Which scientists saved the most lives?

February 21, 2017 • 1:45 pm

Scientists are the unrecognized benefactors of humanity. How many laypeople will recognize the name of Fritz Haber or Karl Bosch? Togetether they’re estimated to have saved over a billion lives. What about Norman Borlaug? He saved over 259 million lives. Ann Holloway, Samuel Katz, Kevin McCarthy, Milan Milovanovic, Anna Mitus, and Thomas Peebles? Together—over 100 million lives. Andreas Gruetzig? 15,400,000 lives. These people invented synthetic fertilizers, new breeds of wheat, measles vaccines, angioplasty, and so on.

The average person might recognize the name of Edward Jenner, who popularized (but perhaps didn’t invent) smallpox vaccination, thereby saving an estimated 530,000,000 lives; and they’d probably recognize Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, whose polio vaccines saved the lives of over a million people, but I bet you could stop a college student, give them those three names, and none would be recognized.

You can see their stories, and read about (or question) the numbers of lives they saved, at the Science Heroes site. Click on Nils Bohlin, for instance, and learn how his improved three-point seatbelt, produced while he was working for Volvo, is estimated to have saved over 1,300,000 lives:


Now you can question the figures, but there’s no doubt that many lives were saved by antibiotics, smallpox vaccinations, and so on. Sometimes the innovations were sought deliberately, like polio vaccine, and others came accidentally, like penicillin, but it doesn’t matter. What these data do show is that, in the only way that matters to many people—human lives saved or improve—science has made a difference.

When I give lectures about science, I often ask people raise their hands if they would be dead if it weren’t for antibiotics, and many hands go up, for simple infections killed many people before there were these drugs. If you asked people how many would be there if formal science didn’t exist, well, probably everyone could raise their hands, but many of the innovations that kept us here are unrecognized—like having obstetricians simply wash their hands.

Are these people heroes? Well, they didn’t risk their lives, and of course had they not lived, someone else would have produced their innovations. In those senses they differ from traditional heroes. But no matter; what’s important is that science works, and Science Heroes shows that it works to save lives. Can you think of any other area of intellectual or practical endeavor that has improved the lot of so many people? Theology? I don’t think so.

h/t: Nicole Reggia

104 thoughts on “Which scientists saved the most lives?

    1. Without detracting at all from his achievements, one could add a footnote that he was an early and vociferous opponent of Darwinian evolutionary theory and had a very public spat with Haeckel on the matter.

      1. There was worse.

        “According to historian Paul Weindling, Rudolf Virchow, one of the founders of modern cell theory, plagiarized the notion that all cells come from pre-existing cells from Remak.”

        (Remak’s Wikipedia page.)

        1. I cannot comment on the Weindling article but in the arenas of science and politics Virchow certainly has great merits.

          As a politician (Member of Reichstag for the Progressist Party)and scholar he openly denounced racism in anthropology, opined against colonial policy, militated against antisemitism (“Antisemitismusdebatte” 1879–1881) and repeatedly critized anti-Polish measures by the Prussian government.

          His opposition to Haeckel was also due to his perception of Haeckel’s views as anti-democratic and prone to racism.






  1. Can you think of any other area of intellectual or practical endeavor that has improved the lot of so many people? Theology? I don’t think so.

    Depends on whether you count civil engineering as science. Aqueducts and sewage systems predate what we’d now regard as science.

    1. (Civil) Engineering beats biological/medical advances.

      Clean water and transportation and regulations on fire protection.

      This is everyone on the planet who wants to use technology that functionalize our lives.

        1. I was reading up on the fasces a couple of nights ago before trying to (symbolically) add another gobbet of spit to the remains of Mussolini. Sadly, the Milanese don’t seem to have made much of it – no band stands or fluttering flags.
          Anyway, unlike the swastika, the fasces have maintained their pre-fascist associations -of law, with limits.
          Is it too early for a swastika rehabilitation?

        1. Without engineering improvements many of those scientists might not have made it either, and in many cases would not have had access to the necessary tools to make their discoveries. 😉

          Just pointing out that it takes both discovery and invention and application, to work.


          1. P.S. Though I wouldn’t agree with Kevin that engineering ‘beats’ any form of science, since it is, in many respects, applied science. That’s one of those impossible arguments to settle.


    2. Well, I’d certainly nominate Joseph Bazalgette, the designer and motive force behind London’s sewage system.

      And, George Stephenson, for rail transport. (He did not invent the steam locomotive, or the railway. But he vastly improved them and it was his untiring promotion of steam-powered rail transport that led to the ‘railway revolution’ that revolutionised communications in Britain and subsequently worldwide and made the Industrial Revolution possible).


          1. Joseph Bazalgette has been, ummmm (don’t take this the wrong way) fingered as a plausible candidate for the author of “My Secret Life,” an anonymised autobiography of a Victorian punter. If you don’t know of “Walter” already, you probably don’t want to pursue this.

            1. Not according to Wikipedia, though it does mention William Haywood, Surveyor and Engineer to the City of London Commissioners of Sewers as a possibility. A similar post to that which Bazalgette held.


              1. The similarity of posts (and therefore working patterns) would put them both in the frame.
                But Walter did take time to cover his tracks.

    3. John Snow and the Broad Street pump started the ball rolling in the endeavour to end preventable deaths from contaminated water. Later refined (at considerably higher expense than removing a pump handle) by Joseph Bazalgette and his sewer system. And tuberculosis? All the evidence is that an adequate diet practically ended the ‘white plague’ long before streptomycin.

      1. Ah – an excellent story, and a very good point! – “The Ghost Map” by Steven Johnson provides a captivating account.

  2. Ah, yes, but you see, theology saved their immortal souls! Which it could get around to a lot quicker, if you scientists would just quit making them live longer.

    Silly temporalists!

    1. I witnessed a very disconcerting example of just such reasoning. I know a young student entering a Christian college in hopes of becoming a doctor of the fundamentalist Christian variety. When asked by an aunt why he didn’t go to a school with a more highly ranked medical school(to serve patients better), he replied that it wasn’t as important that patients survive as that they die while saved. At the age of 18, I hope he will mature into a more deeply thoughtful person.

      1. As ghastly as it may seem, if one truly believes that the soul isn’t merely another organ subject to disease, but in the end the ONLY one that matters, then it is no contravention of the Hippocratic Oath to place salvation above corporal healing.

        In fact, if such a doctor KNEW (or believed–same thing to a faitheist) that a terminal patient was about to renounce Jeebus, wouldn’t the doctor have a sacred obligation to kill the patient before he could do so?

        1. To formulate the idea is to renounce Zombie Carpenter. Push them off the bed and out to the dumpster so a deserving (NB not “more deserving”) case can use the facilities.

      2. Are you running a book on how long he lasts? I wouldn’t bet on him lasting to the second session in the “Drains”.
        (Do they still do whole-body dissection? Surely they do – it was good enough for Galen, though he had the hindrance of his dissectees scheming and trying to get away.)

  3. One thing I’d point out, that Bill Gates once said – I don’t have a link – is that, when living conditions improve, the birth rate goes down. I take a wild guess that such a notion may have originated with the recently late Hans Rosling.

    So that would mean when living conditions improve on the grand scale that science operates – e.g. individual patients get antibiotics but across nations – there will be a lower death rate and a lower birth rate – but I could be wrong.

    But that means the sense that an individual can save lives, a notion that is usually reserved for MDs or firefighters, would have to be treated and described differently… just thinking out loud here… and it also leaves out all the laboratory minions who are on the papers but never get a Nobel.

    1. It was Melinda :

      “When children survive in greater numbers, parents decide to have smaller families. ”

      From section:
      Myth three:



      ^^^^ well worth reading – I’m not sure why it is, but it seems to me that the Gates are very politics-neutral – perhaps it’s a cult of personality, but I really feel that they are honest, trustworthy, and not out to play politics…. like, how cynical does someone have to be to go away from that letter I linked to thinking “they’re just trying to make you vote against Republicans”?

    2. The greatest deterrent to over-population is the education and freedom of women. Women tend to want smaller families and men larger (statistically speaking, so no N = 1 examples).

      1. Generally educated people want and have fewer children unless they are religiously motivated.

        Where I live, the Christian clans, particularly Catholics and Mormons, are eyeing with envy the families with two or less children.

        From what I’ve seen, uneducated religious couples, male and female, equally want lots of children. It’s morbidly depressingly.

        1. Today we have a huge population increase in areas like Africa while countries like Japan, Germany, Russia etc are well below replacement rates.
          If educated people do not have children we might even face some form of dysgenics!

      2. ISTR an SF story I read recently, where amongst other things , a nano-bot scientist spread “grey goo” around which included an end to sexual coercion (partner not up for it? If you persist, your nano-bot will hurt you until you stop. Or die. (This nano-bot guy was not subtle.) You give your partner an orgasm, she (or rebuilt he) might get pregnant. Fine enough, but you literally feel her pain.
        Amusing book. Fantasy with sprinkling of SF might be more accurate.

    3. On further thought – I’d like to add more, and reiterate – I think there’s a problem when applying an everyday notion like “saving lives” in the way that most people probably think of it – that is what we say when firefighters, MD’s, Coast Guard, etc. literally take a human body out of certain death, and we can literally count the number of times that happens, and note whose hands were doing the work.

      All these figures we are coming up with are not saving lives in the same way, though I like to think so. I suspect everyone agrees with that.

      But I think I brought up the birth rate because it illustrates the problem : if the birth rate goes down, by virtue of scientific or medical advancement(s), does that mean that fewer lives are available to “save”, or does it mean that fewer children were born that likely would’ve died? If the latter, wouldn’t that mean that the scientific/medical advancement(s) that decreased the birth rate saved lives – because we know from the statistics they are more likely to have died? And over what time span?

      Another problem: if a patient has a life threatening infection, a doctor prescribes penicillin, a nurse administers the drug – who gets credit? Alexander Fleming? Howard Florey? Ernest Boris Chain? Or are we saying that just because those three got a Nobel Prize? What about Ernest Duchesne? Or any of the other figures from further back in history?


      Interesting to note, in the Wikipedia article on Florey, it says “Florey’s discoveries, along with the discoveries of Alexander Fleming and Ernst Chain, are estimated to have saved over 200 million lives,[4] 4=[4] Woodward, Billy. “Howard Florey-Over 6 million Lives Saved.” Scientists Greater Than Einstein Fresno: Quill Driver Books, 2009 ISBN 1-884956-87-4.”

      … I hope it’s clear that I think the original question of this post is very interesting for all the stuff it brings up, but I’m unable to come up with a cut-and-dried answer, if an answer is even possible

  4. Not all can be thought of as heroes. Haber, of course, is a complicated figure in history. He was a German nationalist who supervised chemical weapons development during WWI. He was known to visit the front to personally supervise the deployment of poison gas weapons. He later had to leave Germany and died in exile in England, because he was a Jew.

    1. It would be nice, and highly beneficial reputationally for science, to see some of these scientists getting proper recognition instead of the “heroes” of sport which seems to be anyone who knows how to find the stadium.

      In modern journalism the standard for a “hero” isn’t very high.

    2. F. Haber being a convinced patriot strenuously supported his country’s war effort during WWI. His wife, a convinced pacifist, opted for suicide.

      1. Including developing design and mass production of war gasses.
        Didn’t his wife top herself after their son was killed in a gas attack? Or am I remembering wrongly?

          1. I read a biography of Haber a while back. What a great example of dueling extremisms (nationalism vs. racism)!

            And what a tragic end …

            Also a clear case of where hard work really paid off. Catalysis is not an easy thing – every time I read about a catalyst I wonder: “how the heck did they think to use *that*?”

  5. Sometimes the saving of lives by science and lots of scientists who did it is controversial but still.
    How about all those who made the atomic bomb.

  6. Fritz Haber perhaps not the best example as he was also crucial in the development of poison gas weapons and their deployment in WW1…

    1. Nevertheless, he belongs on the list. He was a right bastard but that doesn’t change the fact that his co-invention of an industrial-sized process to make ammonia is responsible for the success of 20th century agriculture without which, quite literally, billions would not have lived.

  7. I am waiting for science to save the human race from itself along with our fellow creatures and so far Darwin is still on the job.. as for the others mentioned here, I too have been an ignorant ignoramus. I can think of a benign innovation, the cats eyes on roads and highways, how would calculate that? We have blue ones every so often along the road indicating fire hydrant placement.

    1. That saving you refer to may come with a strange bedfellow: AI or AGI (Artificial General Intelligence).

      With AI will surely come some unexpected outcomes for our species, even those we anticipate will help us survive.

      1. Yep i watched a Sam Harris feed on the subject of AI and it’s going, by the conversation across the panel, to bring it’s own set of problems. Energy and security e.g. food sources, and personal) are big on my list. If we could eliminate some of these concerns and add more education, who knows and it’s not perfect.

  8. Oh but those cancer researchers are just rubbing their hands together maniacally as the dollars roll in for keeping the cancer cure a secret. How they laugh as friends and family die, skipping along in their fancy expensive shoes. 😀

    This is the single stupid believe I get that makes me lose it on FB.

  9. Alan Turing – saved many lives by shortening the war. While not medicine, it was indeed science. Unfortunately theology and bigotry ended a brilliant career far too soon.

    1. Substantial, but probably only a few – let’s be generous and say five – megadeaths.
      Personally, I estimate that to reach a sustainable human pollution will take four to five gigadeaths.

      1. Or, we could do it in one generation without killing anybody if people would just STOP BLOODY REPRODUCING!


        1. The normal problem is, of course, that everybody else carries on breeding. Obviously my breeding isn’t a problem, but everyone else needs to tie a knot in it.

  10. Well, Jerry. I read this as I was waiting to interview a student at your alma mater. I didn’t know her, but I thought I would try out Coyne’s Jenner-Salk-Sabin Test. She was 0 for 3, sad to say. I would have bet money on her knowing Jonas Salk.

  11. Playing devil’s advocate, science and technology has also brought us overpopulation, pollution, loss of biodiversity, climate change etc.

    Sometimes I think we should have wandered around the savannah for another million years before embarking on acquiring technology we cannot control.

    1. And that additional million years on the savannahs without technology (change from ~3 Ma to ~4 Ma would have helped us change our society …. How?
      Your thesis needs elaboration on this point, at least.

    1. “Science also provides the solutions to your list.”
      I do not see the political will to apply any of the solutions while we create more challenges all the time.
      God knows what the effect of AI, nano technology, new military technology etc will be in the near future.

  12. I asked a christian the other day, “how many people do
    you think died because there are no instructions in the
    bible to make a microscope, so one can see the little bugs
    cause disease”. How about other info that is not in there
    that would have alleviated suffering?

  13. The Science Heroes site was new to me. Thanks.

    The standard intro chemstry course will include the Haber process, as an example of the principles governing equilibrium. To this I eventually, after over a decade teaching, had the wit to add his own personal tragdy, the paradox that by enabling Germany to obtain high explosives he made possible the devastation of a far more lengthy war and brutal peace, and all that followed from that, and ofc the Green Revolution which runs on Haber-Bosch nitrogen.

    If students fail to appreciate the social context of science, and how it relates to the most dramatic of historical events, we instructors are much to blame.

    Small point: Haber died in Switzerland, while simultaneously negotiating with Weitzmann the terms of a Professorship he’d been offered in the new Hebrew University, and trying to land a permanent position in Cambridge with the help of Pope, his wartime opposite number.

    1. There’s no indication that a shorter war with (possibly tsarist) Russia still in and annexationist aspirations in France running high would have resulted in a more equitable peace agreement.

  14. I have no numbers and no references upon which to cite nor to back up my statement. And, after beaucoup decades of my simply believing and passing on this invention as The Greatest Over All the Earth Over All of Time, cannot be arsed to find any such citations.

    Nevertheless, since the ordinary manner of human beings’ reproduction is not likely to go away any time within my time, I venture to state that: the three scientists whom Ms Margaret Sanger and Ms Katharine Dexter (McCormick) hired, Dr Gregory Pincus, Dr John Rock and Dr Edris Rice – Wray, to research and to develop this invention — chemical birth control / The Pill — gave to us women a simple choice different than the ones of, O say, … … ever before: abstinence or perpetual baby – bearing.

    Perpetual baby – bearing over the centuries and the millennia has killed a lotta.lotta of one gender. How many saved ? after that invention ? likely bagazillions. Likely more than any other scientists’ inventions.


    ps A whole lotta.lotta in this ‘modern age’ of y2017 ? A whole passel of folks want to — still — take from us this scientific invention AWAY.

    Only thing that I can think of as to why … … that TAKING of theirs ? Religion.

      1. Not mistaken, Ms nicky: Dr Djerassi was a later contributor.

        Laws Worldwide (against even the distribution of birth controlling information) were such that private $, as of Ms Katharine Dexter McCormick’s personal wallet had had to come forth in order to set up — quietly — research laboratories therefor at all.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Combined_oral_contraceptive_pill and public television’s American Experience has, too, a stunning compilation of what had had to go down in order to come up with a chemistry that could even try to) exit the dark of minds: simply called “The Pill.” Intrigue and fascinating f a c t.


      2. If I recall, Djerassi’s contribution was to develop a cheap process – which is not an easy thing. That’s where the yams came in.

        (My father has his memoirs somewhere – they were vaguely in the same two fields of pharmaceuticals and natural products chemistry.)

  15. Good post–an indisputable and well-made point about scientists as the unsung heroes of society. Since you ask, however, there is one other field that comes to mind. How many people recognize the names of Robert E. Sherwood or Charles Brackett or Daniel Taradash? These are just a few of the screenwriters for the Best Pictures you listed recently—respectively, for “Best Years of Our Lives,” “Lost Weekend,” and “From Here to Eternity.” No lives saved here, but definitely a case to be made for them as “benefactors of humanity” who are almost universally “unrecognized.”

  16. Genetics and GMO engineering…
    The great maligned and misunderstood heroes of our times. How many people will avoid starvation and disease as a result of their breakthroughs?

    Criticized on the right for “playing god” and on the left for poisoning us, it must be a thankless job. They could give us everything from a cure for cancer to cultured meat.

    (please pass the in vitro burger!)

  17. My cursory check of the website on Science Heroes did not show the name of
    Edward N. Hines (1870-1938)
    who seems to be the inventor of the center markings on roads (see Wikipedia).
    Every time I drive at night on a country road I am grateful for all the road markings. And I did not know his name until a few minutes ago when the entry on Science Heroes stimulated me to look for the inventor of the center stripe on Wikipedia. I am sure he saved many lives.

  18. The sad story of Ignatz Semmelweiss, who virtually eradicated perpueral fever in his obstretics ward in Vienna by introducing the chlorine hand wash.
    He entered into disputes with his colleagues and professors, was lured into an asylum where a shuffle arose when he realised the plan was to lock him up. He died two weeks later from his injuries.
    Only a dozen or so years later was he vindicated by the discoveries of Pasteur and Koch.

    1. While it’s true he became disputatious, this was part of a marked personality change and he became disinhibited with uncharacteristic promiscuity and drinking. Neurosyphilis, probably contracted at work, is the leading contender for an explanation.

    2. Nevertheless, he was the guy who discovered that a hand wash reduced perpueral fever to an insignificant level, especially when coming straight from anatomic pathology labs (which caused a mortality rate of well over 30% – and I’ve heard numbers into the nineties in other hospitals of the time).
      The man that “..[had] obstetricians simply wash their hands.” our host mentioned.
      I do not think he was suffering from neurosyphilis, or at least did not show clear symptoms. That was a slander used by his opponents, no evidence at all.
      Of course, if women are dying in droves because of preventable reasons (which he discovered), one would get irreverent. He was not really disinhibited, just furious at the established academic ‘authorities’ who refused to heed his evidence based recommendations. They indeed were the ‘murderers’ he called them.
      Semmelweiss remains one of my heroes, and often think when washing my hands: “all this antiseptic washing is due to old Ignatz”.

      1. And I often ask my nurses “Why do you wash your hands? Do you have any idea who invented that?”
        And then I can tell the dramatic and tragic story of Ignatz Semmelweiss. There sometimes is majesty in tragedy.

  19. Scientists are the unrecognized benefactors of humanity. How many laypeople will recognize the name of Fritz Haber or Karl Bosch? Togetether they’re estimated to have saved over a billion lives. What about Norman Borlaug? He saved over 259 million lives. Ann Holloway, Samuel Katz, Kevin McCarthy, Milan Milovanovic, Anna Mitus, and Thomas Peebles? Together—over 100 million lives. Andreas Gruetzig? 15,400,000 lives. These people invented synthetic fertilizers, new breeds of wheat, measles vaccines, angioplasty, and so on.

    Meh – where’s my hoverboard?!?

  20. Not only is it often difficult to give numbers, also the actual contribution is not always very clear, especially if the contributions are indirect, such as, say, Louis Pasteur’s. And could Pasteurs work have been done without Anthony van Leeuwenhoek and Robert Hooke inventing microscope?
    What about Ronald Ross who discovered that malaria was transmitted by mosquitoes? Did that knowledge not save millions too?
    And then, not just saving life, but the quality of life should also not be forgotten
    Hemholz (and in a sense Purkinje) inventing the ophthalmoscope and Harold Ridley inventing the implant lens for cataract surgery?
    The site is a good first step, but it needs lots and lots more inputs and work.
    (I knew about e.g. Borlaugh, Sabin and Salk, Jenner, Florey and Chaine, but many people were ‘new’ to me, such as Halin and Bohlin).

    1. Did you know that about 70% of our sensory receptors are visual ones?
      Should we not sing praise of Rudolf Kloti and Robert Machemer who invented pars plana vitrectomy? Of Charles Kelman who invented phaco-emulsification with ultrasound for cataract surgery? Or, more recently, Marie-Jose Tassignon who developed the “Bag in Lens” concept?

    1. Well, here in SA the ‘paleo diet’ is called the Banting diet. Tim Noakes, a sports nutrition professor, has been promoting it seriously (apart from my wine habit, I am following that diet myself, but that is because of GORD)
      I do not think it “saved” many lives, but do think it prolonged many lives. Well, in the end, since we all die, nothing actually ‘saves’ lives, just prevents premature death.
      I mean, a measles vaccination may save about 60 to 70 years, a prostate cancer treatment about, say, 5?
      So, things that saves young lives (like vaccination or ORS) should be weighed more heavily than things that saves ‘old’ lives (such as bypass surgery)? Number of years saved?

    1. Ozone depletion, yes, a ‘not fulfilled prophecy’, since their work was instrumental in preventing disaster.
      However, they are not unsung heroes. I’m not sure about Molina, but Sherwood Rowland is a Nobel laureate.

  21. I’m pro-science but I’d say that science is or will become the biggest cause of human death ever.

    The number of human deaths is proportional to the number of human lives.

    The only way to end the problem of human deaths is to kill all the humans.

    1. “The only way to end the problem of human deaths is to kill all the humans”

      Don’t think that is true.

      Overcoming death is a scientific problem and will probably be solved by us humans somewhere in the future; i.e. we have no reason to believe the problem of death is insolvable.

      Your reasoning is not totally wrong 🙂

      Every saved human will be the cause of immense harm/death for other animals.

      But this also can be solved by science.

  22. When I taught biology, my favorites were Jenner and Lister.

    Today, having worked in more than 15 countries, I would claim that urban public water-supply engineering has saved the most years of potential life.

    In developing countries the main technical factors in reducing pathogen load seem to be: 1.maintaining 24-hour pressure in pipes. 2.Adequate chlorination at the users’ taps.

    See Wikipedia: years of potential life lost, or disability-adjusted life year

  23. Isaac Newton saved countless people who may thoughtlessly sit under an apple tree and be struck on the noggin by the fruit, as happened apparently in the Garden of Eden.

  24. Who knows, maybe Allan Savoury, with his holistic farming model, based on natural population dynamics, maybe a future hero?
    I noted his detractors never are farmers, but his supporters, almost to a man, are.

  25. Jerry, this is about the most positive and stimulating post I’ve ever read, here on this site or any other. Great.
    I do not want to infringe “Da Roolz”, but just thank you and encourage you to do more of this.

  26. Then ? How many lives sav__, er I mean, … … LOST ? !

    Then there is this dude — and his nutzo invention to glue, during menses, COMPLETELY shut THE LABIA. Seriously. https://goo.gl/tujUq2

    Typical from outta Tornado Alley, not ? or, at the least, from out of the Dark of (Some) Minds !


  27. Up to now, I was under the impression that MBA/JD Romneyesque venture capitalist corporate CEO/investor types were the saviors of mankind. Or so these types have let on and would like one to believe.

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