As Anthony Fauci, MD, long-time head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), emerged as the voice of reason and expertise during the pandemic, my husband Larry and I and our nerd friends have been thrilled to witness a public resurgence of respect for scientists. It’s been a long time coming.
So while we’ve been hibernating, I gave Larry the assignment of researching other scientific figures who’ve captured the public’s attention and inspired kids like us to pursue careers in science. In the early 20th century, Marie Curie and Albert Einstein were the scientist icons. Larry came up with an intriguing group of more recent vintage.
In the 1950s the fear was another virus, poliovirus, which left President Franklin D. Roosevelt noticeably disabled. Jonas Salk, at the University of Pittsburgh, did something that couldn’t happen today. To allay concerns about the safety of his new polio vaccine, he very publicly vaccinated his own children. After that, thousands of people volunteered to take part in the first polio vaccine clinical trials because of the well-known terrible consequences of rare severe cases: paralysis, difficulty breathing, even death. Salk remained a much-admired public figure for the rest of his life.
Space, the Final Frontier
A decade after conquering polio, it wasn’t a person who captured the attention of future scientists, but a Russian-made satellite, Sputnik, which “beep-beep-beeped” around the Earth every eighteen minutes. In this era of the Cold War, Americans concerned over the “Soviet menace” suddenly found themselves in second place in the “space race.” Kids picked up on the rivalry – it was hard to miss.
At first, we tried to keep up with the Russians, but we were always a step behind. They had Sputnik, so we launched Explorer 1. Then they put a dog in space. Just as we were about to a launch a monkey, Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space, orbiting the earth and returning safely.
NASA, established in 1957, hustled to find and train the men who would be groomed into the Mercury astronauts. To Americans, especially the young, these first seven astronauts became superstars. Although they were military pilots and not scientists, they all acquired high levels of technical and engineering skills to operate complex machinery and technology in orbit and in space.
The astronauts graced the covers of magazines. They returned to earth and headed to ticker tape parades held in their honor. And they inspired an entire generation of future scientists and engineers.
Silent Spring and Rachel Carson
While the astronauts were making splashes and splashdowns in the 1960s, Rachel Carson was quietly starting a revolution.
Early in her career Carson was a marine biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. She was also a talented writer, publishing frequent articles and lecturing about the environment. She regarded her books as “field guides” but they were much more, her riveting writing revealing the interconnectedness of life.
Carson captured the public imagination. In the 1950s a series of bestselling books established her as a formidable defender of the environment.
But it was Silent Spring, published in 1962, that became the bible of the environmental movement. Carson’s book warned about the dangerous effects of pesticides, like DDT, on fish and birds:
From small beginnings over farmlands and forests the scope of aerial spraying has widened and its volume has increased so that it has become what a British ecologist recently called ‘an amazing rain of death upon the surface of the earth.’ Our attitude toward poisons has undergone a subtle change. Once they were kept in containers marked with skull and crossbones; the infrequent occasions of their use were marked with utmost care that they should come in contact with the target and with nothing else. With the development of the new organic insecticides (by organic she means carbon-containing, the original, scientific definition) and the abundance of surplus planes after the Second World War, all this was forgotten. Not only the target insect or plant, but anything within range of the chemical fallout may know the sinister touch of the poison.” (Chapter 10, Silent Spring)
Carson died of breast cancer only two years after Silent Spring was published, but her message reverberates to this day. In Carson’s lyrical works lie the seeds of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.
Millions and Millions Watched Carl Sagan
In the 1980s, Carl Sagan became the first scientist to come into people’s living rooms, making astronomy and other expansive topics cool and understandable. What was the big bang? How did life begin and where did we come from?
Hundreds of millions tuned in to Sagan’s 13-part PBS television show Cosmos in 1980.
A good measure of a scientist’s reach is late night entertainment, and Sagan became a regular guest on Johnny Carson’s (no relation to Rachel) Tonight Show. It was a little like how today we await Dr. Fauci adding facts and data of science to presidential news conferences. When Johnny Carson parodied Carl Sagan’s famous “billions and billions of galaxies,” everyone got the joke. In 2013 Sagan’s papers and notes became available from the U.S. Library of Congress.
Stephen Hawking Inspired
Stephen Hawking was an unlikely superstar. The theoretical physicist developed symptoms of ALS in his twenties and gradually lost his ability to move and speak. To many of his fans, their only image of Hawking was the frozen body in his wheelchair, their only audio experience the computer-generated voice that enabled Hawking to speak. Yet trapped within that body was a great mind.
Hawking seemed to take over where Einstein left off, tackling the hardest questions. His A Brief History of Time was a huge success and helped popularize topics like black holes, the expanding universe, and gravity, previously the province only of those trained in high-level mathematics. Thanks to Hawking, the average person could think about event horizons and the unified theory of the universe. He also taught the world that what we perceive as a devastating disability doesn’t have to be either devastating or a disability.
Dr. Fauci has been open with the media and public since the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic, through bioterror fears post 9-11, through at least six viral epidemics, and serving six administrations. Like Jonas Salk, the Mercury astronauts, Rachel Carson, Carl Sagan, and Stephen Hawking, Dr. Fauci’s legacy will be a new generation of scientists. Some of them will stand up to the epidemics and pandemics to come. (Thank you Larry!)