Medical technology – from crafts to high-tech

Resourceful West Swiss knife-makers, practical Bernese surgeons and the precision craftsmanship of Swiss watchmakers are just three of the many traditional lines of modern medical technology. From the 1950s, important crystallisation points emerged in the Grenchen-Solothurn and Zurich regions, from which an innovative branch of the manufacturing industry has grown since then. Now Swiss medical technology is part of a global, highly competitive high-tech industry.


Picture: Surgeon Wilhelm Fabry, artist: Bartholomäus Sarburgh (attributed)
Source: Institute for the History of Medicine at the University of Bern

Surgeon Wilhelm Fabry working in Vaud and Bern develops a device for operating on eye tumours and other surgical instruments. Fabry is seen as the founder of scientific surgery.


Vaudois physician Jean-André Venel establishes the world's first orthopaedics clinic in Orbe (VD). He develops corsets and splints to treat spinal curvatures and clubfoot. 


Picture: Joseph-Frédéric-Benoît Charrière, cutler and instrument developer
Source: European Urology, Volume 43, Issue 3, Pages 320-322

The skilled knife-maker Joseph-Frédéric-Benoît Charrière emigrates from Cerniat in Fribourg to France, where he runs a company that manufactures a large number of surgical instruments and equipment thanks to the use of newly developed materials such as nickel silver, stainless steel and rubber.


Picture: Theodor Kocher, photographer: Bieber
Source: Institute for the History of Medicine at the University of Bern

Theodor Kocher becomes Director of the University Surgical Clinic at Bern Inselspital. The later Nobel Prize winner invents surgical instruments such as the artery forceps still named after him, anaesthesia masks, stomach and intestinal clamps as well as feeding tubes.


Picture: Hermann Sahli, photographer: F. Henn
Source: Institute for the History of Medicine at the University of Bern

Hermann Sahli, Director of the Medical Clinic at the Inselspital, presents an improved haemometer to determine blood pigment at the Convention of Internists in Wiesbaden, Germany, which would be distributed across the globe over the next decades.


Picture: Illustration Ophthalmometer
Source: Survey of Ophthalmology, Volume 55, Issue 5, Pages 481-497

The inventor Alfred Streit designs an improved, electrically illuminated ophthalmometer in the mechanical workshop of Hermann & Pfister, which can measure corneal curvature and refractive power. It is one of the devices that paves the way for today's group of companies Haag-Streit Holding AG (Köniz/BE).


Picture: Bernese doctor Fritz de Quervain, photographer: A. Teichmann
Source: Institute for the History of Medicine at the University of Bern

A mobile operating table wins the Grand Prix at the World Exhibition in Paris. This is co-developed by the Bernese doctor Fritz de Quervain. The operating tables together with the sterilisation systems for hospitals establish the success of Schaerer Medical AG (Münsingen/BE), which still exists today.


Picture: Schematic representation of the auditory canal
Source: Shutterstock

Foundation of the Zurich-based AG für Elektroakustik with the participation of the qualified businessman Ernst Rihs. The company develops different generations of hearing aids and sees major growth in the 1960s and 1970s, changing its name to Phonak in 1977. Today it is part of Sonova Holding AG in Stäfa (ZH), the world's largest manufacturer of hearing systems.


Picture: Straumann workshop in Waldenburg in the 1950s
Source: Institut Straumann AG

Reinhard Straumann establishes a research institute named after him in Waldenburg (BL). Thanks to his expertise in non-corrosive alloys, the company later becomes a leading manufacturer of osteosynthesis implants – and then, from 1990, a specialist for dental implantology (Straumann Holding AG, Basel).


Picture: Physicians of the Working Group for Osteosynthesis Questions
Source: Copyright by AO Foundation, Switzerland

A group of surgeons found the Association for the Study of Internal Fixation (AO), with the aim of surgically treating bone fractures with implants in the future (instead of with plaster cast and traction). The AO provides important impulses for the further development of Swiss medical technology – among other things through the cooperation with the entrepreneur Robert Mathys from Bettlach (SO).


Picture: Surgeon Maurice E. Müller, photographer: Peter Friedli
Source: Institute for the History of Medicine at the University of Bern

Surgeon Maurice E. Müller founds Protek AG. With this and other business activities, he pursues the further development of hip joint prostheses. A collaboration with Sulzer results in the Sulzer Hip Implant, as it is popularly known.


The North American business of Straumann is spun off under the name Synthes – just one example of the international expansion of Swiss medical technology that had already gained momentum in the 1960s. Hansjörg Wyss from Bern transforms the company into a large implant manufacturer. 


Picture: Andreas Roland Grüntzig, doctor, ca. 1978
Source: RDB/ullstein via Getty Pictures

German cardiologist Andreas Grüntzig performs the first dilatation (widening) of narrowed coronary arteries at the University Hospital of Zurich with the balloon catheter he developed. The invention is launched on the market by the company Schneider, which is acquired by Boston Scientific in 1998. The production site in Bülach (ZH) is later acquired by the German cardiology company Biotronik.


Four Swiss engineers establish the company Tecan, which is now known as Tecan Group AG in Männedorf (ZH). It develops and produces laboratory machines for use in biopharmaceuticals, forensics and clinical diagnostics.


Picture: H-Tron insulin pump Disetronic from the 1980s
Source: Ypsomed AG

Brothers Willy and Peter Michel found the company Disetronic in Burgdorf (BE), which, among other things, develops new insulin pumps to treat diabetes. In 2003 the company is spun off: the Infusion Systems division reinforces the Diagnostics division in the Roche Group, a leading provider of so-called in-vitro diagnostic devices. The Injection Systems business becomes today's Ypsomed Holding AG (Burgdorf/BE).


Picture: X-ray of pacemaker in chest
Source: Richman Picture via Shutterstock

The Medtronic Group (Dublin/Ireland) opens a production site for implantable pacemakers and brain pacemakers in Tolochenaz (VD). Today, one in five pacemakers implanted worldwide is made here. The site – one of four in Switzerland – is also used as a European training centre for doctors.


After an eventful history, the company Sulzer Medica is acquired by the US company Zimmer Ltd. – thus ending a piece of Swiss medical technology history that began in 1970 when medical technology became an independent department at the engineering group Sulzer.


The US conglomerate Danaher Corporation acquires the Swedish-Swiss dental implant manufacturer Nobel Biocare (Kloten/ZH).


Picture: Logo Swiss Medical Technology Association Swiss Medtech
Source: Swiss Medtech

Swiss Medtech is established as an association based in Bern following the merger of two organisations. As an industry association, it represents the interests of the Swiss medtech industry.