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Web site celebrates often unknown scientists who have saved lives

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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Who are the most famous scientists you know? Maybe Thomas Edison is one. How about Galileo or Charles Darwin? These men are considered, in order, the fathers of electricity, astronomy and evolution.

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The new Web site http://www.scienceheroes.com looks at scientists by another measurement: how many lives they've saved. The list of mostly medical scientists contains many fascinating and inspiring stories that deserve to be publicized.

"This type of Web site gives students a human face, if you will, to an actual science career," said Francis Eberle, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. "This makes learning science more real."

Here are some of the largely unknown but remarkable scientists found on the site.

-- Margaret Webb Pressler

Karl Landsteiner (According to the Web site, he has saved more than more than 1 billion lives): In 1901, this Austrian scientist figured out that there are four types of human blood, A, B, AB and O, and some of them cannot be safely mixed with each other. His discovery allowed patients to safely receive another person's blood during surgery.

Edward Jenner (122 million lives saved): In the late 1700s, this English doctor wondered if farmers were less likely to get smallpox because they were often exposed to cowpox, a version of the disease. He tested it by infecting a child with cowpox first and later with smallpox -- and the boy didn't get sick. The cowpox had trained his body to fight off smallpox. It was the first vaccine! Smallpox has been eliminated worldwide.

Pearl Kendrick and Grace Eldering (13.3 million lives saved): During the Great Depression, there was no money to research a vaccine for whooping cough, a disease that killed more than 6,000 children a year. The doctors worked for no pay, doing experiments and tests to create a vaccine that has been used on children since the 1940s.

Alfred Sommer (6.3 million lives saved): This professor of ophthalmology (the study of the eyes) at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore studied Vitamin A deficiency. He noticed that kids with low levels of Vitamin A not only went blind, they also died more often from other illnesses. Because of his research, Vitamin A supplements are one of the most effective health programs in the world.

André Briend (1.9 million lives saved): This French pediatrician spent time in Africa treating malnourished children, then noticed a jar of Nutella, the chocolate-hazelnut spread, on his kitchen table and had an idea. He developed a product called Plumpy'nut, a high-calorie, sweet, peanut-based, paste with added vitamins and minerals. It was first used in Africa in 1999, and even children near death from starvation recovered quickly by eating the paste. It is widely used to treat malnutrition.

Alfred Blalock (160,000 lives saved): This surgeon developed a way to treat a heart defect called tetralogy of Fallot (tet-TRAH-logy of fal-LOH), a condition that prevents a child's blood from getting enough oxygen from the lungs. Most babies born with the condition used to die before age 10. Blalock tested the surgical technique on a 15-month-old girl in the first-ever open heart surgery, performed at Johns Hopkins in 1944. His technique is still used today.


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