October 31, 2014
Celebrating Our Science Heroes
Be Well

Celebrating Our Science Heroes

by John Swartzberg, M.D.  |  

Here’s a website that I think you’ll thoroughly enjoy and find compelling: ScienceHeroes.com. Don’t groan when you see the word “science” in the url. 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 1000 Science Stories!” You’ll be captivated first by the numbers and then by the stories.

First, the numbers. There's 2.7 billion—that’s the number of lives saved by the two discoverers of synthetic fertilizer (they’re in first place). Edward Jenner's discovery of the smallpox vaccine has saved 530 million lives. In last place, with “only” 11,000, is the lives-saved tally for the discovery of a drug to treat leukemia.

Here is a sampling of the stories behind the numbers:

• More than one billion lives saved by Karl Landsteiner. As the website notes, “In 1901, Landsteiner discovered that different people's blood had different characteristics that made it 'incompatible' with other people's blood that didn't carry those same traits. He discovered the A, B, and O blood types. His discovery made it possible for blood transfusions to become a routine procedure. This paved the way for many other medical procedures that we don't even think twice about today, such as surgery, blood banks and transplants.”

• Bill Foege (I met him a couple of years ago when he spoke at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health graduation), who promoted the lifesaving strategy of smallpox vaccination, saved more than 130 million people from dying of this horrific disease (and countless others from its ravages). Foege didn’t stop there. While he was the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 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. Currently, he’s a Senior Fellow at the Carter Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

• John Enders, one of my favorites. His work on growing viruses in tissue led directly to the development of the polio vaccine. According to the science heroes website, this vaccine has saved more than 120 million people's lives and prevented many others from having to spend the rest of their lives paralyzed. There’s an interesting side note about Enders. When he was informed, in 1954, that he was the sole recipient of the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology for discovering the poliovirus, he initially declined the honor. He wrote to the Swedish authorities that he would accept the prize only if it could be shared with “those who did the work” (Thomas Weller and Fredfick Robbins). The Nobel committee agreed.

There are 105 scientists listed on the site with a short bio on each. The reading is fascinating, but the numbers are what strike me. For a citizen of the developed world in the 21st century, it is near impossible to fathom what our world would be like without these discoveries. The home page sums it up nicely: “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 more saved lives. Then the half million Americans who die before age 65 each year due to disease might make it into old age.”