In the early 1950s, the only thing scarier than the threat of nuclear war was the annual return of polio — an easily-spread, incurable disease that causes nerve damage, paralysis, and sometimes death. At the first sign of an outbreak, public hot spots like theaters and swimming pools would close up immediately.
One of the worst polio epidemics in the United States struck in 1952, a few years into the postwar baby boom. Polio is more likely to infect children than adults, so the race to create a vaccine reached a fever pitch.
Most researchers were looking into live-virus vaccines, which had worked nicely for smallpox and rabies and become the standard approach. But Jonas Salk, a medical researcher and budding virologist, was keen on the idea of safer, killed-virus vaccines. He believed the same principle would work for polio, and he was right. Within a few years of developing his vaccine, the number of polio cases in the United States dropped from ~29,000 in 1955 to less than 6,000 in 1957. By 1979, polio had been eradicated in the US.
Jonas Salk is one of science’s folk heroes. The polio vaccine was actually his sophomore effort — he and Thomas Francis developed the first influenza vaccine in the 1940s. And he didn’t stop with polio, either. Toward the end of his life, Salk was working on an AIDS vaccine.
In the late nineteenth century, there was only one Earthly frontier left to discover: the North Pole. Many men had died or gone insane trying to reach 90°N, which, unlike the solidly continental South Pole, hides within a shifting polar sea.
One of history’s most driven Pole-seekers, Robert Peary, shocked the world when he announced that his wife Josephine would accompany him on his expedition to Greenland. The world responded, saying that she, a Washington socialite with no specialized training, had absolutely no business going there. But if it weren’t for Jo’s contributions, Robert would probably have never made it to the Pole, or even out of Greenland. Sewing and cooking skills may not seem like much, but they are vital for surviving in the Arctic climate. She also hunted, and managed the group’s Inuit employees.
Josephine Peary was more than just the woman behind the man. An Arctic explorer in her own right, she spent three winters and eight summers on the harsh and unforgiving frontier. Back at home, her Arctic accounts painted a picture of a frozen and far-off world that most could only wonder about. Jo’s writing career brought in expedition money for her husband, which sometimes turned into bailout money.
Woman About Washington
Josephine Cecilia Diebitsch was born May 22nd, 1863 to German immigrant parents who encouraged her to explore the world. Her father, Hermann, was a linguist at the Smithsonian Institute. Because of his position, the Diebitsch family rubbed elbows with much of high society. Though Jo was raised to be a Victorian lady and upheld those values, she had progressive ideas about what women could do with themselves in addition to being wives and mothers. Continue reading “Josephine Peary, First Lady Of The Arctic”→
In my youth I worked for a paid ambulance service, and while we all lived for the emergency calls, the routine transports were the calls that paid the bills. Compared with the glamor and excitement of a lights-and-siren run to a car wreck or heart attack, transports were dull as dirt. And dullest of all were the daily runs from nursing homes to the dialysis center, where rows of comfy chairs sat, each before a refrigerator-sized machine designed to filter the blood of a patient in renal failure, giving them another few days of life.
Sadly, most of those patients were doomed; many were in need of a kidney transplant for which there was no suitable donor, while some were simply not candidates for transplantation. Dialysis was literally all that stood between them and a slow, painful death, and I could see that at least some of them were cheered by the sight of the waiting dialysis machine. The principles of how the kidneys work have been known since at least the 1800s, but it would take until 1945 for the efforts of a Dutch doctor, using used car parts and sausage casings, to make the predecessor of those machines: the first artificial kidney.
Few people sacrifice themselves as completely as Dian Fossey did for the mountain gorillas of Africa. She fought tirelessly to protect them from poachers, cattle herders, zoo kidnappers, corrupt governments, and tourists. Dian left a comfortable life behind to make the misty slopes of an extinct volcano her home and headquarters. There, she patiently sought out the gorillas, mimicking their facial expressions and actions until they grew curious about her. Eventually, she had their complete trust and friendship, and considered them her family.
Dian spent eighteen years on and off living among the gorillas. She continually risked her health, life, and reputation to raise awareness of their plight and save them from extinction. While the mountain gorilla remains an endangered species, Dian’s research and conservation efforts have greatly contributed to their increased population in the years since her death.
You may not know the name Abraham Wald, but he has a very valuable lesson you can apply to problem solving, engineering, and many other parts of life. Wald worked for the Statistical Research Group (SRG) during World War II. This was part of a top secret organization in the United States that applied elite mathematical talent to help the allies win the war. Near Columbia University, mathematicians and computers — the human kind — worked on problems ranging from how to keep an enemy plane under fire longer to optimal bombing patterns.
One of Wald’s ways to approach problem was to look beyond the data in front of him. He was looking for things that weren’t there, using their absence as an additional data point. It is easy to critique things that are present but incorrect. It is harder to see things that are missing. But the end results of this technique were profound and present an object lesson we can still draw from today.
In the fall of 1957, it seemed as though the United States’ space program would never get off the ground. The USSR had launched Sputnik in October, and this cemented their place in history as the first nation in space. If that weren’t bad enough, they put Sputnik 2 into orbit a month later.
By Christmas, things looked even worse. The US had twice tried to launch Navy-designed Vanguard rockets, and both were spectacular failures. It was time to use their ace in the hole: the Redstone rocket, a direct descendant of the V-2s designed during WWII. The only problem was the propellant. It would never get the payload into orbit as-is.
The US Army awarded a contract to North American Aviation (NAA) to find a propellant that would do the job. But there was a catch: it was too late to make any changes to the engine’s design, so they had to work with big limitations. Oh, and the Army needed it two days before yesterday.
The Army sent a Colonel to NAA to deliver the contract, and to personally insist that they put their very best man on the job. And they did. What the Army didn’t count on was that NAA’s best man was actually a woman with no college degree.
Engineering isn’t just about inventing new things. Sometimes, it is all about doing things better, cheaper and faster. That was what Elsie MacGill did for the “Hurricane” fighter plane in World War II, earning her the nickname of “Queen of the Hurricanes”.