Virginia Postrel

Wiki Contributions


The Art of Medical Progress

Since you've highlighted the women in these paintings, it's worth noting that one of the first scientific studies advocating the use of masks in surgery was written by Alice Hamilton, a Chicago physician, in 1905. Quoting my article here (it may be paywalled):

In 1905, Chicago physician Alice Hamilton publishes an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, reporting on experiments measuring the amount of streptococci bacteria expelled when scarlet fever patients cough or cry. She also measures the strep bacteria from healthy doctors and nurses when they talk or cough, leading her to recommend masks during surgery.

“I was told by a student in a large medical college in Chicago,” she writes, “that he had often noticed at the clinics of a certain surgeon that, when the light was from a certain direction, he could see, from his seat in the amphitheater, a continuous spray of saliva coming from the mouth of the surgeon while he discoursed to the class and conducted his operation. Obviously, protection of the mouth, of some sort as to catch and impression the droplets of sputum, should be a routine precaution for surgeons and for surgical nurses during operations.”

A Catalog of Big Visions for Biology

There's also the cultural pushback--the ick factor, the Frankenstein fear, Leon Kass's "wisdom of repugnance"--against anything too big in biology. People find big biological dreams much creepier than big dreams involving inanimate objects.

A Catalog of Big Visions for Biology

I suspect the day-to-day tedium (or perceived tedium) of biology turns off more people than a lack of big-picture dreams. Suppose you dream of regrowing limbs. How will you actually be spending your days?

Maybe a little bit of naïveté is good.

In 1991, economic historian John Nye published an article called "Lucky Fools," which I wrote about in the wake of the dot-com bust (remember that?):

The paper is hard to get online, so I'll quote myself:

Suppose we think of "the entrepreneur as the valiant, but overoptimistic investor rather than the heroic seer," he wrote. In this story, entrepreneurs miscalculate their odds of success. They start more businesses than they should, but those mistakes lead to social benefits....

If the few big wins cancel out the many losses, starting a business would be a risky, but rational, bet -- the sort of investment a "cautious businessman" might make. But Professor Nye argued that the wins and the losses probably don't cancel out. Even the biggest winners don't make enough money personally to cover the losses of all the individuals who went into businesses that failed.

The big winners are usually people who, based on rational calculations, shouldn't have bet their time, money and ideas. They overestimated their chances of striking it rich. But they were lucky and beat the odds.

Even more important, the lucky fools create huge spillover benefits for society: new sources of wealth, new jobs, new industries offering less-risky opportunities, new technologies that improve life. Entrepreneurship does generate net gains, but most of those gains don't go to the risk-takers. The gains are spread out to the rest of us. Capitalism, in this view, works by exploiting the capitalists themselves.

"We depend upon people continuing to open up new businesses for the success of industry and of the economy and for our health and well-being," Professor Nye said in an interview. "But on the whole it probably doesn't make sense for the average person to open up a business. Hence, the lucky-fools phenomenon."