Life-saving science: the 5 most important inventions of all time

by Julia Hukowich, Contributing Writer

What comes to your mind when you hear the words “important invention”? I asked a few fellow undergraduate students and received a wide range of responses, from things that keep us healthy and clean (soap), to things that keep us safe (fire doors), to things that make modern life possible (light bulbs, electricity, telephone, internet). Valid answers, yes. But even though your classmate might declare you a “lifesaver” after you lend them your laptop charger, that piece of technology isn’t actually saving anyone’s life per se. 

I stumbled upon an infographic by Aperion Care that compiles dozens of internet sources to highlight the 50 most life-saving inventions from the last two centuries (1). It claims that the following five innovations, the products of scientific achievement, prevent an estimated one billion annual deaths each, and they may not be what you’d expect. 

1. Wastewater system

Okay, so admittedly not the most glamorous of inventions. But, consider the intricate sewer systems that underlie our cities, carrying waste out of site and out of mind. It stays out of mind for much of the developed world thanks to modern techniques that involve extensive physical and chemical treatment of wastewater, a carrier of nasty and potentially lethal diseases like cholera, diarrhoea, and dysentery (2). The present North American waste management system is the product of multiple innovations over hundreds, even thousands of years, and each component is critical to preventing infectious disease from ravaging populations: the pipes and hydraulic pumps that deliver water to and from our homes separately, the restoration of water to a usable form before being dumped into lakes, rivers or oceans, and the flush toilet itself. And unlike London in 1858, our current system thankfully prevents a Great Stink (3).

2. Green Revolution: Strain selection

We don’t often think too hard about where our food comes from; we’re lucky enough to enjoy an overabundance of food every time we walk into a grocery store, most of which does not naturally grow anywhere near Montreal. But, if like me, you’ve ever tried growing your own vegetable garden and to your dismay found insect bites all over your tomatoes, imagine that disappointment amplified to an industrial scale. Instead of your backyard experiment falling short, the livelihood of your family, your community, and the broader supply chain is in jeopardy. Advances in agricultural technology since the 1940s, also known as the Green Revolution, have dramatically increased the efficiency of food production, allowing us to nourish our growing global population. One particular breakthrough of the Green Revolution is strain selection in crops, giving rise to significantly higher yields. For instance, the development of the IR8 variety of rice in the 1960s allowed India to jump from a state of near famine to the status of leading worldwide rice producer (4).

3. Green Revolution: Synthetic fertilizers

The Green Revolution was so, well, revolutionary, that synthetic fertilizers achieved one billion lives saved on their own. Often the thing impeding a plant from achieving its full growth potential is nitrogen, ironically the most abundant gas in our air. It would be nice if plants could “breathe” nitrogen in through their leaves, but unfortunately, they’re not so evolved. Instead, microbes in the soil must convert gaseous nitrogen to ammonia, which plants then absorb through their roots. Sure, it works, but it’s not very fast. Enter Haber and Bosch in the early 1900s: this dynamic duo accelerated the microbes’ work on an industrial scale, creating the Haber-Bosch process that remains the primary method for manufacturing synthetic nitrogen fertilizer to this day. While there are obvious consequences to dumping barrels of chemicals into the environment, synthetic fertilizers are estimated to have sustained the lives of approximately half our current global population (5). Food for thought!

4. Blood transfusions

Obviously, innovations like organ transplants and open heart surgery save lives. But as I’m sure you Grey’s Anatomy fans know, none of these are possible unless you have bags of blood on standby to safely replenish the patient’s supply. Pumping foreign fluid into tiny, delicate vessels  requires a syringe, the earliest of which was invented in the 1600s (and was probably a lot more painful than today’s needles). Plus, you need an understanding of the blood-typing system (A+, O-, etc.), which didn’t exist until much later, around 1900 (6). Over 4.5 million patients require blood transfusions each year in the U.S. and Canada alone, which works out to about 1 in 7 people entering a hospital (7). Our blood carries absolutely everything we need to survive, so it’s no wonder one of the marvels of modern medicine is a way to maintain that life-saving reservoir.

5. Vaccines

This one almost needs no explanation. According to our beloved MRO Communications emails, at least 94.9% of us McGill students are helping make history by getting the COVID-19 vaccine. However, vaccines have squashed some of the most deadly diseases far before the time of coronavirus: polio, smallpox, diphtheria, rubella and measles, just to name a few. These may sound foreign to you because you never had to think twice about catching them. Edward Jenner’s admittedly weird late-18th century experiments with Vaccinia, a.k.a. the cowpox virus, were ultimately successful, hence the origin of the word “vaccine.” This idea of training our immune system to fight specific enemies is transferable to many new treatments you may have heard of, such as cancer immunotherapy. It’s so easy to get discouraged by the centuries-long search for cures for big killers like heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and cancer, but it’s also easy to forget that we have proven it possible to cure disease. We’ve been smallpox-free in Canada since 1946, polio-free since 1994, and measles-free since 1998 (9, 10, 11). Sure, viruses have had the chance to evolve over billions of years, but if humans can figure out how to beat them in just a few centuries, well that’s no small feat.

The hustle and bustle of everyday life in North America means we’re often oblivious to the successes of science that are actually keeping us alive. But in fact, we’re only able to know this estimated number of lives saved because we also know the number of lives lost. People around the world are still dying from what are evidently preventable causes, the only explanation being lack of access to one or more of these pieces of life-saving science. Humanity has come a long way in applying science to live longer, healthier lives, but that work is far from over.

Edited by Aelis Spiller

References:

  1. (Original infographic) https://aperioncare.com/blog/inventions-life-expectancy/
  2. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/sanitation
  3. https://greywateraction.org/history-sewers/
  4. https://www.thoughtco.com/green-revolution-overview-1434948
  5. https://ourworldindata.org/how-many-people-does-synthetic-fertilizer-feed
  6. https://www.britannica.com/story/the-strange-grisly-history-of-the-first-blood-transfusion
  7. http://fourhearts.org/facts/
  8. https://www.sciencefriday.com/articles/the-origin-of-the-word-vaccine/
  9. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/smallpox
  10. https://www.cpha.ca/story-polio
  11. https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/diseases/measles/measles-in-canada.html

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