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Most Life Saving Inventions


What are the most life saving inventions?

Life expectancy was 33 years in the Paleolithic hunter-gatherer era of prehistory (from 250,000 BCE-10,000BCE). Life expectancy actually decreased to age 26 with the Neolithic agricultural revolution around 10,000 BCE. Bronze and Iron age life expectancy was also about 26 years. Classical Greece and Rome life expectancy remained at 26 years. Medieval Europe life expectancy declined slightly 25 years. Life expectancy began to increase first in the United Kingdom beginning around 1800 with appearance of some of the most life saving inventions.

Most life saving inventions are medical, agricultural, food preservation, and sanitary.

But even as late as 1900, world life expectancy was only 30 years. Current world life expectancy averages 72 years.

1) Hypodermic needle and all glass syringe –

In 1844, Francis Rynd, Ireland invents the hollow metal needle. Then in1851, Scottish Alexander Wood invents the all glass syringe. Next by I949, the clear, all plastic disposable syringe appears.


in combination with vaccines, antibiotics, parenteral medications, IV fluids, transfusions, aspirations of infections, needle drainage of fluids. The World Health Organization estimates 16 billion human injections occur worldwide every year. Counting livestock and veterinary injections 8 billion injections occur in the US every year. 6.5 billion needle/syringes sell in the US each year.

Hypodermic needle and transparent syringe is the most important medical device ever and the most life saving invention.

Most life saving inventions

2) Small pox vaccination (vaccinations) 1 -2 BILLION LIVES SAVED (9 million/year saved)


In 1777, George Washington orders inoculation of all troops in the Continental Army for smallpox.

English physician Edward Jenner popularized the process of vaccination in Great Britain in 1796. In 1802, Massachusetts becomes the first state in US to endorse vaccination against smallpox. Then in 1806, Thomas Jefferson, after reviewing Jenner’s work, stated, ” Medicine has never before produced any single improvement of such utility.” By 1820, smallpox declined in London by over 50%.

In 1853, mandatory infant vaccination against smallpox ordered in UK.

Bifurcated needle (1965) used for administering the small pox vaccine 15 punctures with disposable bifurcated needle for smallpox. **estimated 500 million died in the 20th century from smallpox, 50% infected died, over 80% children died from smallpox infection. In 1980, one of humanity’s most deadly diseases, eradication occurred with smallpox. Vaccinations prevent or help prevent 25 common infections. Vaccination is the second of the most life saving inventions.

3) Sanitation engineering (toilets) 1 BILLION LIVES SAVED

1/3 of world does not have access to toilets. 1.5 million children die each year due to inadequate toilet facilities.

In 2000 BCE, Indus River civilization develops toilets and a sewage system. Then in 100 AD, wealthy Egyptians used containers of sand not unlike cat litter then emptied by slaves. In 1596, John Harrington invents a flushing toilet but the idea is little used.

Next, in 1775, first patent for a flushing toilet issued in UK to Alexander Cummings.

Prior to 1850, chamber pots and holes in the ground were the only toilets.

In 1852, first modern toilets open.

In 1857, toilet paper goes on sale in USA. Then in1884, first pedestal toilet begins sale. By 1928, toilet paper rolls go on sale in Europe.

Sanitation engineering is the third of the most life saving inventions.

4) Blood transfusion 1 BILLION LIVES SAVED

In 1628, William Harvey describes the circulation of blood. Next, in 1900, blood groups A, B, O identified by Karl Landsteiner from Austria winning the Nobel Prize in 1930. Then in 1907, cross matching of blood begins in New York. In 1932, Leningrad forms first blood bank. In 1939, Rh factor identified as the source of most transfusion reactions. By 1949, American Red Cross has network of blood banks throughout the USA.

200x rate of blood transfusion compared to solid organ transplants.

1/7 of admitted hospital patients need a transfusion. 90 million persons transfused worldwide every year. 9 billion transfusions over 100 years. In low income countries, transfusion most often occurs with young children but in high income countries elderly transfused. Blood transfusion is the fourth of the most life saving inventions.

5) Synthetic fertilizers 1 BILLION LIVES SAVED

Nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) – (NPK) fertilizers account for much of the agriculture productivity gains in the last 100 years. Chile had the world’s largest natural deposits of nitrates. In 1909, German Fritz Haber invented a process to extract nitrogen under heat, high pressure, and a metallic catalyst to produce ammonia (NH3). Fellow German Carl Bosch improved on the process to bring the volume up to an industrial scale by 1913. Haber received the Nobel Prize in 1918 and Bosch in 1931.

Currently, 1/3 of the nitrogen in humans comes from synthetic sources (Haber-Bosch nitrogen).

Most life saving inventions

Since 1950, synthetic fertilizer use has increased 10x or 1000% worldwide.

Synthetic fertilizer is the fifth of the most life saving inventions

6) Green revolution (since 1940) agricultural technology 1 BILLION LIVES SAVED

pest control, fertilizer, weed control, hybrids, soil leveling, irrigation, crop rotation, advanced and heavy mechanization. Led by Norman Borlaug, PhD from the University of Minnesota, considered the “father of the Green Revolution”. 5 characteristics of hybrid seeds: 1) superior yield quantity and quality compared to indigenous seeds 2) improved yield stability with variable climate (wide range adaptability 3) Shorter growing season, allowing 2 crop growing seasons in some instances 4) improved drought and flood tolerance 5) improved resistance to disease, pests, and weeds. Hybrid seeds however need more fertilizer, pesticides, and irrigation than indigenous seeds. US agricultural production since 1940 has increased nearly 300%. For corn 400% increase (43-168 bushels / acre), for soybean 250% increase (21-48 bushels/acre).

Norman Borlaug, considered the “father of modern agriculture,”

and his research credited in saving 1 billion from starvation in Mexico, India, and Pakistan primarily with high yield, disease resistant hybrids of wheat. Success in Mexico led to adoption of Green Revolution techniques in the United States, Europe, and Asia.

Wheat yields increased 6x in the 20 years

of work Borlaug did in Mexico. Between 1965-2000, India wheat production increased 6x.

Borlaug’s techniques saw use in the Philippines in the 1970`s to produce rice dwarf hybrids. This “miracle rice” more than doubled rice production in the Philippines, India, and east Asia.

Poorer farmers of less developed countries, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, often yield worse with hybrids due to lack of fertilizers, irrigation, and pesticides than with traditional seeds.

Before the Green Revolution 30,000 varieties of rice were grown in India, now about 10 varieties of high yield rice are all that remain. These hybrids depend more than indigenous varieties on irrigation, pesticides, and fertilizers. The Green Revolution is the sixth of the most life saving inventions.

7) Penicillin and other antibiotics 200 MILLION-1 BILLION LIVES SAVED)

Scottish Alexander Fleming made the discovery that the mold Penicillin notatum produced a substance which killed bacteria in 1928.

By 1932, discovery of sulfonamide antibiotics. By 1945, penicillin was widely available. From 1930-1967 discovery occurred of all the major antibiotic classes.

Penicillin is the most important drug ever. Penicillin has saved more lives than any other single medication. Further, the discovery of penicillin led to the discovery of many other antibiotics which in total have likely saved more than one billion lives. Antibiotics are the seventh most life saving inventions.

8) Mosquito eradication 300 MILLION LIVES SAVED

Malaria has likely killed more humans (billions) than any disease in human existence. Malaria caused an estimated 225,000,000 worldwide deaths in the 20th century alone.

British Ronald Ross discovered the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciform, Plasmodium ovale, and Plasmodium vivax and their relationship to the female Anopheles mosquitoes of stagnant water in 1897. Prevention of malaria has been most effective. Drainage of swamps, use of insecticides, insect repellants, window and door screens, mosquito resistant clothing, and mosquito netting dramatically reduced infections with the parasite. Artemisinin herb saw use in the treatment of malaria in China for at least 2000 years. Quinine bark saw use in the treatment of malaria since the 1500s. Anti malarial drugs include: quinine, tetracycline, primaquine, chloroquine, artesunate, mefloquine, tafenoquine,

3 million worldwide died annually in 1890. Malaria deaths are half of 15 years ago. 215,000,0000 suffered from malaria in 2015. Mosquitoes cause 17% of world wide infections of all types. Only 6% of mosquito species suck human blood. 1,000,000 die annually from mosquito borne illnesses. 50% of the world population is at risk for mosquito born disease.

9) Pasteurization 250 MILLION LIVES SAVED

Nearly every juice or dairy product sold in modern world is pasteurized. Pasteurization kills bacteria and yeast but does not kill spores.

Louis Pasteur of France invented pasteurization in 1862.

In 1900, cow milk caused 25% of all food born illnesses. Listeriosis, Q fever, brucellosis, salmonella, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, diphtheria were common food borne illnesses.

Whereas freezing, canning, and fermentation preserves food months to years, pasteurization and refrigeration preserves food from days to weeks.

Food spoilage occurs by microorganisms, enzymes, oxygen, and water.

Packaging barriers such as plastic wrap, metal foil decrease access of oxygen, outside bacteria, and water. No accurate means exists for the determination of lives saved from starvation and malnutrition with freezing, packaging/barrier wraps, refrigeration, and canning. Likewise not accurate means exists to assess lives lost to fermentation, distilling and alcoholism or saved with other preserved, fermented foods.

10) Water chlorination 175 MILLION LIVES SAVED

98% of water treatment systems in the US use chlorine. The first chlorination of water supply was in Germany in 1894. Chlorine works on bacteria and viruses but not on all protozoan cysts. Chlorination produces small amounts of trihalomethanes, a known carcinogen, as a by product which creates a mild health risk.

Home drinking water systems typically employ a sediment filter, an activated carbon filter, a reverse osmosis filter, ultraviolet light exposure to sterilize the filtered water (optional).

11) Refrigeration/freezing

A refrigerator is a thermally insulated container with a heat pump which transfers heat outside of the container, keeping the contents of the container cold. Above all, refrigeration dramatically slows bacteria growth. Also, a temperature of 40 F (4C) is ideal. Outdoors, cold streams provided the earliest refrigeration. In the 1750s ice blocks provided refrigeration but only in the winter. Then in 1834, the first vapor compression refrigerator began operation by Jacob Perkins, USA. The first commercial ice making machine originated in 1854. Next, James Harrison in Australia in 1856 made the first practical vapor compression refrigeration system. By 1913, refrigerators for home use were in operation.

In the 1920s, Clarence Birdseye patented a quick freezing process

of fish using 2 metal plates chilled to -40 F (-40 C) to prevent spoilage without ruining the flavor of the fish. Modern quick freezing of packaged foods such as fruits, vegetables, poultry, meats, and prepared meals occurs in an air-blast tunnel freezer when super cold air (-40 C) blows rapidly over the food products. Another method of quick freezing is use of belt freezer, using a conveyor belt through super cooled air. Peas, cut corn, diced carrots, and strawberries freeze treatment using fluidized-bed with a mesh conveyor belt. Upwardly blasted super cooled air causes the food to tumble and rapidly freeze. Finally, plate freezers like originally with Clarence Birdseye are metal plates super cooled to freeze fish fillets, pastries, and meat patties. Bricks of vegetables such as cauliflower, broccoli, asparagus, and spinach.also utilize plate freezers.

In 1923, Frigidaire created the first self-contained refrigerator.

The discovery of freon in the 1920s led to expansion of refrigeration in the 1930s. Home freezers with a separate compartment were in use in 1940.  The refrigerator ranks as the #38 Greatest Invention of All Time.

12) Canning

Nicholas Appert invented the canning process in 1809. Food cooked in wax sealed jars did not spoil. The reason for not spoiling was unknown for 50 more years until the discovery of microorganisms. Then by 1811, the canning process extended to tin cans in Great Britain. Poisonous lead sealed cans in the early years of tin canning. Military campaigns and expeditions were major uses of canned foods. Later by 1822, in the US, Ezra Dagger and Thomas Kensett used 98% sheet steel with tin coating cans to preserve food.

Ezra Warner invented the can opener 47 years later (1858).

Unlike pasteurization which does not sterilize food or inactivate spores, canning effectively sterilizes food and inactivates enzymes which degrade food. Canned foods do not need preservatives. Generally, the shelf life of canned foods is one to five years. Later in 1974, canned foods obtained from the ship wreck of the steamship Bertrand which sank in the Missouri River in 1865 were tested for safety and deemed safe to eat after 109 years from canning.

Canning of some foods, most vegetables, meat, seafood, poultry and dairy products requires temperatures above 100 degrees C which can only occur with a pressure cooker (116-130 C). Only highly acidic foods such as pickles and fruits can be sterilized at 100 C. John Landis Mason invented invented sealed screw lid canning jars in 1858 which revolutionized home canning.

In 1884, Ball Corporation began the mass production of Mason jars for home canning.

Then Max Ams in 1888 invented double sealed cans which provided greater seal safety with canning.

Use of canned food skyrocketed in WW I.

Worldwide production of canned food is 200 billion/year.

13) Nuclear peace between nuclear powers.

Although the number of saved lives in impossible to calculate from nuclear weapons, one thing is clear:

No world wars have occurred since the advent of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons brought about a quick end to World War II.

Mutual assured destruction from all out nuclear war has led to the absence of large scale wars between nuclear weapon possessing world powers but has not prevented small scale conflicts. The likelihood of small scale conflicts possibly increased between nuclear weapon possessing countries and non nuclear countries. An estimated 20 million died in World War I. An estimated 60- 85 million people died in from 1939-1945 in World War II. Since 1945, only about 8.5 million people have died in armed conflict (75 years).

14) Hand washing/hygiene/sterile technique

In 1847, Ignaz Semmelweis of Hungary noted hand washing prior to deliveries decreased obstetrical infections by 90%.

In 1849, British physician John Snow recommended boiling water to decrease cholera which spread by the fecal-oral route.

Joseph Lister, English surgeon who pioneered the use of phenol (carbolic acid) hand and instrument washing to prevent infections. The “father of modern surgery”, Lister championed sterile technique in the practice of surgery as early as 1865. Later, soap, detergents, povidine, and hexachlorophene replaced carbolic acid as a cleansing agents.

15) Food packaging/food preservatives

Plastic wrapping and aluminum foil wrapping of food products works best when combined with preservatives. Well designed food packaging is typically keeps out microorganisms, light, oxygen, and moisture. Under optimal conditions a bacterium can reproduce or divide every 20 minutes. So up to 70 billion bacteria can grow from one bacterium in 12 hours.

Chemical preservatives generally recognized as safe include: benzoic acid, sodium benzoate, propionic acid, sorbic acid, and sodium diacetate. Inorganic preservatives include: sulfur dioxide and sulfites. The curing of meats uses nitrates and nitrites.

16) Bombe Machine of Alan Turing (Enigma code breaker)

While credited for saving millions by bringing an early end to World War II, English mathematician and cryptographer Alan Turing invented the Bombe machine which cracked the Enigma code generating device of Nazi Germany. Turing’s invention was the single greatest intelligence breakthrough of WW II. Because the British intercepted and decoded military and government communications from Germany and German vessels this led to a windfall of intelligence information.

Visual capitalist, “50 most important life-saving breakthroughs in history, 2018., 2018, “These discoveries saved billions of lives” World Economic Forum