Wednesday, March 24, 2010

5 (Make That 6) Inventions That Changed My Life

The Salk Polio Vaccine

The Salk vaccine is one of the great success stories of Immunology.

I grew up in the time of polio. I remember the desperate pseudo-science that mothers and fathers held onto. I couldn't eat bananas or play outside in the heat of the day. I saw kids my age in iron lungs. And, suddenly, it was all over. It turned out polio wasn't caused by bananas or heat exhaustion. It was caused by a virus.

In spite of the success of the polio vaccine and other vaccines, the debate about childhood vaccinations seems no closer to a resolution than it was when my son, now a father himself, was a child. As a concerned parent who has had to make decisions about childhood vaccinations over the course of two generations -- my grandson is older than my nine-year-old daughter -- I can say I chose to have both my children vaccinated, but I have no idea how I would feel about that decision if one of them had turned out to be autistic. And I don't know how I would feel if I had made the other decision and one of them had died from the complications of measles or any of the other diseases we routinely vaccinate against.

I recent poll, conducted by the Consumer Reports Health Ratings Center, found most U.S. adults are either reluctant or unsure about whether they or their children will get vaccinated for the flu formerly known as swine.

Swine Flu Virus

Another poll shows the opposite. According to a survey by the Harvard School of Public Health, more than half of U.S. adults say they will get the vaccine for themselves and 75 percent will get it for their children.


Without television, I would never have seen a political convention, McCarthy would have ruined even more lives, the Vietnam war might still be going on, and Richard Nixon would have been elected 8 years sooner. Without television we would have had no way to recycle books, magazines, plays and films the way the World Wide Web recycles those things and television to boot. What will recycle the World Wide Web remains to be seen. Something will for sure. My first browser was Mosaic. Since I first used Mosaic to access the card catalog at Stanford's library from my desk in Houston, the web hasn't changed much. It's fast, vast and glitzy, but it's still just an information retrieval system with chat rooms here and there.

The IBM OS/360

If you're looking for the origins of the web, the IBM OS/360 is the place to start. It was the first commercially successful time-shared, multi-user operating system. Everything started there. Without the success of OS/360, Fred Brooks wouldn't have been a success and I wouldn't have read his The Mythical Man-Month. Without Fred and his mythical man-month, I wouldn't have made a good living rescuing projects by cutting back their scope instead of hiring more programmers.


Without Versed, we'd remember the horrible things doctors and dentists do to us. As I grow older, I get poked, prodded and explored more all the time, and I've come to appreciate drugs like Versed and inventions like CT-Scans, MRIs and tests that have virtually eliminated "exploratory surgery." If you want a real treat, the next time you have Versed, go home and watch a complicated action-adventure film.

Female Condoms

Female condoms are the lastest invention in a long line of products, dating back to the contraceptive sponge, that have given women more control over their bodies. Women used sponges in the 19th Century. The tiny hat was introduced to America by Margaret Sanger at the turn of the century. It was followed by the pill, IUDs and an improved version of the sponge that led to the creation by Seinfeld of the "sponge worthy" man. Woman-initiated contraception made it possible for me to date and marry a different kind of woman than the men of earlier generations did.

Now, a new female condom is coming on the market.

Female Condom

The FC2 Female Condom from Female Health Co. is billed as the first woman-initiated device that protects against both pregnancy and STDs like AIDS. The new version is quieter than it's squeaky predecessor. The original version failed to gain a foothold in the male condom-dominated U.S. marketplace in part because it was noisy to use.

Too noisy? Quieting them down is heading in the wrong direction. Why not make them even noiser, but with better sounds?

How about the Flight Of The Valkyries?

Or something wet and squishy, like rubber boots slogging through the mud of a rice paddy?

Proton Therapy

Proton therapy, which MD Anderson describes as a "190-ton cancer-killing machine that can zap a patient's tumor with sub-millimeter precision while sparing healthy tissues around the tumor and causing very few if any side effects," is a relatively new and expensive treatment option.

I had 38 treatments for prostate cancer at MD Anderson and, so far, I can vouch for the "few if any side effects" claim. Time will tell if my cancer has been killed or not. With cancer, there are no guarantees, and it's possible that some cancer cells had already spread beyond my prostate before I started treatment. That's the nature of the beast. But, if that's the case, at least proton therapy will have saved me from suffering the effects of debilitating and futile surgery. Proton therapy is painless. I didn't even need Versed.

Coming on Foodie Tuesday: 5 Cookbooks That Changed My Life

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