I once wrote a letter to Dr. Gertrude Elion, the lady who won the Nobel Prize for developing the drugs that cure leukemia 80% of the time, and helping develop the drugs that suppress the immune system enough doctors can transplant organs without the body rejecting them. Quite an accomplishment for a lifetime. I thanked her for saving my son's life. The only thing you could do before about 1960, if your child got leukemia, was start shopping for a short white coffin. She wrote back, saying she got two dozen letters like mine a year, and she valued them more than the gold medal the King of Sweden gave her.
Dr. Elion was Jewish. Every time one of our kids did a history unit on the Holocaust, I mentioned Dr. Elion and asked them if the teacher told the class how they personally suffered. No, they always said, the general attitude was that it was a tragedy for the Jews and we are working to see it never happens again. But, I said, I'll bet dollars to donuts that someone in you school, or someone's parents, had a relative, neighbor or friend who died of something that would have been cured in 1955 if the Jew who was going to discover the cure hadn't died in the ovens at Dachau.
Dr. Salk and Dr. Sabin were Jewish too. They developed two different polio vaccines. Many of the women who have won Nobel prizes in the sciences have been Jewish. Given their track record and tradition of scholarship, it seems awfully likely that the whole world lost something in the concentration camps.
That's major point one - that the Holocaust affected us all. If you go from that specific to the general - other lost discoveries - you have to think about women and African- Americans.
Up until the middle to late twentieth century there wasn't a whole lot of incentive to get a college degree if your skin was black, since the diploma would look silly hanging in the back of your shoe shine stand. It was ten times harder for an African-American to get into college than it was for whites, and when you did graduate the job market was ten times smaller. Why bother? Give up your dreams, get a steady job doing manual labor and stop hoping. African-Americans accounted for eight to twelve percent of our population from the 1840's on.
Women were half of our population from the start. They didn't go to college in any great numbers either, until the middle 1900's; they stayed home, got pregnant and cooked.
It's true that you don't need a college education to accomplish something; Thomas Alva Edison didn't have one. Substitute "Get a job or even be taken seriously as an inventor, scientist, engineer, researcher" in the paragraphs above, and the answer is still the same; no women or blacks need apply.
(Yes, there were rare exceptions.)
That means over half of our population - all the African-Americans, men or women and the white women - didn't get a chance to help in the flood of progress. So here we are, the most innovative nation in the world, pumping out the cotton gin, interchangeable musket parts, the vaccine for yellow fever, the incandescent light bulb, the assembly line, building the Panama Canal - and My God! In the V-8 engine of progress, we're only firing on four cylinders! (3.60, if you want to estimate to two decimal places, and figuring 5% of the population was African-American women.)
How much more would we have done in the last two centuries, how many lives would have been saved, if people of any color or any sex could have become researchers and inventors? How many diseases would be left, how many little daily nuisances swept away by a gadget? Prejudice hurts us all.
[Written November 2008]
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