey Drazen, editor in chief.
The manner in which the journal has reported on such advancements is a story in itself.
When Robert Koch gave a famous lecture in Berlin in 1882 identifying the bacteria that caused tuberculosis, the news was dispatched to the journal via telegraph and printed a week later, Drazen said.
Nearly a century later, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put out its weekly bulletin reporting on four previously healthy homosexual men who had contracted an unknown infection—what would become known as HIV—the news reached editor Arnold “Bud” Relman by phone and the first articles on the disease appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine soon after, Drazen said.
Of course, the internet has brought further evolution. Today, five times more people read the journal online than in print, said Edward Campion, web editor.
“Our core mission remains the same: To get the best information to doctors,” Drazen said. “We do it the best way we can. ... For the physician who’s 60, we publish a print magazine every week. For the physician who’s 30 we have a very active website.”
The journal plans to improve it mobile formats and launch a tablet application this year, Drazen said.
The age of the internet has only increased the journal’s importance, Drazen said.
“Because there’s so much information on the web, when you see our name on something, you can trust that it’s not someone trying to sell you something,” he said.
The landscape of medical research has changed, too. Through much of the 19th century, the journal reported mostly on advancements made in the medical hubs of London, Paris, and Berlin. Today, it often cites the work of researchers here in the greater Boston area who have taken center stage, due in no small part to the work of the journal founders and the people who have led it through the years.