Getting The Word Out
Why popularizers and explainers can be just as important as inventors—and Dilip Mahalanabis finally gets the obituary he deserves.
In the last public edition of Adjacent Possible, I wrote about the disappointing—though I suppose not surprising—lack of coverage of the death of Dilip Mahalanabis, the Bangladeshi doctor who played a critical role in popularizing Oral Rehydration Therapy, the amazingly simply medical intervention that has saved millions of lives around the world over the past fifty years. I noted that as far as I could tell, no mainstream news organization outside of India had run so much as a brief obituary of Mahalanabis, despite the heroic nature of his initial adoption of ORT in the middle of a refugee crisis in the early 1970s, and the long-term legacy of his work. (The Lancet once called ORT “potentially the most important medical advance of the 20th century.”) The lack of memorials for this extraordinary life-saver struck me as yet another example of how the media—among other institutions—devalues the work of medical and public health pioneers.
And then a few days later, I stumbled across this tweet from my former Brooklyn neighbor and Financial Times columnist John Gapper:
So there you have it: this little newsletter is setting the news agenda for international publications like the FT!
Kidding aside, it was wonderful to see a proper obit for Mahalanabis in a mainstream, English-language publication. Ironically, the obit begins with a presumably automated e-mail submission form that promises to send me a “myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Dilip Mahalanabis news every morning.” Apparently he’s gone from not meriting an obituary to requiring a daily news roundup. Progress!
I really do find the chronic under-coverage of medical heroes like Mahalanabis quite baffling. Aside from the societal importance of celebrating their work, there are so many great stories out there, stories of people in sometimes terrifying life-or-death situations, taking risks or solving complicated mysteries with enormous stakes. There are probably a dozen stories in Extra Life—Mary Montagu bringing variolation to England, William Foege inventing ring vaccination to eradicate smallpox, Mahalanabis and ORT—where I thought as I was writing those sections that I could easily expand the material into an entire book.
The FT obit makes an observation that echoes one of the central themes of Extra Life:
Mahalanbis did not discover ORT. Richard Cash, senior global health lecturer at Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health, played a key role in the first clinical trial of the treatment on severe diarrhoea patients during an epidemic in Dhaka in the 1960s. He noted: “It’s not simply the discovery of something, but the application of that technology that also needs to be recognised . . . And [Mahalanbis] had the foresight to say, ‘There’s no way we can handle this situation with the intravenous solution. So let’s do this. And let’s try it on a large scale.’”
The key point here is that when we talk about the history of innovation, we often over-index on the inventors and underplay the critical role of popularizers, the people who are unusually gifted at making the case for adopting a new innovation, or who have a platform that gives them an unusual amount of influence. Mary Montagu is a terrific example of this: she was an aristocrat and a writer, entirely untrained in medical science, but she was a great advocate for variolation among the British elite, and probably did more than any other person to make the practice mainstream in England, which then led to Edward Jenner refining the procedure with the invention of vaccination several generations later. Montagu was a connector and evangelist and explainer, all crucial skills if you want new ideas to drive progress in the world. But it’s the Jenners who get all the attention. (Or at least the small share of attention we dole out to medical pioneers.)
This is a slight tangent, but thinking about Montagu reminded me of a quote John Gruber shared at Daring Fireball a few days ago, linking to a WSJ story about former Apple design head Jonny Ive’s new company:
One of the first employees hired by Ive was a full-time writer. (There are now more than 30 employees, many of whom worked with him at Apple.) Ive says LoveFrom is the only creative practice he knows of to have an on-staff scribe whose job is, in part, to help conjure into words the ideas that his team of graphic designers, architects, sound engineers and industrial designers come up with for its collaborations with Airbnb, Ferrari and others.
I realize this may sound a little too self-congratulatory coming from a writer, but I thought there was something in Ive’s approach that resonated with the popularizer/evangelist themes of Extra Life. If you’re trying to create an organization that has a culture of innovation, almost by definition you need two kinds of people: people who will generate new ideas and new inventions, and people who can make those ideas and inventions intelligible to other people, particularly when they’re in an early, nebulous state. Over the years, I’ve spent an immense amount of time around various startups and other tech firms, and I’ve seen a lot of titles that are all variations of inventor or tinkerer or mad scientist. But maybe we need more scribes!
Speaking of mad scientists and scribes, I just sent out the latest podcast episode of How Ideas Happen to paying Adjacent Possible subscribers, this one a conversation with the hilarious and brilliant Randall Munroe, creator of xkcd and author of bestsellers like What If? It’s a wonderful conversation about his unique method of researching the bizarre thought experiments that his readers send to him. (The long-form version of my conversation with him at the TED Interview podcast is a treat too.) As always, you can get access to the How Ideas Happen series by upgrading to a paying subscription…
One of the first hires of the analytics company I work for was a graphic artist. I questioned the hire at the time but soon discovered that they were able to take my stick people drawings and poorly designed charts and graphs and make them compelling and understandable.