There are many people who have made positive contributions to humanity in modern times.
Take a careful look at the names on the following list. Which of these individuals do you think has helped humanity the most?
- Mother Teresa
- Albert Schweitzer
- Edward Jenner
- Norman Borlaug
- Fritz Haber
The usual response to this question is “Who on earth are Jenner, Borlaug, and Haber?” Many people know that Mother Teresa helped thousands of people living in the slums of Kolkata (Calcutta). Others recall that Albert Schweitzer opened his famous hospital in Africa and went on to earn the Nobel Peace Prize. The other three historical figures, on the other hand, are far less well known. Jenner, Borlaug, and Haber were scientists whose research discoveries saved millions, and even billions, of lives. Dr. Edward Jenner is often considered the “father of immunology” because he was among the first to conceive of and test vaccinations. His pioneering work led directly to the eradication of smallpox.
Due to the breakthrough work of Dr. Edward Jenner, millions of vaccinations are now administered around the world every year preventing the spread of many treatable diseases while saving the lives of people of all ages. [Image: CDC Global Health, https://goo.gl/hokiWz, CC BY 2.0, https://goo.gl/9uSnqN]
Many other diseases have been greatly reduced because of vaccines discovered using science—measles, pertussis, diphtheria, tetanus, typhoid, cholera, polio, hepatitis—and all are the legacy of Jenner. Fritz Haber and Norman Borlaug saved more than a billion human lives. They created the “Green Revolution” by producing hybrid agricultural crops and synthetic fertilizer. Humanity can now produce food for the seven billion people on the planet, and the starvation that does occur is related to political and economic factors rather than our collective ability to produce food.
If you examine major social and technological changes over the past century most of them can be directly attributed to science. The world in 1914 was very different than the one we see today (Easterbrook, 2003). There were few cars and most people traveled by foot, horseback, or carriage. There were no radios, televisions, birth control pills, artificial hearts or antibiotics. Only a small portion of the world had telephones, refrigeration or electricity. These days we find that 80% of all households have television and 84% have electricity. It is estimated that three quarters of the world’s population has access to a mobile phone! Life expectancy was 47 years in 1900 and 79 years in 2010. The percentage of hungry and malnourished people in the world has dropped substantially across the globe. Even average levels of I.Q. have risen dramatically over the past century due to better nutrition and schooling.
All of these medical advances and technological innovations are the direct result of scientific research and understanding. In the modern age it is easy to grow complacent about the advances of science but make no mistake about it—science has made fantastic discoveries, and continues to do so. These discoveries have completely changed our world.