Extra Life Book Summary - Extra Life Book explained in key points
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Extra Life summary

Steven Johnson

A Short History of Living Longer

4.4 (56 ratings)
19 mins
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    Extra Life
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    Vaccination was a world-changing idea – but it wasn’t entirely unprecedented.

    We all like the idea of eureka moments. It’s appealing to imagine a single instant that inspires some lone genius to push through a mental impasse. But earth-shattering ideas don’t always come because an apple falls or a bath overspills. Things are usually a bit more complicated.

    You might have heard how the practice of vaccination was first invented, for example. A country doctor named Edward Jenner noticed that milkmaids contracted a dangerous disease called smallpox a lot less frequently than other people. The cause, he figured, was that they’d already acquired immunity to a similar but far less threatening disease: cowpox. 

    This discovery got Jenner thinking, and he decided to deliberately infect a child with cowpox – giving the boy a temporary fever, but also lifelong immunity to smallpox. And that was the first vaccination. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, there’s much more to the story.

    The key message here is: Vaccination was a world-changing idea – but it wasn’t entirely unprecedented.

    Vaccination was unheard of when Jenner conducted his first experiment. But the similar process of inoculation had been in use in Asia for quite some time – perhaps for millennia. When applied to smallpox – variola major, to use the technical term – this process is called variolation

    There’s a difference between inoculation and vaccination. Vaccination normally makes use of a similar but less harmful disease in order to induce immunity. Inoculation – and variolation – involves deliberately infecting people with live strains of the real virus. By current medical standards, some of these methods were quite unorthodox. 

    In China, for example, doctors who fought smallpox took scabs from recovering patients, ground them into a powder, and blew them up the nose of any patient who wanted to be inoculated. It sounds strange, sure, but the principle was sound. When you expose people to a small amount of the antigen – the infectious matter – you encourage their bodies to produce antibodies, and that fortifies people against future exposure.

    It was an aristocrat named Lady Mary Wortley Montagu who first stoked enthusiasm for the practice in Britain, after encountering it in Constantinople (now known as Istanbul). If she hadn’t been so keen to spread this technique, Jenner might never have struck on his idea decades later.

    By the twentieth century, vaccination had truly come into its own as a global life-saving technique – and by the 1980s, smallpox had been eliminated worldwide. It was a posthumous triumph for Jenner and his technique of vaccination – and also a victory for all of his forerunners.

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    What is Extra Life about?

    Extra Life (2021) looks at some of the breakthroughs that allowed the global human life expectancy to double in just one hundred years. From seat belts to explosives, from Ireland to Constantinople, it’s an account as gripping as it is wide-ranging.

    Who should read Extra Life?

    • History buffs interested in lesser-known tales from times past 
    • Medical nerds fascinated by the history of human health
    • Humanitarians who want to learn from past progress

    About the Author

    Steven Johnson is a science writer and podcast host from Washington, DC. He is a regular contributor to the New York Times, the Financial Times, and the Wall Street Journal. He’s also the author of 13 books, including Emergence and Farsighted.

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