It is easy to take IV therapy for granted. These days, the use of IV therapy is standard in hospitals and clinics, and is commonly used in a variety of medical settings. Today, it is so common that we even offer IV therapy to not only treat health conditions, but to optimize your otherwise good health (such as to treat hangovers or help athletic performance). IV therapy offers many benefits and is an important tool for medical professionals, but have you ever wondered where this practice came from? In this blog, we will go over the origin of IV therapy so you can have a fuller understanding of just how important the invention of this treatment was for the medical field.

The use of IV therapy can be traced back to the 19th century to the spread of cholera. Cholera is a disease that has spread as a pandemic multiple times throughout the course of history, killing millions of people. Despite the fact that we now know how to treat it, cholera even remains a major problem in developing countries to this day. This bacterial infection is spread through contaminated drinking water and causes such symptoms as extreme diarrhea, vomiting, and fluid loss, leading to severe dehydration, hypovolemic shock, and ultimately, death, all of which can happen in a matter of days.

1831: Cholera Outbreak

In 1831, an outbreak of cholera spread along the Ganges River in India, rapidly spreading to China, Russia, and Iran until it made its way to Europe via trade routes. In Britain, where cargo ships returned from the Baltics and Southeast Asia, more than 23,000 people died of cholera. The disease was carried further by European trade ships to the United States and Canada, where it continued to spread rapidly and kill thousands of people. This epidemic was unlike anything that had been seen since the Bubonic plague.

William Brooke O’Shaughnessy

William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, a young physician from Ireland, was in Edinburgh at this time, an area that had avoided cholera. Fresh out of med school, O’Shaughnessy became fascinated by cholera and decided to look into a way to apply his chemistry studies to cure the disease, traveling to Sunderland to get involved with the epidemiologists working on the cure in England.

Upon arrival, O’Shaughnessy was alarmed by what he saw, describing it as “the living death.” Working with victims of cholera, he noticed that they weren’t responding to treatments that were popular at the time, such as leeches, bloodletting, or emetics like castor oil to purge the intestines. With what we know about cholera now and its association with dehydration, it is clear why these treatments actually worsened symptoms.

Applying his knowledge of chemistry to the matter, O’Shaughnessy studied blood and stool samples from cholera victims and assessed the density of electrolytes in them. He observed that a lot of water, sodium, and bicarbonate had been lost in both the blood and the stool. He published his findings and suggested the remedy would be to replenish the fluids and electrolytes lost directly through the veins.

1832: The First Intravenous Resuscitation

Upon reading O’Shaughnessy’s findings, Dr. Thomas Latta, a British physician, decided to apply this logic. He performed the first IV resuscitation in the spring of 1832, injecting a solution of sodium, chloride, and bicarbonate into 25 cholera patients. With the use of IV therapy, eight of these patients were revived.

From this, some doctors began to adopt this new remedy, calling it a “miracle cure” that could “revive the dead.” However, mostly, it was condemned as violation of the sanctity of the body. The majority of medical professionals continued to use leeches and mercury to attempt to treat cholera patients, only further exacerbating the problem. Six cholera pandemics followed without using O’Shaughnessy’s innovative cure.

IV Therapy Today

Though it wasn’t accepted during his lifetime, O’Shaughnessy would later be vindicated as the medical community began adopting his methods. Today, cholera is still treated with rehydration, though now it is done through drinking the solution. The link between O’Shaughnessy’s treatment and the method currently recommended by the WHO is obvious. Additionally, his research established the development of IV therapy as we know it today, coming to the rational conclusion of the importance of balanced bodily fluids. This left a profound mark on the medical field as we know it today.

Today, IV therapy is used to treat a wide variety of conditions. IV therapy can be used to administer nutritional needs, medication, blood, and chemotherapy, and can serve to replace and restore fluids and electrolytes in the body. At the office of L.A. Quinn, M.D., we offer IV therapy for a variety of conditions because we know the importance of hydration for your health. If you are interested in receiving IV therapy, contact our clinic to learn more.