Scientists, Numbers and Science

Who Goes on the List?

  • Scientists who made landmark, lifesaving discoveries.
  • This is an exemplary, not a comprehensive list. Which means that for some discoveries we may not have all the key contributors, but those we have are exemplary.
  • It is not anywhere near complete! We are a small team, so our list is small and concise.
  • Only scientific discoveries after 1900 are considered. Earlier scientists are deserving, but it is difficult to document and count the number of lives saved.

What Constitutes a Saved Life?

We count those treatments that save lives dramatically – like CPR.

  • But, we also count discoveries that save lives surreptitiously – like Vitamin A supplementation to cut childhood mortality.
  • We also count treatments that extend your life for years – like statins that delay heart attacks and strokes.
  • We include preventative discoveries such as vaccines that make 22 different diseases rare.

In fact, often, less dramatic lifesaving treatments are the biggest lifesavers, yet they are the most ignored. seeks to change that!

Why the Numbers?

Science is based on evidence and numbers are the evidence. In the book, Scientists Greater than Einstein, Dr. Amy Pearce of Arkansas State University compiled the number of lives saved by the ten featured scientists. Her numbers were astonishingly large – well over a billion people’s lives were saved. That is hard to fathom until you realize that in 1900 the life expectancy for someone born in the United States was 45. One hundred years later, it was 77. That is a lot of saved lives and impacts us all on a grand scale.

Humans tend to count the number of deaths far more often than the number of lives saved. The point of calculating saved lives is two-fold.

  • We owe gratitude to the institution of science, for living longer is largely due to scientific discoveries.
  • We owe gratitude to individual scientists. It is not only their genius, but the prodigious number of hours that most scientists work that lead to discovery. Lifesaving discoveries take decades of education as well as years of research and exploration. Most would say they enjoyed the work, but we enjoy the fruits of their labor without any work on our part.

How are the Numbers Derived?

We obtained the numbers from the best sources available. Some have already been calculated by others, so we’re glad to accept their research. Others we calculated ourselves using data from organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the World Health Organization (WHO).

A few calculations, like the number of transplants a year, are easy to enumerate. But most, like the number of children saved by Vitamin A supplementation, are estimates for we don’t know which children are saved, but we can measure the plummeting mortality rate of those children who receive it. We also have to consider access to healthcare – not everyone in the world yet has access to all of these lifesaving discoveries. But as socioeconomic conditions have improved worldwide, the number of those who do have access has risen.

We claim no pretense of exactitude. We are using estimates of how many get diseases, estimates of how many get treatment, and estimates of how many who receive treatment are healed. The numbers are a moving target – just this minute, people are getting sick, while others are receiving therapy. And today, some scientist may be improving a treatment, which may lengthen our own lifespans further. 

We are often conservative in our estimates and the number should always be read as: More than _________________ lives saved.

The point of numbers is to provide evidence, and this evidence demonstrates that science has made huge strides in decreasing suffering, saving lives, and extending our lifespans. We have a lot to be thankful for – numbers remind us of this.

Science & The Rise of Modern Medicine

Modern medicine is remarkably new. The reason doctors made house calls until the 1940s is that they couldn’t fix much and could fit most of their medical tools into a little black bag. In practice, doctors were more like hospice workers than healers. Outside of setting broken bones, most of what they did was to provide comfort in the form of painkillers until nature took its course, for better or worse. But advances were beginning:

Emergent Medicine

  • 1910s Chlorination of Water
  • 1910s Blood Transfusions
  • 1920s Insulin Discovered for Diabetics
  • From 1900 to 1950 U.S. life expectancy rose from 45 years to 65 years

Baby boomers were the first generation to grow up with modern medicine that could actually cure many diseases.

Modern Medicine

  • 1940s+ - Penicillin, the first antibiotic, was the miracle drug that actually cured many bacterial diseases.
  • 1960s+ - Vaccines were the miracle shot-in-the-arm that actually prevented many viral diseases.
    • Vaccines against childhood diseases increased from 3 to 18.
  • 1970s - Smallpox was irradicated by vaccination.
  • 1990s - Statins and blood pressure medications extended many seniors’ lives by 10+ years.
    • Between 1981 and 2009, the death rate for heart disease and strokes fell by more than 50%
  • Since 1950, U.S. life expectancy has increased by 13 years to 78