Exploring Human Potential

Is There a “Famous Trio” in Human Science For the 21st Century?

Posted on | February 10, 2022 | 2 Comments

Mike Magee

Yale historian, Frank M. Snowden wisely notes in his 2020 book, “Epidemics and Society”, that “We must avoid the pitfall of believing the driver of scientific knowledge is ever a single genius working alone.”

To make his point, Snowden tells the story of what he terms “The Famous Trio” – three different scientists of the 19th century, who together launched and solidified ,“The Germ Theory” .

The first of the three was Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) a chemist with a sharp eye and mind. He had been hired to find a solution for wine and milk that was spoiling too fast. The tools he wielded were mostly observational, including a still primitive microscope. With it Pasteur was able to identify putrefying microbes as causal, but went two steps further. He noted that a heating process killed the microbes and halted the product putrefaction, and tied the microscopic organisms to specific human diseases. With this knowledge, he unveiled a commercial process of serial attenuation of disease causing microbes that allowed safe inoculation of humans and acquired immunity.

The second was Robert Koch (1834-1910), a physician 20 years younger than Pasteur. While studying Anthrax at the University of Gottingen, he visualized the large causative bacteria, introduced it into a lab animal, and reproduced the disease. Going one step further, he described resistant spores of the bacteria, identified them in grazing fields, and proved that eating grass laden with spores could spread Anthrax between animals. His careful investigative approach led to the uncovering of the etiology of tuberculosis and to “Koch’s Postulates”, four steps still in place today, which when followed, constitute laboratory based scientific proof of a theory. Beyond this, Koch was a technology innovator, teaming up with the Carl Zeiss optical company, whose lenses, in combination with specialized tissue stains and fixed culture mediums, allowed Koch to visualize and describe M. tuberculosis.

The third innovator was Joseph Lister (1827-1912), a professor of surgery at Edinburgh. Thanks to the development of ether and nitrous oxide in the 1840s, pain management intra-operatively was under partial control. Improving techniques and tools helped control blood loss. But post-operative infection remained a persistent and deadly threat. Viewing the work of Pasteur and Koch, Lister recognized the possibility that contamination with microbes might be the cause. In carefully designed studies employing hand scrubbing, sterilization of tools, and spraying the patient with carbolic acid, rates of post-operative sepsis declined. Other colleagues added sterile gowns, gloves and masks, merging these added measures with Lister’s support.

Arguably, the life-saving “Germ Theory” was the work product of complimentary insights and serial incremental progress. Can the same be said of the pharmaceutical industry whose outsize profitability owes much to a fascination with “me-too” drug production and direct-to-consumer marketing? It might also be reasonable to ask, of the $29 billion funded 729 digital health tech US-based startups in 2021, how many represent additive and progressive insights that might eventually lead to game-changing advances in the health of America?

Is there a “Famous Trio” in human science for the 21st century in the making? Who are they, and how do they complement each other?


2 Responses to “Is There a “Famous Trio” in Human Science For the 21st Century?”

  1. Lavanafamilydental
    February 16th, 2022 @ 2:41 am

    thanks for sharing such a useful information.

  2. Mike Magee
    February 16th, 2022 @ 9:08 am

    Thank you!

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