From Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin in 1928, to Craig Venter, who developed a pioneering strategy for decoding DNA in the late 1990s, a string of brilliant and dogged innovators has left a major impact on the field of medicine. As demand for first-class health care has swelled with the aging of America's baby boomers and growing middle-class populations abroad, more and more research and development energy has gone to support these innovators as they seek ways to help people live better and longer.
BusinessWeek Online has chosen five medical pioneers to profile in a special package aimed at telling the stories of some of America's best scientists and their knack for discovery. They range from chemists who are developing diagnostic tools that work on the molecular level to engineers working on simulated brain surgery to drug researchers who have come up with new ways to treat HIV. As the promise of high tech and the Internet has waned, these gurus of medical technology -- and their contributions -- are beginning to occupy a more prominent role in the public imagination.
REAL RETURNS. That makes sense. After all, the challenges that attract them are both more fascinating and emotionally satisfying than, say, raising money for the latest e-commerce idea. Finding a better way to rebuild a patient's shattered face is far more rewarding than building better software to track how many people visit a Web site.
Appropriately, though, financial success also awaits these medical pioneers. Most of the innovators profiled here have also worn entrepreneur hats at some point, and many still do. It isn't coincidental that the spirit and originality required to launch a startup are similar to those required to fathom the biological and chemical mysteries of the human body.
Here's a look at some of the key players in medicine -- and how the work they're doing from labs to operating rooms will affect the lives of millions of people. By Alex Salkever