Cyanoacrylates were invented in 1942 by Dr. Harry Coover of Kodak Laboratories during experiments to make a special extra-clear plastic suitable for gun sights.
The use of cyanoacrylate glues in medicine was considered fairly early on. Eastman Kodak and Ethicon began studying whether the glues could be used to hold human tissue together for surgery. In 1964 Eastman submitted an application to use cyanoacrylate glues to seal wounds to the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Soon afterward Dr. Coover's glue did find use in Vietnam--reportedly in 1966 cyanoacrylates were tested on-site by a specially trained surgical team, with impressive results. According to an interview with Dr. Coover by the Kingsport Times-News:
Coover said the compound demonstrated an excellent capacity to stop bleeding, and during the Vietnam War, he developed disposal cyanoacrylate sprays for use in the battle field. Although cyanoacrylate glues were useful on the battlefield, the FDA was reluctant to approve them for civilian use. In part, this was due to a tendency of the early compounds (made from "methyl-2-cyanoacrylate") to irritate the skin as the glue reacted with water and cured in the skin, releasing cyanoacetate and formaldehyde. A compound called "butyl-2-cyanoacrylate" was developed to reduce toxicity, but suffered from brittleness and cracking a few days after application. Finally an improved cyanoacrylate glue was developed for medical applications called "2-octyl-cyanoacrylate." This compound causes less skin irritation and has improved flexibility and strength--at least three times the strength of the butyl-based compound (reference 2). As a result, in 1998 the FDA approved 2-octyl cyanoacrylate for use in closing wounds and surgical incisions, and in 2001 approved it for use as a "barrier against common bacterial microbes including certain staphylococci, pseudomonads, and Escherichia coli" (reference 2). This latest incarnation was marketed under the name Traumaseal as well as the more popular Dermabond.
"If somebody had a chest wound or open wound that was bleeding, the biggest problem they had was stopping the bleeding so they could get the patient back to the hospital. And the consequence was--many of them bled to death. So the medics used the spray, stopped the bleeding, and were able to get the wounded back to the base hospital. And many, many lives were saved," Coover said.
"This was very powerful. That's something I'm very proud of--the number of lives that were saved," he said.
Ironically, the Food & Drug Administration hadn't given approval for the medical use of the compound at that point. But the military used the substance, anyway (reference 1).