E16 – Science Saved Us

Episode 16 . 18:07

E16 - Science Saved Us - transcript:

What is up my friends, welcome to Speakeasy English. The number one podcast on the internet, according to my mother. 

Alright. Today we are going to talk about disease and mortality and how science has dramatically increased our life expectancies since the mid 1700s. 

If you live in a wealthy or industrialized country. So, that is, most countries in the Western Hemisphere and many in the Eastern hemisphere. We are very lucky. In fact, we are so lucky that we forget how fortunate we are. We forget that just a couple hundred years ago, the life expectancy on average was somewhere around 35 years old. Now, life expectancies, depending on where you live, are soaring into the upper 70s and 80s. That change, that increase in life expectancy, is directly due to improvements that have been given to us from science. Those improvements are vaccines, antibiotics, germ theory, and increased production of food and goods, which has allowed better nutrition. But today we are going to talk about vaccines, antibiotics, and germ theory, and show you exactly how lucky you are to live right now, this day and age. By the way, “this day and age” is an expression to say “nowadays”, like, right now in this year, 2023. So you could say, “yes, vehicles used to be very unsafe. But now, in this day and age, there are many safety features which have improved the safety of the vehicles we drive.” So when you say “in this day and age”, you are referring to the modern era – the time period in which we are living. 

Okay, so let’s go back and talk about that life expectancy. So when we say the life expectancy was around 35 years old, that is a little bit misleading. In fact, the mortality rate, that is the percentage of deaths in children under five years old, was somewhere between 25 and 50%. That means that if you had a brother, one of you is probably going to die before you become an adult. So if a family had six children, it would not be unusual for three of them to die before reaching adolescence. If you were lucky enough to reach adulthood, then your life expectancy would likely be in the 50s or older. But because so many children died, on average, the overall life expectancy was in the 30s. 

Why did so many children die? Well, one of the main reasons was from smallpox, an extremely deadly disease that has been ravaging humanity for thousands of years. Smallpox had a mortality rate somewhere between 25 and 50%. And when it entered into a population that had no prior exposure, some estimates say that it could have a death rate approaching 90%. Those numbers are absolutely insane. Let me put it another way: for all of human history, until recently, it was normal and accepted that roughly half of all children would simply die. This was a fact of life until fairly recently in human history. 

The smallpox vaccine was the first major scientific breakthrough that helped to change this and dramatically increase the chances of surviving until adulthood. In the late 1700s, Edward Jenner noticed that certain groups of people seemed to be immune to catching smallpox. That means they would be exposed to smallpox and yet they would not contract the disease. These people all had one thing in common. They had all previously contracted cowpox. That is, a relative, a cousin, of smallpox that is primarily found in cattle. And while humans can catch cowpox, it is benign. That means it is not dangerous to the humans. The humans that contract cowpox generally recover without any complications. So Edward Jenner noticed that people who had previously contracted cowpox seemed to be immune and unable to become infected with smallpox. This idea that cowpox somehow protected people from catching smallpox had been around for a while as a sort of “folk knowledge”, a sort of rumor that people would discuss, but nobody had investigated it from a scientific or experimental point of view until Edward Jenner. To test his theory, Mr. Jenner took material from a person infected with cowpox and intentionally infected a child with cowpox. Then, I believe about six weeks later, he took material from a smallpox wound and intentionally tried to infect the child with smallpox. As expected, the child did not contract smallpox. The child was, in fact, immune to catching smallpox. Mr. Jenner continued conducting experiments and published his findings a short while later. This was, in effect, the very first intentional vaccination that had ever happened in human history. I was not able to find specific data on exactly how much the smallpox vaccine increased average life expectancy, but just this one breakthrough had immense impact on preventing childhood death and therefore increasing life expectancy dramatically. 

Additional vaccines continued to increase life expectancy and eliminate common causes of death. For example, Polio, Diphtheria, Measles, Mumps and Rubella, among others. Interestingly, vaccines have been a victim of their own success. What does that mean? Well, when something is a victim of its own success, that means that vaccines have been so successful in eliminating these risks that nowadays we have forgotten how serious and how dangerous those risks were in the first place. For example, in developed countries, there is now a significant portion of the population that does not trust vaccines that believes they are unnecessary or even harmful. This anti-vaccination movement is only possible because people have forgotten the imminent risk that diseases like polio, for example, pose to their health. Interestingly, if you look at developing nations that are less rich and have less access to modern medicine, the citizens of those countries are actually much more likely to trust the safety and efficacy of vaccines. This makes sense. In other words, in countries where there is a very real threat of dying young from preventable illness, in those countries, the citizens are more likely to trust medicine and to trust vaccines. Whereas in the United States, for example, it is very rare for citizens to contract and die from the illnesses against which we vaccinate. Again, this is rare in the United States precisely because the vaccines have been so effective in eliminating and dramatically reducing the spread of these illnesses. 

Okay, So we have talked about vaccines and how the smallpox vaccine in particular revolutionized the way we can fight against these deadly illnesses. The second major breakthrough that I wanted to briefly discuss is antibiotics. Antibiotics were not discovered until 1928. That means less than 100 years ago. Before that, if you became ill from a bacterial infection, you could very likely die and there was nothing they could do other than recommending that you rest and stay hydrated. Think about that. I’m not talking about 500 years ago. I’m not talking about a thousand years ago. I’m talking less than 100 years ago. If you got sick from a bacterial infection, there was a good chance that you would end up dead or with permanent damage. People routinely died after breaking an arm or breaking a leg. This could lead to an infection and sepsis, and you would simply die. With the discovery of Penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1928, the antibiotic era began, and this revolutionized how we are able to treat illness due to bacterial infection. Before antibiotics, all surgery was extremely risky. There was a very good chance that you would develop an infection after surgery. So the question was whether or not your body would be able to fight off that infection, or if you would simply die. It is hard to overstate the importance of antibiotics and what it has meant to increasing our life expectancy and also our quality of life. Even those people who survived serious infections would often have permanent damage to their organs and a reduced life expectancy. People would routinely end up blind (that means unable to see) or they might lose limbs (that means lose an arm or a leg) because of infections that they were unable to treat without antibiotics. 

Lastly, I will mention germ theory. The discovery, or understanding, I should say, of germ theory was another massive breakthrough that directly impacts our life expectancy as humans. Germ theory is the understanding that most illnesses, viral or bacterial, are caused by tiny living organisms. Those are germs. Understanding this concept allowed humans to develop better practices for hand-washing and for preparation for surgery. Imagine this: before germ theory, if you needed surgery, your surgeon might have his hands inside you without ever washing them. He might be operating on you and cutting you open with dirty hands that he has used to go to the bathroom or to clean his house. Imagine that! Once humans began to understand that germs are causing illness and we began to take steps to prevent germs from entering our bodies, we were able to drastically reduce our likelihood of getting sick. 

Germ theory was also very important in understanding that we need to drink clean water and that there are germs in the water. Before this understanding, millions and millions of people were dying every year simply from drinking contaminated water. Once again, it is impossible to overstate how important this scientific breakthrough was. Okay. So we talked about vaccines, we talked about antibiotics, and we talked about germ theory. As I mentioned earlier in the episode, if you live in a developed country, it is all too easy to forget the massive benefits that science and medicine have given us. We no longer lose 50% of our children. We no longer die from simple bacterial infections. We no longer die from contaminated tap water in our homes. Now, I know many of you listening might live in areas where contaminated water is still a problem. And so I am very cognizant of how lucky I am. And I hope my fellow citizens and those of you that live in developed countries – I hope all of you take a moment to realize and recognize how lucky we are that science has given us these gifts. 

Honestly, I get very frustrated with the anti-science talk and distrust of science that I hear on the streets and from my friends and from family. It’s frustrating because these people have forgotten that science is a miracle, and science has pulled us out of the jaws of death, and is allowing us to live long and amazing lives. And it seems that in return, many of us are disrespecting science and pretending like we don’t need it. We forget that our computers are science and our cell phones are science. Our clean water is science. Medicine is science. Electricity and the light in our homes is science. I’m hopeful that in the coming years we can get back to an appreciation of science and everything that it has done for us to bring us out of the dark and into the future. 

Alright! Thank you so much for listening. I needed to share this with you and I hope you found it interesting. Meanwhile, I hope it is also helping you to improve your English comprehension. If you enjoyed this episode, please leave a five star review and subscribe. That will help other English learners just like you to become completely fluent just by listening every day. Also, if this is the first episode you’ve listened to, please go back and listen to episodes one through ten. That is where I explained how you can use this podcast to become fluent in English without ever studying any boring grammar. You can also check out the free transcripts on our website. Speakeasyenglish.club – that is, www.speakeasyenglish.club . The transcripts for all episodes are right there on the website for free. Also feel free to shoot me an email. My email address is brandon@speakeasyenglish.club . Thanks again for listening. We’ll see you next time. Cheers!