Competitive, Weird, Elegant, Expensive, Deeply Human Science
On his website, Thomas Hager writes, “Modern medicine was born in 1932, when a selfless doctor in Nazi Germany used patience, brains, a completely mistaken idea, and some extraordinary luck to discover the world’s first miracle drug.” During a talk that aired on BookTV today (watch), Hager reminded us about a type of medical singularity that happened just 75 years ago.
Hager explained that, as baby boomers, many of us are the first generation in human history to have benefited from ready access to medicines that actually cure things. For all of previous human history, this was not the case. Think about that for a moment; to me, it’s barely imaginable. Yet, Hager reminds that prior to the discovery of sulfonamides (sulfa), physicians were purely palliative practitioners, utterly powerless to cure anything whatsoever, for the previous entirety of human history.
Just 75 years ago, all that changed, virtually overnight.
By way of contrasting two historical events; namely, the tragic loss in 1924 of a young Calvin Coolidge Jr. to a blood infection contracted via a trivially common blister on his toe, followed by the seemingly miraculous pharmaceutical healing of FDR’s son just 12 years later, Hager reminds readers that many of us have already lived through a kind of pharmaceutical singularity that even the brightest minds of earlier centuries could not have imagined.
This raises some potentially interesting questions. Are there relevant lessons to be learned from this particular historical inflection point? Are there strategies to be gleaned that might help us to noodle out new ways of glimpsing beyond the seemingly impervious event horizon of a technological singularity? Or, at the very least, to help us engage in more credible scenario development beyond the point which common sense might otherwise persuade us of the futility of such exercises?
Similar to Kurzweil’s observations of technological acceleration, are there similar mini-singularities throughout history, scientific inflection points like the discovery of sulfa drugs, from which we might discern patterns that would further inform and improve our planning and foresight capabilities?
These might be interesting questions for History of Technology practitioners and armchair futurists. However, in light of recent developments, such as emergent bacterium strains that are utterly resistant to all the antibiotics in common use, today – namely, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and Vancomycin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (VRSA) – they might be absolutely crucial questions for public policy and health planning professionals.