The wonders of modern technology mean that serious medical emergencies such as cardiac arrest can be treated on the spot. All you need is an automated external defibrillator close at hand, and lives can be saved.
But like all great inventions, the defibrillator did not arrive overnight. In fact, it took centuries to realise the lifesaving potential of electricity, how to apply it, and to develop the device we know today.
In essence AEDs are portable electronic machines that can automatically diagnose irregular heart beats and treat it though electrical therapy. It’s much more effective than CPR, which really just sustains life before a defibrillator can be found.
The History of the Defibrillator: A Timeline
1775 – Experiments on chickens by Danish physician Peter Christian Abilgaard reveal hearts could be stopped and then restarted by electricity.
1850 – German physician Carl Ludwig documents electrically stimulated ventricular fibrillation in dogs.
1888 – British physiologists John A Mac William suggests ventricular fibrillation might be the cause of sudden death.
1899 – Swiss physiologists JL Prevost and F Batelli confirm strong voltages applied directly to the heart could restart dogs hearts.
1928 – US Electrical Engineer William Bennett Kouwenhoven began developing defibrillators.
1933 – Kouwenhoven, with US physiologist Orthello Langworthy, demonstrate internally applied electrical current reverses ventricular fibrillation
1947 – US surgeon Claude S Beck is the first to save a human life through defibrillation, restoring his 14-year-old patient’s heart beat during a surgical procedure.
1956 – Kouwenhoven develops external defibrillators but during his experiments discovers and develops CPR. Harvard cardiologist Paul M Zoll demonstrates the first closed chest (external) defibrillation.
1960 – Portable DC-powered defibrillators are developed by Harvard’s Bernard Lown and University of Washington’s K William Edmark, allowing treatment outside hospitals for the first time.
1966 – In N Ireland, cardiologists J Frank Pantridge and John S Geddes are the first to install portable external defibrillators in an ambulance, creating the first Mobile Intensive Care Unit.
1969 – The first non-medical personnel qualified to operate a defibrillator (Emergency Medical Technicians) are hired in Portland, Oregon
1978 – the first Automated External Defibrillator is introduced, comprising sensors to detect in ventricular fibrillation. Crucially, the instructions are electronically provided, reducing the degree of training required to operate them.
1980s – Computer technology enhances AED sensitivity, helping to save even more lives.
2000s – Workplace Health and Safety standards introduced around the world highlight workplace automated external defibrillators as essential.