Why Saving Millions of Lives May Not Get You A Big Obituary – But Should ->> with Polish translation

Jan 2, 2013

By Sean Faircloth,author of Attack of the Theocrats, How the Religious Right Harms Us All and What We Can Do About It.

In both Life’s magazine 2012 special “Farewell” obituary issue and in Time magazine’s end of year issue, they profiled two people of science: Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride. I’m very glad they did.  They are both wonderful examples to us all.  Yet, while Life printed an obituary profile of one of the “son” actors on the old TV show My Three Sons, they did not profile any additional scientists. I like movie stars. I revel in obscure rock bands, but as I note in the Afterword of my book, prominent obituary retrospectives seem to leave out people who have a long-term impact that far outshines second-tier actors on old TV shows.

See bottom of article for Polish translation

Perhaps we might remember Dr. Mary Ellen Avery, who also died in 2012, and whose work on the prevention of deaths of premature babies saved an estimated 800,000 lives. So far.

Let’s remember William Staub who invented the treadmill. Complain if you must, but, particularly for those in cold weather climates, a treadmill can help maintain the eight-minute mile pace that many scientists claim dramatically increases cardiovascular health. Indeed William Staub used his own product well into a healthy and functional nineties. His work lengthened thousands of lives (and, heck, listen to a book on tape, or watch TV, if you want to whine about getting on the treadmill).

Irving Millman’s work led to the creation of the Hepatitis B vaccine. Vaccines are hard to market because they don’t generate a lot of income for the pharmaceutical industry.  Yet, once instituted, the Hepatitis B vaccine saved millions of lives. That’s millions!  Dr. Millman also earned a Bronze Star in WWII. Obscure second stringers on TV shows? They made the Time-Life obituary cut. But not Dr. Millman.

Renato Dulbecco won a Nobel Prize for his work on onco-viruses, the type that cause cancer. His work was the basis for later preventative measures, including science that helps counteract HIV. Dr. Dulbecco also served in the Italian resistance against Mussolini. Dr. Dulbecco’s research laid the groundwork for saving many lives.

Russell Train ran the Environmental Protection Agency under Richard Nixon. A lawyer, Train reached the rank of Major during WWII. At EPA Train pushed for a sound science approach. A Republican who had served on the National Water Commission in the Johnson years, Train was trusted to be objective by both political parties. He helped push for approval of catalytic converters in cars, significantly decreasing pollution thus improving public health.  He led implementation of the Toxic Substances Control Act. He later headed the World Wildlife Fund, expanding the organization’s focus to go beyond species and include protection of habitat for species. Train led the organization’s concept of addressing developing-world debt in exchange for nature preservation – known as “debt for nature swaps.”  His bipartisan objective lawyering stands as a testament to what seems a bygone era of public service based on reasoned analysis. 

Dr. Lester Breslow literally transformed the field of public health from one that was almost entirely focused on infectious disease to one that includes analysis of how personal behavior pertains to longevity.  He advised a half-dozen presidents. In the 1950s he used science to show the ill effects of smoking. His California research helped form the basis for the 1964 Surgeon General’s report on smoking. Governor Ronald Reagan fired him from his job as Director of California’s Public Health Department because Dr. Breslow objected to health care cuts for the poor.  Dr. Breslow’s early work dramatically changed the field of public health by specifically documenting how exercise, avoiding smoking, drinking only in moderation, and other factors extended life – and he provided data to back it up. 

Before abortion was legal, Dr. Jean Pakter documented the number of women who were horribly injured or died from abortions.  Her efforts led to the 1970 law making safe regulated abortion legal in New York three years before the Supreme Court decision. She devised a new process for the treatment of premature babies, a process that saved many lives and still does.  This wonderful woman was one of but four women who entered NYU’s 1934 Medical School class. A font of statistics for decades, she found that, at that time anyway, fewer women were impregnated in the spring or in her words, “the gleam in a young man’s eye is in the fall.”  Her work for women’s rights and for premature babies was both life-saving and historic. She died at 101. Not a mention by Time-Life.

John Atta Mills died while President of Ghana.  A lawyer, Mills expanded health care and ambulance service, and expanded education funding.  A politician with a sense of humor, Mills increased the strength of an already more stable African nation with his emphasis on education and public health. He also sometimes played for the Ghanaian national hockey team (not too many presidents can say that).

George McGovern was mentioned in year end obituaries, but not for his policy impact on public health. McGovern led President Kennedy’s new Food for Peace program starting in 1961. McGovern’s leadership of the program increased the ability of hungry children to focus and get an education and is credited with dramatically increasing the affection and esteem for the United States of America that was expressed overwhelmingly in the developing world upon the assassination of President Kennedy.  McGovern, a WWII combat pilot hero, saw starving children in Europe during the war.  In later years, working with Republican Senator Bob Dole, a fellow combat veteran, Senator McGovern secured funding for hungry children worldwide and for pregnant and nursing mothers. This effort increases IQ. Often girls who don’t eat drop out of school before boys.  McGovern’s effort helped address these injustices and increase economic growth in the developing world.

Italian Nobel laureate Rita Levi-Montalcini wasn’t supposed to get involved in science because she was a Jew. Mussolini’s government in the 1930s had banned Jews from academic careers. Undeterred, she simply set up a lab in her bedroom where she experimented on chicken embryos.  She won her Nobel for work on cells, work that increased the understanding of cancer.  She carried on several hours of research every day until her death her death at 103, a death that came after lunch as if she was falling asleep.

Senator Daniel Inouye, whose well-documented bravery while horribly wounded in WWII is almost beyond comprehension, led conservation of huge tracts of land for incorporation into Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Inouye, who vanquished several German soldiers with his right arm destroyed, said that his experiences rehabilitating from battle increased his commitment to health research for which he successfully secured funding.

Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride are justly profiled in the major magazine obituary retrospectives.   As astronauts, their celebrity “fire power” is entirely understandable, but Neil Armstrong, though incredibly and repeatedly brave in battle and as a test pilot, was a proud engineer.  Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride, a physicist with a Stanford degree, would agree that these other marvelous human beings — who moved forward science, technology, public health and the public policies that support these life-saving endeavors — should be well-recognized by the general public as well.  Maybe leaders in these endeavors deserve more focus than second-tier TV stars.

At the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, we will continue to promote the values and policies that make this world a better place — and holding the people profiled here in the highest esteem is an essential part of that effort. 

Dlaczego uratowanie milionów ludzi nie przekłada się na duży nekrolog?

Autor tekstu: 

Tłumaczenie: Małgorzata Koraszewska

Zarówno w specjalnym wydaniu nekrologów „Farewell” pisma „Life”, jak w ostatnim zeszłorocznym numerze pisma „Time” przedstawiono sylwetki dwojga ludzi nauki: Neila Armstronga i Sally Ride. Bardzo cieszę się, że to zrobiono. Oboje są wspaniałymi przykładami dla nas wszystkich. Niemniej, mimo że „Life” opublikował profil jednego z aktorów, który grał w starym programie telewizyjnym Moi trzej synowie, nie opublikowali niczego o wielu zmarłych naukowcach. Lubię gwiazdy filmowe. Rozkoszuję się mało znanymi zespołami rockowymi, ale jak piszę w mojej książce Afterword, wcześniejsze zestawy nekrologów słynnych ludzi wydają się pomijać tych, którzy wywarli długotrwały wpływ na nasze życie, daleko przyćmiewający drugorzędnych aktorów w starych serialach telewizyjnych.

Być może moglibyśmy pamiętać dr Mary Ellen Avery, która także zmarła w 2012 r., i której praca nad zapobieganiem śmierci wcześniaków uratowała, jak się szacuje, 800 tysięcy dzieci. Jak dotąd.

Pamiętajmy Williama Stauba, który wynalazł ruchomą bieżnię. Marudź, jeśli musisz, ale tym, którzy mieszkają w zimnym klimacie, bieżnia może pomóc zachować tempo pięciu minut na kilometr, a taka kondycja — zdaniem wielu naukowców – radykalnie poprawia funkcjonowanie układu krążenia. Sam William Staub używał swojego produktu dobrze po dziewięćdziesiątce, w zdrowiu i w pełni funkcjonując. Jego praca przedłużyła życie milionów (i, do diabła, słuchaj podczas jej używania audiobooków albo patrz na telewizor, ale nie marudź na bieżnię).

Praca Irvinga Millmana doprowadziła do stworzenia szczepionki na żółtaczkę B. Szczepionki trudno jest wprowadzać na rynek, bo nie dają wielkich dochodów przemysłowi farmaceutycznemu. Niemniej, raz wprowadzona, ta szczepionka uratowała życie mionom ludzi. Milionom! Dr Millman zdobył także Brązową Gwiazdę w drugiej wojnie światowej. Mało znani drugorzędni aktorzy telewizyjni? Oni mają nekrolog w „Time” i „Life”. Ale nie dr Millman.

Czytaj dalej


Written By: Sean Faircloth
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22 comments on “Why Saving Millions of Lives May Not Get You A Big Obituary – But Should ->> with Polish translation

  • 1
    IDLERACER says:

    In all fairness, the “Son” on “My Three Sons” was also a mouseketeer (click HERE) but more importantly, a fine singer/songwriter (click HERE). Maybe not a scientist, but a creative force to be reckoned with.

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  • 2
    QuestioningKat says:

    Note to myself: Get a treadmill or achieve an 8 minute mile; commit to a hobby or goal that will interest me until the age of 103.

    Thanks for the list.

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  • 4
    TickleFour says:

    Let’s not forget the late Nobel laureate Sherry Rowland. His research identified CFCs as potent catalysts for ozone depletion. Rowland literally saved the planet through his scientific endeavors and perseverance in the face of industrial and political adversaries.

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  • 5
    ColdThinker says:

    A young hard-working scientist makes an important discovery. The leader of the research team publishes the results. The discovery eventually saves a million lives.

    A writer writes a captivating book about the case. A director directs a visually impressive documentary based on the book. An actor narrates the documentary with the words written by a screenwriter.

    In the eyes of the public, the most celebrated person in this chain will be the handsome, sexually attractive actor. Some enthusiasts recognize some of the other names in the chain, if they have some previous fame. The senior leader of the research team gets some marginal academic recognition among his peers and may win a prestigious prize just before his death. The contribution of the scientist who originally made the discovery is only recognized by her parents. She never gave a lecture, spoke in public, appeared on TV. She probably would not have wanted to.

    It is a sad part of our herd behaviour to place face recognition above all else. Because most people can read, name recognition does also have some value, albeit much lesser. But the actual merits can only be understood by specialists of the field and receive little or no acclaim at all.

    But that’s only expectable from a bunch of risen apes.

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  • 6
    tardisride says:

    Tremendously well said. Celebrity is fun, but today’s culture tends to celebrate those people who would make a great t-shirt. A good read is Janice Hume’s book Obituaries in American Culture, in which she shows that who we choose to memorialize says as much about the living as about the dead.

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  • 9
    QuestioningKat says:

    ooooo! ColdThinker don’t get me started! What you have said is so true. People are drawn to the popular, attractive and charming. The more introverted 2-10% of the population comes up with most all the innovations and creative ideas, but the “salespeople” of the world get the credit. The salespeople are talented at bringing other people together and have the ability to recognize a good idea. Or they are good at selling themselves. Strangely, these people are also likely to view themselves as innovative, fresh, highly talented, and new. They may get one good idea in a lifetime while the other 2-10% get that amount in a one hour brainstorming session. This is why we need to reclaim the world away from the marketers of the world. They use their statistics of popular common taste as justification of why they should continue spewing mediocrity out into the world. Unfortunately, this is what most people want.

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  • 10
    Rob Schneider says:

    Good stuff, Sean. I hope you’re pushing for publication of this (or a lightly edited version) in the mainstream press. It would serve a dual purpose of getting wider recognition for these deserving people, and put a good light on the work of the RDFRS.

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  • 12
    ColdThinker says:

    In reply to #9 by QuestioningKat:


    I know what you’re talking about, and I believe there’s the Dunning-Kruger effect at work there. The more prolific one is about creative ideas, the less likely this person is to value any single idea above an average day’s work, especially since the truly original thinkers often tend to be on the introverted side and think silently. Then again, the extroverted salesmen are able to maximize the potential of the single good idea they have ever come up with.

    Since we are social animals, I suppose social talent is the key to success of the individual. But it’s hardly in the interest of the society at large.

    This is the reason the Aynrandish ideals of the market economy will eventually lead us to destruction, as people are judged by their abilities of selling and capitalizing, not the value of their actual contribution to their fellow humans and the future generations.

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  • 13
    hellosnackbar says:

    Real people ,real talent exceptions when compared to the norm.
    The whole silly modern culture has the ignorance to have no interest in these people.
    I have a quiet laugh when I see some person studying the contents of Hello Magazine.

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  • 14
    crookedshoes says:

    Let’s not miss one point that should be raised: If scientists’ obits sold magazine copies, they’d be there.

    It is the thirst of the masses that drive these types of magazines. I do not consume many things that are part of “pop” culture — “pop” stands for popular! I therefore am not ever surprised when the masses consume what i consider to be drivel.

    Look at literature. “Best” sellers are exactly that — they sell the best — 50 Shades of Gray — and other nonsense drive the popular marketplace. Meanwhile works of genius sit unsold.

    Look at music — “top” 50 hits are dogshit music — I won’t even list the garbage that sells. Meanwhile acts like Stanley Jordan sit in obscurity.

    Look at television. Never mind, “primetime”TV is a vapid wasteland…. Again, awesome programs are neglected.

    This is simply the way “popular” works.

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  • 15
    mummymonkey says:

    According to wiki Dr. Mary Ellen Avery died in 2011 – but the point is well made none the less. An astonishing contribution to pediatrics.

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  • 18
    TheAllKnowingAgnostic says:

    I am in awe of how these individuals’ love for knowledge and science (not to mention dedication and hard work I’m sure) could manifest into such monumental positive changes in the world. Truly inspiring! Hopefully with time our society will develop a deeper appreciation for these unrecognized heroes and those like them. I think of all the people who dedicate their lives to helping others in the name of God. They should go out and get science degrees! Then they could really make the world a better place. Thanks for the article.

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  • 19
    TGarrett says:

    I agree with Rob Schneider. Please push this out to a larger audience where the public can be reminded of these truly important humans who made a real difference and not just a top 10 list.

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  • 20
    mysticjbyrd says:

    Celebrity worship is nothing but a disease within the US and abroad. These people are the epitome of luck. They are paid ungodly sums of money for something that requires little skill, and no long term effort. Yet they are revered as gods within our culture.

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  • 21
    mysticjbyrd says:

    In reply to #14 by crookedshoes:

    Let’s not miss one point that should be raised: If scientists’ obits sold magazine copies, they’d be there.

    It is the thirst of the masses that drive these types of magazines. I do not consume many things that are part of “pop” culture — “pop” stands for popular! I therefore am not ever surprised when the masses consume what i consider to be drivel.

    Look at literature. “Best” sellers are exactly that — they sell the best — 50 Shades of Gray — and other nonsense drive the popular marketplace. Meanwhile works of genius sit unsold.

    Look at music — “top” 50 hits are dogshit music — I won’t even list the garbage that sells. Meanwhile acts like Stanley Jordan sit in obscurity.

    Look at television. Never mind, “primetime”TV is a vapid wasteland…. Again, awesome programs are neglected.

    This is simply the way “popular” works.

    Maybe I am weird, but I don’t remember that guy or that show at all. It doesn’t have anything to do with popularity, but with being a celebrity. Even if it is one no one knows.

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  • 22
    Nunbeliever says:

    In Swedish we say that “ingratitude is the salary of the world”… Seriously, people in general don’t have a clue regarding whom they have to thank for their well-being… or blame for their misery either. We live in a world where fame, egoism and narcissism are considered admirable traits. We salute superficial accomplishments and choose our scapegoats with the same indifference.

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