1. Al Sommer-Over 6 Million Lives Saved
The Eye Doctor Who Discovered a Better Use for Vitamin A
It was Christmas time, 1982, and things were slow at the Wilmer Eye Clinic at Johns Hopkins, where Sommer was based. No one comes in for cataract surgery over the holidays; it's an elective procedure. It seemed to him to be a good time to take another look at his Indonesian data. Sommer doesn't believe an epidemiologist should simply ask a question, then have a statistician or computer program determine the answer. "I say ‘data talk to me, tell me what you have to say.... You have to know your data, you have to smell it, you have to be in it. If you're not living inside the data you are going to miss the most interesting things, because the most interesting things are not going to be the questions you originally proposed; the interesting things are going to be questions you hadn't thought about."
2. Akira Endo-Over 5 Million Lives Saved
Statins: Life Extension for the Baby Boomers
Endo loved chemistry and his principal encouraged him to take the entrance exams to Tohoku University. His parents, knowing that if he passed the tests they could not afford to send him to college, sent his older brother to talk Akira out of dreaming so big. Their scheme was based on his clothing. Endo's dress could not be called stylish since he had only one pair of socks and had to wash them every night and let them dry by the fire. Tomiko, his brother's wife, recalls the trip. "His parents asked us to tell him that it was ‘not only you, you have brothers and sisters, so you cannot go to a university.' They gave us 20,000 yen (about $55) and said to us, ‘tell Akira if he does not go to the university, we will buy him a suit. Trick him.'"
When they arrived and attempted the bribe, Akira retorted, "I don't need any clothes, let me go to the university. Cut me off from your money." "Cut me off" was a serious phrase, meaning "disown me," so they knew Akira had made up his mind. Fortunately it never came to that - Endo's principal helped him get a scholarship.
Eastern Nigeria stretches from Lake Chad in the northeast down through scratchy desert-like terrain dotted with round red mud houses to a granite mountainous plateau in the middle of the country, then on down through the savannah country of Ogoja, all the way to rainforest jungles bordering Cameroon in the south. It was vast, and often the three American advisors were gone weekend to weekend. There were countless delays due to broken vehicles, detours around washed out roads, requests for medical help for those sick.... Foege always took reading materials with him, and at any stop he would find some shade to read under. During one trip down a dirt road a roadblock suddenly appeared. Their van's driver hit the brakes and nothing happened. He twisted the steering wheel to avoid the blocked road and they veered into the brush, hitting a tree. They got out and checked - everyone was OK. The land owner rushed over, irate that the vehicle had offended his juju his sacred tree - and demanded compensation. Foege calmly informed him that he had it completely backwards. The tree had damaged his juju, his sacred vehicle, and it was he that was due compensation. Eventually they called it even and their race to the smallpox outbreak continued.
4. David Nalin-Over 50 Million Lives Saved
ORT: A Revolutionary Therapy for Diarrhea
Never underestimate the benevolence of special members of the human race. The hospital staff made use of a special bed, the Watten cholera cot, which was a wood frame cot with a hole in the middle. The patient would lie on the cot, which was covered with a plastic sheet. In the middle of the bed was a hole with a sleeve attached that emptied into a translucent bucket, where the flow of diarrhea would collect. Nalin enjoyed working with the staff and recalls that they "were highly skilled and devoted workers who had mastered the simple principles by rote, having had so much experience. They carried out their responsibilities with routine efficiency, skill, devotion, and dignity." The spirit of cooperation among the staff, which though mostly Muslim included several Hindus and Christians, contrasted starkly to the inter-religious fighting that would occur a few years later during the Bangladesh War of Independence. Every four hours, a compassionate staffer would check the calibrated bucket to see how much diarrhea the patient had excreted. Vomit was collected in a basin and measured separately. Then the volume of each patient's oral solution was increased or decreased to match the volume of fluids that he or she was losing.
It was October 20, 1970 and Norman Borlaug was doing what he had done at this time of year for the past 26 years - standing in a Mexican wheat plot dressed in mud-splattered clothes, boots and a baseball cap choosing exceptional wheat varieties. Around 10 a.m., he heard the sound of a car bumping along the rutted road at the edge of the Toluca station. When it stopped and he saw his wife emerge, he became frightened, certain something must have happened to one of their two children. He could never have imagined the news she'd come to tell him.
"What's wrong?" he cried, dropping his wheat samples and running towards her.
"Nothing," she laughed. "You've won the Nobel Peace Prize, that's all."
At first, he refused to believe it. Borlaug insisted Margaret return to their house; he still had a day's work to accomplish. In fact, he had about 40 more minutes of toil before the press descended.
What, you might ask, do wheat and bread have to do with peace? Perhaps expecting that question, the Nobel Committee answered it when it awarded Borlaug the 1970 Peace prize. The committee compared Borlaug's work "to the basic human right of freedom from starvation as recognized by the Charter of the United Nations," and declared that his work had "helped to turn pessimism into optimism in the dramatic race between population explosion and food production."
For Borlaug, however, the prize was a complete surprise. "You have to understand that Norman Borlaug has no ego," Zeyen says. "He's the world's greatest humanist. He cannot stand to see people suffer."
6. John Enders-Over 114 Million Lives Saved
The Father of Modern Vaccines
Enders never seemed in a hurry in his life, and by the time they had the lab up and running he was 50 years old, slightly stoop-shouldered, and tweedy. He would arrive at the lab at nine or ten each morning. His first priority was looking at new findings, so he made the rounds to all the experiments, moving slowly, often with a pipe in his mouth. Northrop says, "he would often say, ‘I've been thinking this morning, Fred,' and then describe an idea for an experiment." He was never curt or dictatorial, and enjoyed discussing ideas the other researchers had. David Tyrrell, a virologist who knew Enders, said, "His relations with the staff were such that they were able, and indeed encouraged, to produce suggestions for the next experiment or a new idea to solve a problem. This would be discussed from all angles and quite often the chief would put forward a different idea, but in such a way that the trainee was glad to take it up rather than feeling resentfully that he had been forced to abandon his own idea and accept that of ‘the Boss.'"
7. Paul Müller-Over 21 Million Lives Saved
DDT and the Prevention of Malaria
"To few chemicals does man owe as great a debt as to DDT," the US National Academy of Sciences concluded in 1970. Amy Pearce estimates that DDT saved more than 21 million lives while it was widely used and it surely prevented many times that number of illnesses. In two decades, Paul Müller's new insecticide had gained international fame as a stupendous panacea of preventative medicine, but this fame would soon turn to infamy, as DDT became the primary target of a burgeoning environmental movement, led by one marine biologist turned anti-pesticide crusader.
8. Howard Florey-Over 80 Million Lives Saved
Penicillin: The Miracle of Antibiotics
Finally Florey and his team were ready to end their preliminary tests and perform a test on a living animal. At 11 AM on Saturday May 25, 1940, Florey and Kent injected eight white mice with a dose of virulent streptococci known to kill. At noon they gave two mice an injection of 5 ml of penicillin, and two others 10 ml. The other four were controls, so they received none. That afternoon, Florey, Heatley, and Kent watched the mice. Around six Florey sent Kent home, then gave the first two mice another dose. By 6:30 mice one, two and three looked fine. Mouse four looked so-so. The controls looked sick. The scientists went home to eat. At 10PM Florey returned to give mice one and two another injection. The mice acted about the same as at six, so he went home. Heatley returned around eleven and began marking down the times of death of the four control mice. The last one died at 3:28 AM. The next day Florey, Heatley and Chain met to go over the results. The four mice that had received penicillin were still alive. Florey, ever known for his understated manner, called Margaret Jennings. "It looks like a miracle," he told her.
9. Frederick Banting-Over 16 Million Lives Saved
Insulin: The First True Miracle Drug
Twelve hours after Banting and Best gave this new extract to a diabetic collie so weak from its diabetes it could barely stand, the dog was prancing around the lab. They'd done the impossible: created an extract that reduced blood sugar! It didn't have a name, and it would be another 40 years before anyone identified the chemical structure, but Banting and Best had seen firsthand the life-giving benefits of insulin, the hormone secreted by the islets of Langerhans, the chemical every living animal needs to unlock cells and allow the energy of life - sugar - in.
Banting and Best named their extract "isletin." Unfortunately, the extract soon ran out and the dog died nine days later. As Banting wrote, "I have seen patients die and I have never shed a tear. But when that dog died I wanted to be alone for the tears would fall despite anything I could do."
10. Karl Landsteiner-Over 1 Billion and 38 Million Lives Saved
The Superman Scientist: Discoverer of Blood Groups
Back in the early 1600's, after Harvey's demonstration of the circulation of blood, the German doctor Andreas Libavius wrote: "Let there be a robust youth, healthy and full of vigorous blood; let there stand by him one exhausted of strength, thin, lean and scarce drawing breath; let the master of the art have silver tubes fitting into one another; let him open an artery of the robust person, insert one tube and secure it; let him immediately open an artery of the sick man and insert the other tube; then let him fit the two tubes together and let the blood of the healthy person leap, hot and vigorous, into the sick man and bring the fountain of life and drive away all weakness."
After almost 300 years, on November 14, 1901, it was done. Karl Landsteiner had made one of the fundamental medical discoveries of all time. Human blood, which delivers nutrients, oxygen, and disease-fighting capacity to the human body, is not all identical - it varies among individuals in a fundamental way that allows it to be categorized into a small number of groups. Only specific groups can be transfused. This discovery would make manifest humankind's highest trait - sharing - the sharing of humankind's most valuable commodity, blood.