Right Question

Asking the right question is usually more productive than trying to prove the right answer.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Greatest Modern Benefactors of Mankind

In response to the recent political best-seller 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America, a blogger-from-the-left recently posted on 1000 People Making the World a Better Place. This is a wonderful idea. But the more I read, the more I realized I wasn't going to like the list she was making -- high marks to activists protesting to get cheap AIDS drugs for the third world, but no credit to those who developed such drugs; high marks to Lance Armstrong for his inspirational victory over cancer, but no credit to the doctors who developed the drugs that made this possible; I could go on, but: Barbara Boxer, Michael Moore, and Cindy Sheehan really say it all.

Criteria and Eligibility -- It's tempting to limit the list to those alive and working right now, to avoid prolonged debates about whether Ghengis Khan should get credit for the Renaissance and Enlightenment (via opening the silk road to Marco Polo), and yet it's impossible to fairly judge how much future benefit will accrue from someone's actions now. Most public policy debates center around precisely this kind of disagreement, and there's no point in rehashing those here. So here are my (somewhat arbitrary) eligibility requirements: the work being credited must have taken place within the last fifty years, and not primarily within the last five. As to criteria, I'm looking for concrete benefits to mankind -- lives saved, people freed, disaster averted. And the benefit must already occurred (though it may be ongoing) and has to be demonstrably the consequence of the nominee's actions.

I open the floor to nominations of those producing such Great (concrete) Benefits to Mankind between 1955 and 2000.

A few nominees to "prime the pump":

  • Norman Borlaug- for improvements to wheat, primarily in the 1960's, saving hundreds of millions of people (at least) from starvation. Further reading: the Nobel Peace Prize, Reason Magazine, and his own Foundation.

  • Barnett Rosenberg- for the serendipitous (i.e. alert and diligent) discovery in 1965 of cis-platinum, perhaps the most successful chemotherapy drug in history; still saving many thousands of cancer victims every year in the U.S. alone. Further reading: American Urological Association.

  • Mikhail Gorbachev- for presiding over the fall of the Soviet Union without the massive explosion of violence which could easily have attended such an event.


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