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Scientists Greater Than Einstein: The Biggest Lifesavers of the Twentieth Century (Book Review)

Disclosure: As an Amazon affiliate, I earn a comission on sales of this item.

Author Billy Woodward doesn’t for a second begrudge Einstein’s brilliance or his iconic status. But he does have a passion for celebrating the lesser known scientists whose discoveries have not just enriched our lives, but literally saved them. None of the scientists he profiles are household names, but Woodward has a deep conviction that they ought to be, and he seeks to make their heroism known, one reader at a time.

Who Are These Heroes?

You may know how Ian Fleming accidentally discovered that a compound from the Penicillum mold would kill bacteria. But you may not know that Fleming didn’t think it would be possible to isolate enough stable penicillin to make a drug, and he didn’t even try. Thanks to Woodward, you’ll know the debt of gratitude we owe to Howard Florey, whose team refused to give up so easily, overcoming obstacle after obstacle to make penicillin into a miracle drug.

You likely also know the name Jonas Salk, credited with the vaccine that vanquished polio. But Salk gave credit to another name: "Dr. [John] Enders pitched a very long forward pass, and I happened to be in the right place to receive it." Woodward chronicles that forward pass—the years that Enders spent developing the cell culture techniques that make most modern vaccines possible.

Those are just the start. Others in this book revolutionized agriculture and tamed still more of the world’s most feared diseases. As Woodward points out, they’re not all saints, but they have all accomplished something that granted millions the gift of life.

A Potential Blemish?

Woodward profiles ten scientists, but there are eleven chapters in the book. In the eleventh chapter, Woodward tries to capitalize on his poignant chronicles of lifesaving medical research to make a political push, arguing for increased funding for medical research. This alone wouldn’t be much of an issue, but he then invites some controversy by also espousing a dim view of defense research spending. While this will obviously bother some readers more than others, I found it incongruous with the book’s otherwise positive tone, and perhaps not the best way to have ended.

A few readers may also be uncomfortable with Woodward’s inclusion of DDT as one of the great lifesaving inventions. He includes it because many nations, including the United States, used it to eradicate the mosquitos that spread malaria. DDT has become much maligned since then, but Woodward makes the case for DDT without demonizing those who disagree. He acknowledges that DDT isn’t perfect, but he emphasizes that a tiny amount of DDT can stop a lot of malaria, and he doesn’t think it’s too dangerous in those low amounts.

The Final Word

Even if you don’t like DDT, there are still nine great stories in this book. These stories are great not only because of their life-saving endings, but also because they illuminate the determination that made these endings possible. Woodward is an excellent storyteller, with a knack for including the biographical details that humanize his subjects, as well as the scientific details that draw us into their process. Overall, it’s among the most inspirational science books I’ve ever read.

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