Science. The story of women who extended men’s lives

May 27, 1942: Nazi officer Reinhard Heydrich, “the man with the iron heart,” was the victim of an attack while driving through Prague. He is only wounded, but dies a week later. July 20, 1944: A bomb explodes during Operation Valkyrie, injuring and burning Adolf Hitler. Aware of the risk of the infection that had caused Heydrich’s death two years earlier, Theodor Morell, Hitler’s personal physician, treated the Führer with a mysterious powder that cured the patient. It’s penicillin. Morell had some vials, stolen from American soldiers captured after the Normandy landings. The Germans also discovered the drug’s potential benefits, but were unable to produce it on a large scale.

The curious anecdote is just one of many recounted in the well-documented and engaging book Extra life, written by Steven Johnson, an acclaimed American science journalist and author. Published by Castelvecchi, the 280-page tome (€20.00) explains the decisive impact of medical and scientific discoveries on humanity and, in particular, “how we gained one extra life in a century”. Answer? Improving hygiene, treating drinking water, building sewers, defeating diseases that have claimed millions of lives (from smallpox to cholera to AIDS), and increasing the quantity and quality of food. What appears here as a mere enumeration, Johnson transforms into a novel of progress, evoking sensational achievements and epochal tragedies: from blue milk (because polluted) in nineteenth-century New York to the infamous Thalidomide, which was widespread in the 1950s and 1960s century led to the birth of many Phocomelic children. In the book, the author brings to the scene well-known protagonists (Pasteur, Koch, Fleming and many others), but also unknown characters for the most part. Like Frizt Haber, the German chemist, pioneer of artificial fertilizers who revolutionized agriculture in the 20th century. “No discovery had the same impact on the explosion of population growth as Haber’s artificial ammonia,” notes Johnson. A paradoxical detail that reminds us of the inseparable ambivalence of science: Haber, winner of the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, is also the inventor of mustard gas, the first toxic gas used in the trenches during the First World War.

Retracing the history of medicine and science is an exercise that offers many surprises and prompts deep reflection. It took Sweden one hundred and fifty years to reduce the infant mortality rate from 30% to less than 1%. Post-war South Korea managed to achieve the same feat in just 45 years – we read Extra life -. At the end of World War II, life expectancy in India was still trapped under a long curve of 35 years. Today, life expectancy in this country exceeds 70 years.”

For us today, at least in the West, almost zero infant mortality, the availability of food and medical care, a significant increase in the average age are goals that the vast majority of the population has achieved; but if we were to look back only to the last century, we would realize that this was not always the case. And it is no different today: in many areas of the planet, access to drinking water or enough food is still a myth. “In the poorest countries – reminds Johnson – the great enemy that John Snow first identified almost two centuries ago – waterborne diseases – is still the second most common cause of death.” Again: «Another extremely important intervention in the world’s poorest countries would be the elimination of malaria. No multicellular organism has been responsible for more deaths throughout human history than the mosquito. The WHO estimates that more than two hundred million people contract the disease every year: half a million die from it.

To perceive the stellar distance between the current state and the past, it would be enough to mention the so-called “Spanish flu”, which according to the latest estimates claimed a hundred million victims at the beginning of the 20th century. Johnson says a US Army scientist made this dire prophecy: “If the epidemic continues at this mathematical acceleration, it is likely that civilization will disappear from the face of the earth within the next few weeks.” We know how it really was, thankfully. As an author Extra life, «the period from 1916 to 1920 marked the last moment when there would be a major reversal in global life expectancy (life expectancy fell briefly during World War II, but without reaching the severity of the collapse of the “Great Impact”)”. Still. There is no mention of this in high school history textbooks, but it is interesting to learn from Johnson that «the list of European leaders killed by smallpox between 1600 and 1800 is truly shocking. If you add up all the major political figures murdered around the world in the last two hundred years, the total is still a fraction of those killed by the smallpox virus during those fateful centuries. Think of all the political realignments, rebellions and succession crises that would never have happened if smallpox had infiltrated so deeply into the ranks of Europe’s elite.”

Scientific research and innovations gradually introduced into medical practice have brought incredible results. But just as diseases evolve over time, so do the causes of human death over the centuries. Johnson identifies the first of a long series of road accidents with the death of Irish scientist Mary Ward aboard an experimental steam vehicle as early as 1869. Half a century later, «when Henry Ford had just invented the T, tuberculosis was the third leading cause of death In the United States. But by the time antibiotics reached the masses in the early 1950s, tuberculosis had been replaced by an entirely contrived man-made threat, the automobile.” Ralph Nader and American consumer protests in the mid-1960s forced automakers to introduce safety belts that would save many lives. Yet “just a decade earlier they were dismissed as madness, a nuisance – or worse – a potential threat”.

In addition to the aforementioned Mary Ward, various other women appear in the book. Among them, the American bacteriologist Mary Hunt, nicknamed “Moldy Mary”, because she went from one greengrocer to another looking for the most suitable forms to produce penicillin in large quantities. No less curious is the story of Mary Montagu, to whom we owe the acceptance of variolation by the British elite in the eighteenth century. “What’s striking about Montagu’s story—is Johnson’s healthy provocation—is how it differs from conventional narratives of progress in which our lives are improved by the discoveries of a heroic scientist, usually male and European, guided by methods. empirical theories developed during the Enlightenment’.


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