9Health and Longevity

The Second Most Important Event in the History of the World

In Chapter 7, “The Great Enrichment: 1750 to Today,” I noted Deirdre McCloskey’s comment that the Industrial Revolution was the most important event in the history of the world. There are many who agree with her. It’s supremely important because it set off an era of self-sustaining economic growth, starting in northwestern Europe and spreading outward, that continues to this day.

Here’s the second most important event. In March 1942, reported the New York Times,

Anne Sheafe Miller . . . was near death at New Haven Hospital suffering from a streptococcal infection. . . . She had been hospitalized for a month, often delirious with her temperature spiking to nearly 107, while doctors tried everything available, including sulfa drugs, blood transfusions and surgery. All failed.

As she slipped in and out of consciousness, her desperate doctors obtained a tiny amount of what was still an obscure, experimental drug and injected her with it.1

“Within about a day,” writes Lily Rothman in Time, “her temperature was back to normal. Miller was cured.”2

Thanks to this first clinical use of penicillin, Anne Miller lived for 57 more years, enjoyed a productive life as a nurse and the wife of a school headmaster, and died in 1999 at the age of 90.

Why was it only the second most important event? Because the Industrial Revolution set in motion the processes that would make the discovery of penicillin and ...

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