17 July 2021

The New York Times: “How Humanity gave itself an Extra Life”

In effect, during the century since the end of the Great Influenza outbreak, the average human life span has doubled. There are few measures of human progress more astonishing than this. If you were to publish a newspaper that came out just once a century, the banner headline surely would — or should — be the declaration of this incredible feat. But of course, the story of our extra life span almost never appears on the front page of our actual daily newspapers, because the drama and heroism that have given us those additional years are far more evident in hindsight than they are in the moment. That is, the story of our extra life is a story of progress in its usual form: brilliant ideas and collaborations unfolding far from the spotlight of public attention, setting in motion incremental improvements that take decades to display their true magnitude.

Another reason we have a hard time recognizing this kind of progress is that it tends to be measured not in events but in nonevents: the smallpox infection that didn’t kill you at age 2; the accidental scrape that didn’t give you a lethal bacterial infection; the drinking water that didn’t poison you with cholera. In a sense, human beings have been increasingly protected by an invisible shield, one that has been built, piece by piece, over the last few centuries, keeping us ever safer and further from death.

Steven Johnson

Insightful outline of the medical innovations and social changes during the past centuries that enabled people to live much longer and healthier lives than our ancestors. I was aware of most of these, but if asked, I could not have placed them in the correct historical timeframe. I was somewhat surprised to discover how recently antibiotics became widespread, and that vaccination is has been around for much longer than I would have expected.

Red Cross volunteers assembling gauze masks during the 1918-19 influenza pandemic
Red Cross volunteers assembling gauze masks for use at Camp Devens, near Boston, during the 1918-19 influenza pandemic. Vintage_Space/Alamy

During the summer months of 1942, shoppers in Peoria grocery stores began to notice a strange presence in the fresh produce aisles, a young woman intently examining the fruit on display, picking out and purchasing the ones with visible rot. Her name was Mary Hunt, and she was a bacteriologist from the Peoria lab, assigned the task of locating promising molds that might replace the existing strains that were being used. (Her unusual shopping habits ultimately gave her the nickname Moldy Mary.) One of Hunt’s molds — growing in a particularly unappetizing cantaloupe — turned out to be far more productive than the original strains that Florey and Chain’s team had tested. Nearly every strain of penicillin in use today descends from the colony Hunt found in that cantaloupe.

Aided by the advanced production techniques of the drug companies, the United States was soon producing a stable penicillin in quantities sufficient to be distributed to military hospitals around the world. When the Allied troops landed on the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944, they were carrying penicillin along with their weapons.

The ‘invisible shield’ analogy feels particularly suited: from time to time, even I get a sense how counterintuitive it feels that two tiny injections one month apart can protect most people from COVID. But science contains many concepts and conclusions that contradict our immediate senses and experience – furthermore, I would argue that science advances precisely because it challenges preexisting notions of the world. From this perspective, our new challenge for 2021 is to accept that vaccines can be developed on a fast schedule, and trust that they can provide us with the protection we need.

Post a Comment