March 24, 2019
Celebrating Our Science Heroes
Be Well

Celebrating Our Science Heroes

by John Swartzberg, M.D.

Here’s a website that I think you’ll enjoy and find compelling:

If the word “science” in the url makes you squirm, possibly thinking back to your struggles in biology class, focus on “heroes.” The website’s self-description is quite apt: “A Community of Rambunctious Scholars Celebrating People Who Have Made Lifesaving Discoveries And Encouraging Students and Politicians to Read 1,000 Science Stories!” You’ll be captivated first by the numbers and then by the stories.

First, the numbers. The biggest one is 5,305,158,486 (last we looked), rising by the minute, which is the total number of lives saved by the 105 scientists celebrated by the site. After that, there’s 2.7 billion—the lives saved by the two German discoverers of synthetic fertilizer (they’re in first place). Probably best known is Edward Jenner, in fifth place, whose discovery of the smallpox vaccine has saved 530 million lives.

Here’s a sampling of the stories behind the numbers:

• Karl Landsteiner’s discovery of blood types in 1901 has saved more than a billion lives by making it possible for transfusions to become a routine procedure. Before that, people given an incompatible type of blood often suffered deadly reactions. Safe transfusions paved the way for modern surgery and countless other lifesaving medical procedures.

• William Foege, who devised a targeted global strategy of smallpox vaccination via surveillance and containment in the 1970s, has saved more than 130 million people from dying of this horrific disease (and saved countless others from its ravages). Foege didn’t stop there. Later, while head of the CDC, he oversaw the response to toxic shock syndrome, the issue of children at risk for Reye’s syndrome when taking aspirin, and the early days of the AIDS epidemic. I met Bill a few years ago when he spoke at the School of Public Health’s graduation here at UC Berkeley. His height (6'7") matches his towering achievements.

• John Enders, whose work on growing viruses in tissue cultures led to the development of the polio vaccine, is one of my favorites. He went on to lead a team that developed a vaccine against measles. All told, his discoveries have saved an estimated 120 million lives. A telling side note: When Enders was informed in 1954 that he was the sole re­­cipient of the Nobel Prize for culturing the poliovirus, he initially declined the honor, insisting that it be shared with “those who did the work” (Thomas Weller and Fredrick Robbins). The Nobel committee agreed.

It is to hard imagine what our world would be like without these discoveries. Notably, many of these heroes worked on vaccines. Vaccine skeptics and deniers would do well to peruse this website.

I leave you with this key point from the website: “Many people believe living a long and healthy life is simply a matter of luck or fate due to not getting an infectious disease or having good genetics. Few people realize the true power of science that has overcome disease and even genetic proclivity. We believe that if more people knew what science has accomplished, perhaps health care research would be­­come a priority, leading to even more saved lives.”

[Originally published January 2014; updated October 2016.]