The New Rules: Life, Death and the 20th Century
Thomas P.M. Barnett | Bio | 19 Apr 2010
Courtesy of World Politics Review
Most people look back upon the 20th century as the deadliest in human history, with scholarly estimates suggesting that close to 200 million people died in all the wars, revolutions, genocides and totalitarian purges of those bloody decades. As a result, we regard the entire century as the age of total war, even though we have not experienced great-power war since 1945. Even more telling, state-based war almost completely disappeared as the century drew to a close, leaving us with primarily civil strife, failed states, and the transnational bad actors they both spawn.
But instead of celebrating the peaking and subsequent eradication of state-based war across the 20th century, many insist that humanity is now living in the most dangerous era of its history, rather than its most peaceful. Moreover, because of our tendency to view history in terms of killing and death, we remain stubbornly blind to our own collective progress -- namely, the preservation and extension of life.
As an example, take just one disease, smallpox, which killed half as many more people -- 300 million -- in the 20th century than all the organized violence. In light of the absolute numbers, one might be tempted to dub the century the most disease-filled in history, or "the century of smallpox." But just like great-power war was eradicated in the 20th century, so, too, was smallpox, through vaccines. As for just how many lives have been saved by eradicating smallpox and making vaccines against other diseases more widely available, a solid case can be made for roughly a quarter-billion in the second half of the 20th century.
But how many lives around the world have likewise been saved by our collective avoidance of World War III? If World War II tripled World War I's death toll from 20 million to 60 million, it's not far-fetched to assume that a third global war could have amounted to another quarter-billion lives lost. And that third global war was avoided in large part thanks to the geopolitical equivalent of the vaccine -- nuclear weapons.
Do we ever view nuclear weapons in this manner? Of course not. We prefer to emphasize the killing -- not the saving.
And yet, saving lives from disease and warfare, while simultaneously extending them to increasingly greater lengths, is the "buried lead" of the 20th century. (That this century is also known as the American Century is no coincidence.) A child born into this world in 1900 could, on average, expect to live just three decades -- or a mere five years longer than most citizens of the ancient Roman Empire. But the same child, born in 2000, should expect to live until age 65 -- a stunning increase of more than 100 percent. (By comparison, in America, the average lifespan jumped from 45 years to 77 -- an increase of just over 70 percent.)
So why don't we remember the 20th century as the century in which the average human lifetime more than doubled in length? Why is history so fixated on the question of who has killed the most people, instead of who has saved the most lives?
That latter question drove Billy Woodward to pen a most fascinating book entitled, "Scientists Greater than Einstein: The Biggest Lifesavers of the Twentieth Century." Woodward isn't trying to pick on Albert Einstein per se. It's just his way of fact-checking history, given that Time magazine picked Einstein as its "Man of the Century" in 1999.
So how many lives did Einstein save? Well, on the basis of the crucial letter he sent to President Franklin Roosevelt in 1939 that triggered the Manhattan Project, he deserves a sliver of credit for ending World War II a bit sooner, as well as for some small measure of that quarter-billion who did not die in World War III. In short, Einstein's career life-saving stats aren't shabby.
But compared to Woodward's Top 10 life-saving scientists of the 20th century, Einstein is definitely a minor leaguer. Conservatively estimated, Woodward's group collectively saved more than 1.6 billion lives, meaning that "much of the world's population is alive today" because of these "10 unheralded scientists":
- Al Sommer: More than 6 million lives saved by the eye doctor "who discovered a better use for Vitamin A."
- Akira Endo: More than 5 million lives saved by the researcher who analyzed more than 6,000 molds and fungi to discover a class of drugs, statins, that prevent heart disease.
- Bill Foege: More than 122 million lives saved by the field analyst who developed a better strategy for surveilling and containing smallpox through vaccination.
- David Nalin: More than 50 million lives saved by the field medic who created Oral Rehydration Therapy to treat diarrhea in general and cholera in particular.
- Norman Borlaug: More than 245 million lives saved by the agronomist who launched the Green Revolution (better described as a "grain revolution" centered on hardier, faster-growing wheat).
- John Enders: More than 114 million lives saved by the "father of modern vaccines" (see polio and measles).
- Paul Müller: More than 21 million lives saved through the discovery of the pesticide DDT and its potential use against malaria-spreading mosquitoes. (Woodward's account here of Rachel Carson's best-selling 1962 book, "Silent Spring," and its negative impact on malaria control in developing countries is especially damning.)
- Howard Florey: More than 80 million lives saved by the pathologist whose research team discovered penicillin -- the first, and truly revolutionary, antibiotic drug.
- Frederick Banting: More than 16 million lives saved by the doctor who spearheaded the discovery of insulin to control diabetes.
- Karl Landsteiner: More than 1 billion lives saved by the scientist who developed the classification scheme for blood groups, allowing for safe transfusions.
Woodward's book is an exciting read from start to finish, with each profiled scientist battling the odds -- and status-quo thinking -- to achieve his breakthrough discovery that helped make the 20th century the most disease-conquering age yet experienced by humanity.
Woodward ends his tremendous book with a plea for more public support of medical research, noting that "evidence demonstrates that economic gains due to increased health and lives saved over the last half of the 20th century dwarf any other industry's contribution." And yet the U.S. government spends far more research dollars on both national defense and vehicle safety than the prevention of disease -- arguably our economy's greatest byproduct.
That's not to say that America doesn't lead the world in health care research funded by the government, because it does. We also boast the bulk of the world's Top 20 research universities and lead the world in private-sector health care research. Woodward emphasizes these enduring realities to drive home his strategic pitch for America: to continue leading the world in "death prevention" in the 21st century.
Ultimately, the book makes it clear that anyone who thinks America plays only the global role of death-threatening Leviathan is dead wrong. Half of Woodward's 10 medical heroes were born and educated in the United States. And without the globalization that we've spent the last seven decades protecting -- with nuclear weapons -- and extending, most of their technological advances never would have spread around the planet to the point of saving those billion-and-a-half lives.
Saving lives, extending lives, enriching lives: some "empire"!
Thomas P.M. Barnett is senior managing director of Enterra Solutions LLC and a contributing editor for Esquire magazine. His latest book is "Great Powers: America and the World After Bush" (2009). His weekly WPR column, The New Rules, appears every Monday. Reach him and his blog at thomaspmbarnett.com.
Photo: A Somali boy receives a polio vaccination in Mogadishu (Dept. of Defense photo by Andrew W. McGalliard).
Web site celebrates often unknown scientists who have saved lives
Mark Gail & Margaret Webb Pressler
Courtesy of The Washington Post
Clarissa Cantacuzene, 8, was born with a serious heart condition that was repaired when she was a baby. The surgical technique used was created by scientist Alfred Blalock more than 50 years ago and has saved thousands of children since then. Now a completely healthy second-grader, with no physical limitations, Clarissa says of her heart condition, "I'm glad they found out quickly what it was, and I'm glad they fixed it quickly." (Mark Gail/the Washington Post)
Who are the most famous scientists you know? Maybe Thomas Edison is one. How about Galileo or Charles Darwin? These men are considered, in order, the fathers of electricity, astronomy and evolution.
The new Web site http://www.scienceheroes.com looks at scientists by another measurement: how many lives they've saved. The list of mostly medical scientists contains many fascinating and inspiring stories that deserve to be publicized.
"This type of Web site gives students a human face, if you will, to an actual science career," said Francis Eberle, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. "This makes learning science more real."
Here are some of the largely unknown but remarkable scientists found on the site.
-- Margaret Webb Pressler
Karl Landsteiner (According to the Web site, he has saved more than more than 1 billion lives): In 1901, this Austrian scientist figured out that there are four types of human blood, A, B, AB and O, and some of them cannot be safely mixed with each other. His discovery allowed patients to safely receive another person's blood during surgery.
Edward Jenner (122 million lives saved): In the late 1700s, this English doctor wondered if farmers were less likely to get smallpox because they were often exposed to cowpox, a version of the disease. He tested it by infecting a child with cowpox first and later with smallpox -- and the boy didn't get sick. The cowpox had trained his body to fight off smallpox. It was the first vaccine! Smallpox has been eliminated worldwide.
Pearl Kendrick and Grace Eldering (13.3 million lives saved): During the Great Depression, there was no money to research a vaccine for whooping cough, a disease that killed more than 6,000 children a year. The doctors worked for no pay, doing experiments and tests to create a vaccine that has been used on children since the 1940s.
Alfred Sommer (6.3 million lives saved): This professor of ophthalmology (the study of the eyes) at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore studied Vitamin A deficiency. He noticed that kids with low levels of Vitamin A not only went blind, they also died more often from other illnesses. Because of his research, Vitamin A supplements are one of the most effective health programs in the world.
André Briend (1.9 million lives saved): This French pediatrician spent time in Africa treating malnourished children, then noticed a jar of Nutella, the chocolate-hazelnut spread, on his kitchen table and had an idea. He developed a product called Plumpy'nut, a high-calorie, sweet, peanut-based, paste with added vitamins and minerals. It was first used in Africa in 1999, and even children near death from starvation recovered quickly by eating the paste. It is widely used to treat malnutrition.
Alfred Blalock (160,000 lives saved): This surgeon developed a way to treat a heart defect called tetralogy of Fallot (tet-TRAH-logy of fal-LOH), a condition that prevents a child's blood from getting enough oxygen from the lungs. Most babies born with the condition used to die before age 10. Blalock tested the surgical technique on a 15-month-old girl in the first-ever open heart surgery, performed at Johns Hopkins in 1944. His technique is still used today.
Courtesy of The Washington Post website
History's lifesavers: Borlaug in top 10
By Maura Lerner
Courtesy of StarTribune.com
In the history of the world, who saved the most lives?
A website called ScienceHeroes.com has an intriguing top 10 list. And Minnesota has bragging rights on No. 3: Norman Borlaug.
Borlaug, the onetime University of Minnesota plant scientist, developed the high-yield wheat that helped avert starvation in much of the Third World. According to the website, he deserves credit for saving 245 million lives -- and counting.
Borlaug, who died last year at 95, won the Nobel Peace Prize and other honors for launching agriculture's Green Revolution.
But a Kentucky businessman named Billy Woodward decided that Borlaug and other scientists weren't getting the recognition they deserved for transforming the world. He created the flashy website and hired his own scientists to identify the biggest life-changing discoveries, then estimate how many lives they saved, said co-creator Tim Anderson.
The top winner: Fritz Haber, the inventor of synthetic fertilizer, with 2.7 billion lives saved.
Here's the rest of the top 10:
2. Karl Landsteiner, 1.038 billion, blood groups that led to transfusions.
3. Norman Borlaug, 245 million, high-yield wheat.
4. Abel Wolman, 173 million, water chlorination.
5. Edward Jenner, 122 million, smallpox vaccination.
6. Bill Foege, 122 million, vaccine strategy that eradicated smallpox.
7. John Enders, 114 million, measles vaccine.
8. Howard Florey, 80 million, penicillin (first antibiotic).
9. Gaston Ramon, 58.5 million, diphtheria and tetanus vaccines.
10. David Nalin, 51.3 million, oral rehydration therapy for cholera diarrhea.
Anderson admits some "judgment calls" were involved. The list gives credit for penicillin to the scientist who actually developed the drug, instead of Alexander Fleming, who found the mold in a petri dish.
What about giants like Jonas Salk, who conquered polio? A mere piker, with over a million lives saved. "While great, they don't belong in the top 20," Woodward wrote.
Coutesy of StarTribune.com, Minneapolis - St. Paul, MN
2010 Finalist Indie Book Awards
Science / Nature / Environment Final 5
The Indie Book Awards was established to recognize and honor the most exceptional independently published books in 60 different categories, for the year, and is presented by Independent Book Publishing Professionals Group (www.IBPPG.com) in cooperation with Marilyn Allen of Allen O'Shea Literary Agency.
Courtesy of Indie Book Awards
SciTech Book News
Courtesy of SciTech Book News
Scientists greater than Einstein; the biggest lifesavers of the twentieth century
Woodward, Billy. Quill Driver Books, ©2009 367 p.
For general readers, Woodward, a businessperson and writer interested in science, describes the work of 10 scientists from around the world who have saved the most lives in the twentieth century, some of whom are still living: ophthalmologist Al Sommer, who discovered the importance of Vitamin A supplements; Akira Endo, who discovered statin drugs to lower cholesterol; Bill Foege, who helped eradicate smallpox; David Nalin, who developed oral rehydration therapy; Norman Borlaug, who developed new strains of wheat; and John Enders, Paul Muller, Howard Florey, Frederick Banting, and Karl Landsteiner, who discovered the polio and measles vaccines, DDT, penicillin, insulin, and blood groups, respectively. Some have never been written about in popular literature.
Courtesy of Book News Inc.