In “How We Got To Now,” Steven Johnson makes an interesting connection between germ theory and gender equality. In the epidemic ridden early 1800s, few made the connection between bad water and disease.
Many advances helped our ancestors make that connection. And, prime among them was germ theory. Thanks to scientists like Ignaz Semmelwies, Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur, we connected germs with disease. Once we did that, the next step was to rid water of germs. And, in one of the riskiest experiments in history, John Leal tested the effects of adding small amounts of Chlorine on the New Jersey water supply without asking anyone for permission. John Leal was a Health Officer at the time. As a physician trained in bacteriology, he was sure a small amount of Chlorine would help eliminate germs. But, it was still a huge risk. And, it paid off.
In one of the most wonderful displays of magnanimity, Leal didn’t patent his idea or attempt to commercialize it in anyway. It was free to spread around the world and it ended up saving millions of lives over time.
A side effect of these steps forward was the creation of swimming pools. And, with the creation of swimming pools came bathing suits. This, in turn, led to a reinvention of attitudes toward the female body. There were multiple other factors that contributed to these change in attitudes – hollywood, mid century feminism, etc. – but few consider the massive effect that clean drinking water had on gender equality.
I’ve been reflecting on this flow of events as it is one I find very powerful. First, I think this is a great illustration of how progress is often so non-linear. It is very hard to make the connection between gender equality and clean drinking water. And, yet, there exists one. It illustrates why progress at a societal level is so hard. After all, there are so many hidden variables that we don’t really understand or control. And, suggesting that we might solve tough societal problems by pulling one or two big levers is naive.
Second, when we look back at human history, we celebrate the likes of the Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein. As we should. But, we should also make space to celebrate the many human beings who, for various reasons, didn’t become immortalized despite their incredible work. Leal, Semmelweiss, Koch, Pasteur and co., combined probably saved more lives than any other human team. Here’s to their incredible work.
We really do walk on the shoulders of giants.