RIDGE WRITERS ON BOOKS: ’Scientists Greater Than Einstein’


Billy Woodward, Joel Shurkin and Debra Gordon explore a fascinating premise in “Scientists Greater Than Einstein: The Biggest Life-savers of the Twentieth Cen-tury.”

Stating that it is “an interesting fact of human nature that we count deaths, but not lives saved,” they proceed to address the oversight by relating the achievements of 10 brilliant scientists whose names have not become household words. For instance, they celebrate Bill Foege for saving over 122 million lives previously lost to smallpox, “father of modern vaccines” John Enders for protecting over 114 million, and Karl Landsteiner for over one billion for discovering blood groups.

The stories unfold amid mind-boggling webs of intrigue and red tape, cliffhangers, betrayal, clandestine late-night phone calls and politics: When the NIH (National Institutes of Health) nearly shut down David Nalin’s investigations of using ORT (Oral Rehydration Therapy) against cholera, he did an end run and had the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Preven-tion) conduct the trials; and at one time or another during the 1967 Biafran War, both sides of the conflict arrested smallpox eradicator Bill Foege.

When the threat of Nazi invasion loomed over England in 1940, Howard Florey and Norman Heatley smeared penicillin spores on their clothes so that they could transport the precious substance without detection if they had to escape.

If you wonder what Florey and Heatley had to do with penicillin considering that Alexander Fle-ming discovered it, Woodward and company set that record straight too: Fleming never saw its potential. The team of Florey, Heatley and Ernst Chain realized and developed its value until it became a revolutionary drug, the first antibiotic. They let Fleming enjoy the limelight so that they could work unimpeded by reporters and media attention.

Expanding on the observation that “It is as if the person who describes a problem gets all the credit, while the person who solves the problem is forgotten,” “Scientists Greater Than Einstein” combines compelling narrative with occasionally very technical details and closes each chapter with a summary.

The authors have produced an important book that particularly resonates in our current economy when research funding has significantly fizzled. Anyone who deals with research, funding or bureaucracy should find it engrossing; it might inspire younger readers to pursue a career in medical breakthroughs; and some generally unsung superheroes could emerge as household names.

This weekly column is written by members of the Ridge Writers, the East Sierra Branch of the Califor-nia Writers Club. Meetings are held the first Wednesday evening of each month at Ridgecrest Presbyterian Church, and free programs are offered throughout the year. Ridge Writers’ book “Planet Mojave: Visions From a World Apart” is available at Carriage Inn, Jawbone Station, the Historic USO Building, the Maturango Museum, Red Rock Books and www.planetmojave. com.

Story First Published: 2013-03-27