The first two people saved billions of lives with their research (Hilleman and Borlaug), the second two contributed tens of billions of dollars to charitable foundations (Gates and Buffett), and none of them appear to have used their notoriety to try and convert others to a particular religious or philosophical belief.
Maurice Hilleman August 30, 1919 — April 11, 2005)
The New York Times described Maurice Ralph Hilleman as the man who “probably saved more lives than any other scientist in the 20th century.” His vaccines probably saved more lives than any scientist in the past century, and his research helps the medical establishment predict and prepare for upcoming flu seasons.
As a young man in a small mid-western town Maurice felt that life must have more to offer than selling goods to cowboys and their girlfriends. He built his own radio that allowed him to listen to a show called “Meet the Scientists” that originated at the University of Chicago. He read everything he could about find about science and great scientists. His scientific hero—and the hero of many Montana schoolchildren—was Howard Taylor Ricketts who discovered the source of a mysterious illness that attacked residents Montana, causing high fever, intense headaches, muscle pain, low blood pressure, shock and death. Ricketts found that the infection was caused by a bacterium found in ticks. “He was a god out there,” recalled Hilleman. Today the bacterium is called Rickettsia rickettsii, and the disease is called Rocky Mountain spotted-fever. Hilleman also read and reread Darwinʼs On the Origin of Species. “I was enthralled by Darwin because the church was so opposed to him,” he recalled, “I figured that anybody who could be so universally hated had to have something good about him.” One Sunday when he was about thirteen-years-old Hilleman was caught reading Darwin in church (his familyʼs ultraconservative Lutheran church) and the minister, who believed in creationism, admonished him. The minister tried to confiscate the book but Hilleman told him it was public property because it belonged to the library and he would notify authorities if the minister tried to take it.
His love of science led him to pursue education at a local branch of the state university and then to the University of Chicago, where he studied microbiology. After leaving Chicago, Hilleman took a research job with EJ Squibb, the pharmaceutical company. Within a year he had developed a vaccine to protect American troops serving in the Far East from Japanese B encephalitis, a fatal brain disease.
In the early 1950s after the war ended, Hilleman moved to the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Washington, where he led a team carrying out research into respiratory viruses where he made a crucial discovery about the way flu viruses evolve. The phenomenon is called drift (minor changes) and shift (major changes). Detecting recent changes and predicting future changes is part of the art of choosing the strains of virus included in each seasonʼs vaccines. Peopleʼs immune systems give them partial protection against drift, but not against shift, which is why completely new flu strains are so dangerous. In the early stages of the Asian flu pandemic of 1957, Hilleman deduced from press reports of the disease in Hong Kong that the virus might have undergone one of its periodic ‘shifts’ and sent for specimens to enable him to isolate it. As he suspected, blood samples showed that nobody had any antibodies to the virus. Fearing a repeat of the 1918 Spanish flu which killed some 20 million people around the world, he immediately notified the World Health Organization and vaccine manufacturers, to whom he sent samples of the virus. He also insisted that chicken breeders should spare the lives of cockerels they would otherwise have slaughtered, enabling them to fertilize the millions of eggs needed to prepare the new vaccine. By the time the disease had arrived in its full force in America, 40 million doses of vaccine had been delivered, saving tens if not hundreds of thousands of lives.
In 1957, Hilleman joined the pharmaceutical company Merck as head of its new virus and cell biology research department to work on the development of new vaccines against common diseases of childhood. Four years later, a Harvard researcher developed a vaccine against measles using a live virus, but it proved too toxic to use. Hillemanʼs solution was to develop a very weak version of the virus by growing it in the cells of chicken embryos. This ‘attenuated’ virus would trigger an immune response with negligible side effects. Since its introduction in the mid-1960s, it is estimated that the measles vaccine has saved more than one million lives a year.
In the 1960s, Hilleman developed the mumps vaccine, thanks in large part to his daughterʼs infection. In 1963, five-year-old Jeryl Lynn woke her father in the middle of the night, whining about a sore throat. Seeing her swollen glands, Hilleman realized it was the mumps, a disease caused by a virus that grows in the salivary glands. At the time mumps was common, infecting about 200,000 U.S. children a year. Of those, about half developed a mild form of meningitis, an infection of the brain. Sometimes, the meningitis caused permanent deafness or death. Hilleman saw opportunity in his daughterʼs suffering. Though it was the middle of the night, he drove to his Merck lab to pick up some swabs. He then swabbed his daughterʼs throat and preserved the virus in some beef broth in the freezer. Hilleman had been eager to collect the virus because he was leaving on a trip to South America the following day and knew the virus would be gone by the time he returned. Later, Hilleman isolated the mumps virus from the swabs. Next, he took chicken embryo cells and grew the virus in it to produce what is called an attenuated form of the virus. An attenuated virus is weak enough that it will not cause the disease, but strong enough to force the body into using its natural defenses to trigger immunity. Making the mumps vaccine took several years; it was not available until 1967. Hillemanʼs other daughter, Kirsten, participated in the trials.
In 1988 President Reagan presented him with the National Medal of Science, Americaʼs highest scientific honor. His peers said that he had done more for preventive medicine than anyone since Louis Pasteur. Dr. Hilleman was a co-discoverer of several viruses, including the hepatitis A virus, the rhinoviruses that cause colds, and SV40, a monkey virus that was inadvertently included in some of the earliest batches of polio vaccines, and which caused deaths. Under his guidance, Merck, the pharmaceutical company where he worked from 1957 until 1984, avoided making whooping cough and polio vaccines, which had huge safety problems, but he pushed them into making other vaccines, even in periods of low profitability.
Thanks to him, diseases that once claimed children’s lives or left them with severe disabilities are now largely a distant memory. During his career, Hilleman developed a total of 40 vaccines, making him perhaps the most successful vaccinologist in history.
He developed 8 of the 14 vaccines routinely recommended: measles, mumps, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, chickenpox, meningitis, pneumonia and Haemophilus influenzae bacteria (which brings on a variety of symptoms, including inflammation of the lining of the brain and deafness). He also developed the first generation of a vaccine against rubella or German measles. Such vaccines have virtually vanquished many of the once common childhood diseases in developed countries.
There was one vaccine, however, that eluded even Maurice Hilleman—that for the common cold. But, in the process of trying to create it, he discovered 54 new virus strains and determined that this failure was due to the number of different cold virus strains, rather than to short-lived immunity. None of this could have been accomplished in isolation, and Hilleman had the benefit of having several greats before him, as Offit cleverly portrays in the ‘Eight Doors’ chapter. Hillemanʼs profligate successes were products of his ability to build on the past, learn from previous mistakes and recognize limitations. Importantly, he was the first to take an industrial approach to making vaccines, thereby putting into practice the preliminary observations of others.
Because of Hillemanʼs achievements, human life expectancy has grown by leaps and bounds. Paul A. Offit, chief of infectious diseases at Childrenʼs Hospital of Philadelphia, said: “Itʼs safe to say his vaccines save in the order of eight million lives a year. I think it can be said without hyperbole that he was a scientist who saved more lives than any other modern scientist.”
Hilleman was a freethinking rationalist to the end, though he didnʼt try to convert people to that particular view. According to his biographer, Paul Offit, author of Vaccinated: One Manʼs Quest to Defeat the Worldʼs Deadliest Diseases, Hilleman was ‘intimidating,’ ‘a committee of one,’ and he ‘liked to curse.’ Anyone who knew Hilleman (or his reputation) would concur. He was “a man of his time” and had a “style that would not be duplicated today.”
Norman Borlaug (March 25, 1914 — September 12, 2009)
A geneticist and plant pathologist, Borlaug, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his contribution to world peace through food production. He developed varieties of high-yield crops that resisted disease, saving two billion lives or more by reversing food shortages that began to plague parts of the developing world in Asia, Africa and Mexico in the 1960s and succeeding decades.
Though Borlaug held to his familyʼs traditional Lutheran beliefs he did not use his notoriety to try and lead others to Christ as so many Christian congressmen, actors and athletes have attempted to do. He did not trumpet the importance of his personal religious beliefs, he barely tooted them in so far as his lifeʼs work was concerned. Though he did use his notoriety as a scientist to promote further scientific research and to speak about the importance of education, the necessity of population control, and the importance of producing food for all.
On the official website and archive of the life and works of Norman Borlaug one can search for terms like ‘Jesus’ or ‘Christ’ or ‘savior’ or ‘Christianity’ and find nothing in the Borlaug archives, with extremely few mentions of ‘religion’ and ‘Lutheran.’ There is nothing in his archives advocating Christianity as the worldʼs one true religion necessary for salvation. Instead, you can find a curriculum for a course in ‘Special Topics in Global Social Justice Leadership’ on the site with the following recommended reading that does not appear to be drawn from Christian sources:
- An Essay on the Principle of Population, Thomas Malthus
- Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond
- Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty, Thurow & Kilman
- The World’s Religions, Huston Smith
- Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands, Morrison & Conaway
- Speak Truth to Power: Human Rights Defenders Who Are Changing Our World, Eddie Adams
- The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gula, Chol-hwan & Rigoulot
- What is the What?, Dave Eggers
- Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History is Restoring Grace, Justice and Beauty to the World, Paul Hawken
- Bottom Billion, Paul Collier
- The End of Poverty, Jeffrey Sachs
- Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet, Jeffrey Sachs
- Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen
- Despite Good Intentions, Thomas Dichter
- The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, Prahad
- Making Globalization Work, Joseph E. Stiglitz
- Wars, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places, Paul Collier
- Dead Aid: Why Aid is not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa, Dambisa Moyo
- The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen
- Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail, Paul Polak
Borlaug lived in the developing world for much of his life teaching high-yield agricultural techniques, with a focus on training younger scientists. “My whole philosophy goes to training young people who are willing to take risks, because you have to risk,” he said.
Borlaugʼs great grandparents came from a small Lutheran village in Norway. They sailed across the Atlantic with a group of Norwegian families. Their exodus was brought on by
- a potato famine caused by blight
- a population growing faster than the food production
- they were struggling farmers trying to survive on a small strip of land they came looking for fertile soil and a place to start a new life
Once in America they became members of the Saude Lutheran Church, the same church in which Norman was later baptized and confirmed. Life was hard among these settlers. The death rate among them, at a relatively young age, was high. In 1877 there were thirty funerals in the Little Turkey Church - nine percent of its membership. It was there, during the Depression, that a young Norm Borlaug first learned the lesson that confronting the harsh realities of prairie farm life could bring disparate people together and impel them to cooperate. Each morning, Norm recalls, the Lutheran Norwegian children from Cresco, and the Czech (Bohemian) Catholics from Spillville, would stand and sing “The Iowa Corn Song,” celebrating their new identity and the bond they now shared as Iowans.
He attributes his decision to leave the farm and pursue further education to his grandfather, Nels Olson Borlaug (1859 — 1935), who told him, “Youʼre wiser to fill your head now if you want to fill your belly later on.” Norm adds, “Grandfather Nels was very special to me while I was growing up. He often took me with him to go fishing. As we would sit together on the banks of Little Turkey River, waiting for a nibble, he would explain how important it was to help other people in times of need. In his distinct Norwegian accent, he would say, ‘Norm-boy, your good deeds will be returned in ways you can never imagine.’” Norm along with other immigrant children shared a one room schoolhouse where they learned they had much in common, just as their parents found that working together to ensure sufficient food for all was more important than any ethnic, religious, or linguistic differences that might initially divide them. It was an insight that would remain with Borlaug throughout his life and would come to permeate his work.
Benefiting from Rooseveltʼs ‘New Deal,’ specifically, a Depression-era program known as the National Youth Administration, he was able to enroll at the University of Minnesota in 1933. Afterwards he worked for the government as a leader in the Civilian Conservation Corps, working with the unemployed on U.S. federal projects. Many of the people who worked for him were starving. He later recalled, “I saw how food changed them… All of this left scars on me…” in 1937, Borlaug worked for the United States Forestry Service. At the end of his undergraduate education, Borlaug attended a lecture by Elvin Charles Stakman, a professor and soon-to-be head of the plant pathology group at the University of Minnesota. The event was pivotal for Borlaugʼs future life. Stakman, in his speech titled “These Shifty Little Enemies that Destroy our Food Crops,” discussed the manifestation of the plant disease rust, a parasitic fungus that feeds on phytonutrients, in wheat, oat and barley crops across the US. He had discovered that special plant breeding methods created plants resistant to rust. His research greatly interested Borlaug, and when Borlaugʼs job at the Forest Service was eliminated due to budget cuts, he asked Stakman if he should go into forest pathology. Stakman advised him to focus on plant pathology instead, and Borlaug subsequently re-enrolled to the University to study plant pathology under Stakman. Borlaug received his Master of Science degree in 1940 and Ph.D. in plant pathology and genetics in 1942.
Borlaug was presented the Nobel Peace Prize on Dec. 10, 1970, in Oslo, Norway, the land of his ancestors. He received a gold medal and $74,112 to continue his work. Borlaug explained what excited him most about winning the Nobel Prize: “Seventy percent of the people of the world make their living from agriculture,” he said, “and this is the first time agricultural science and the application of it have been given recognition.”
“The Frightening Power of Human Reproduction Must be Curbed… Most People Fail to Comprehend the Magnitude & Menace of the ‘Population Monster.’… Population Growth has to be Slowed.”
His speech when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize repeatedly presented improvements in food production within the context of the ‘population monster’:
“The green revolution has won a temporary success in manʼs war against hunger and deprivation; it has given man a breathing space. If fully implemented, the revolution can provide sufficient food for sustenance during the next three decades. But the frightening power of human reproduction must also be curbed; otherwise the success of the green revolution will be ephemeral only. Most people still fail to comprehend the magnitude and menace of the ‘Population Monster’… unless man becomes more realistic and preoccupied about this impending doom. The tick-tock of the clock will continually grow louder and more menacing each decade. Where will it all end?…”
“…in all biological populations there are innate devices to adjust population growth to the carrying capacity of the environment. Undoubtedly, some such device exists in man, presumably Homo sapiens, but so far it has not asserted itself to bring into balance population growth and the carrying capacity of the environment on a worldwide scale. It would be disastrous for the species to continue to increase our human numbers madly until such innate devices take over…”
“Since man is potentially a rational being, however, I am confident that within the next two decades he will recognize the self-destructive course he steers along the road of irresponsible population growth…”
“Contrasting sharply, in the developing countries represented by India, Pakistan, and most of the countries in Asia and Africa, seventy to eighty percent of the population is engaged in agriculture, mostly at the subsistence level. The land is tired, worn out, depleted of plant nutrients, and often eroded; crop yields have been low, near starvation level, and stagnant for centuries. Hunger prevails, and survival depends largely upon the annual success or failure of the cereal crops. In these nations both under-nutrition and malnutrition are widespread and are a constant threat to survival and to the attainment of the genetic potential for mental and physical development… There is little possibility in these countries of expanding the cultivated area to cope with the growing demand. The situation worsens as crop yields remain stagnant while human numbers continue to increase at frightening rates…”
“Today we should be far wiser; with the help of our Gods and our science, we must not only increase our food supplies but also insure them against biological and physical catastrophes by international efforts to provide international granaries of reserve food for use in case of need. And these food reserves must be made available to all who need them - and before famine strikes, not afterwards. Man can and must prevent the tragedy of famine in the future instead of merely trying with pious regret to salvage the human wreckage of the famine, as he has so often done in the past. We will be guilty of criminal negligence, without extenuation, if we permit future famines. Humanity cannot tolerate that guilt.”
Borlaug mentioned a literal ‘Adam and Eve’ and a literal ‘Garden of Eden’ in his Nobel Prize winning speech, stating “In the beginning there were but two, Adam and Eve. When they appeared on this earth is still questionable,” but he was not a young-earth creationist for he added that “civilization as it is known today… evolved… In the misty, hazy past, as the Mesolithic Age gave way to the Neolithic, there suddenly appeared in widely separated geographic areas the most highly successful group of inventors and revolutionaries that the world has ever known. This group of Neolithic men and women, and in all probability largely the latter, domesticated all the major cereals, legumes, and root crops, as well as all of the most important animals that to this day remain manʼs principal source of food. Apparently, nine thousand years ago, in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains, man had already become both agriculturist and animal husbandry-man, which, in turn, soon led to the specialization of labor and the development of village life.”
He also emphasized, “There are no miracles in agricultural production. Nor is there such a thing as a miracle variety of wheat, rice, or maize which can serve as an elixir to cure all ills of a stagnant, traditional agriculture… There are no miracles in agricultural production. Nor is there such a thing as a miracle variety of wheat, rice, or maize which can serve as an elixir to cure all ills of a stagnant, traditional agriculture.”
He argued that to cultivate peace one must cultivate the fields: “Almost certainly, the first essential component of social justice is adequate food for all mankind. Food is the moral right of all who are born into this world. Yet today fifty percent of the world’s population goes hungry. Without food, man can live at most but a few weeks; without it, all other components of social justice are meaningless. Therefore I feel that the aforementioned guiding principle must be modified to read: If you desire peace, cultivate justice, but at the same time cultivate the fields to produce more bread; otherwise there will be no peace.”
Elsewhere Borlaug added, “Though I have no doubt [crop] yields will keep going up, whether they can go up enough to feed the population monster is another matter. Unless progress with agricultural yields remains very strong, the next century will experience sheer human misery that, on a numerical scale, will exceed the worst of everything that has come before.”
And in one of his last interviews with The Des Moines Register, Borlaug summed up the problems that he saw facing the world today: “Population growth has to be slowed, and that’s a never-ending job. Energy scarcity will continue to be a problem. And people need to realize that political instability in other countries affects us here in the United States.”
In 1986 Borlaug founded the World Food Prize to honor others who have made important contributions to improving the world’s food supply. Endowed since 1990 by businessman and philanthropist John Ruan, this international award recognizes achievements of people who have improved the quality, amount, or accessibility of food in the world to advance human development. The first such prize was awarded in 1987 to Swaminathan (a Hindu, known as the “Father of the Green Revolution” in his country, India). In the 1960s, Borlaug and Swaminathan worked side by side to show Indian farmers how to use high-yielding wheat varieties and fertilizer to increase production. Between 1965 and 2000, cereal production in the developing countries of Asia tripled lending to a 25 percent increase in per capita food availability, saving many from hunger and starvation. “I believe that where hunger rules, peace cannot prevail,” Swaminathan said in Chennai, India, at his research foundation, part of which he named after Borlaug. Swaminathan speaks of the need for an “Evergreen Revolution” to improve productivity without ecological harm. “We have to produce more from less land, less water,” he said. Other World Food Prize Laureates have included Yuan who revolutionized rice cultivation in China. And Jones, who increased yields of rice in Africa. In October 2007, Borlaug attended his last World Food Prize symposium, which bears his name. “I can’t be despondent, I have to be optimistic,” he said. “Pessimism has no place in action.”
The Five Principles Borlaug adopted in his life, to quote his own words, were:
- Give your best
- Believe you can succeed
- Face adversity squarely
- Be confident you will find the answers when problems arise
- Then go out and win some bouts
These principles have shaped the attitude and action of thousands of young farm scientists across the world. He applied these principles in the field of science and agricultural development, but I guess he developed them much earlier in the field of wrestling, judging from his induction into the Iowa Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2004.
Dr. Borlaug was not only a great scientist but full of compassion for his fellow human beings, irrespective of race, religion, color, or political belief. This is clear from his last spoken words on the night of Saturday, September 12, 2009. Earlier in the day, a scientist showed him a nitrogen tracer developed for measuring soil fertility. His last words were “Take the tracer to the farmer.” This life-long dedication to taking scientific innovation to farmers without delay set Dr. Borlaug apart from most other farm scientists carrying out equally important research. Source here or here.
When Borlaug died, his love of learning was acknowledged by his family who requested that in lieu of flowers, memorials be made to the “Borlaug International Scholars Fund.”
Bill Gates (born October 28, 1955)
Gates co-founded Microsoft, the world’s largest PC software company, and founded the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. As of 2015 it has an endowment of US$42.9 billion. In 2007, its founders were ranked as the second most generous philanthropists in America, and Warren Buffett (see below) the first. As of May 16, 2013, Bill Gates had donated US$28 billion to the foundation.
Gates is described on his official website as “a technologist, business leader, and philanthropist.” Gatesʼ favorite course is called, Big History, and helps us grasp the place of our species in cosmic history, not just human history. You can join the course for free online here.
He also ran a contest in which he asked, “What Does It Mean To Be Human?” Here is the winning video from that contest.
Gates called the book by Richard Dawkins, The Magic of Reality, “a great way to start or continue your learning journey, no matter how old you are.” Gates also likes some of the same humor I do, like XKCD, and Hyperbole And A Half.
There is little to no talk on Gatesʼ personal blog about God, religion, atheism, agnosticism, Catholicism. He suggests books by atheists like Dawkins, Jared Diamond (see also Gatesʼs interactions with Jared here, here, and here), and Steven Pinker. It doesnʼt matter to Gates where knowledge, or interesting ideas come from. What matters are the ideas.
Gates also adds that one of the people I already mentioned above is one of his heroes, “Norm Borlaug is one of my heroes.”
Gatesʼ wife, Melinda, is Catholic, though in the past Gates has identified as an agnostic. After they had kids Gates joined the Catholic church. But there is not much about religion on Gatesʼs personal blog as I pointed out above, nor when you consider his reading matter and his support of the Big History project, nor even when it comes to the winner of the contest on what it means to be human. Any humanist would agree with Gates on the major issues, as well as humanityʼs major hopes, fears and passions. For a list of some of Gateʼs past statements regarding religion see The God Question and The Richest Man in the World, Bill Gates.
Warren Buffett (born August 30, 1930)
The worldʼs third wealthiest person in 2015. Buffett is a notable philanthropist, having pledged to give away 99 percent of his fortune to philanthropic causes. His intention was originally to leave 99% of his estate to the Buffett Foundation, but in June 2006 he announced that he would give 85% of his wealth to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation instead. Buffett stated that he changed his mind because he has grown to admire Gatesʼs foundation over the years; he believed that the Gates Foundation would be able to use his money effectively because it was already scaled-up.
On December 9, 2010, Buffett, Bill Gates, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, signed a promise they called the “Gates-Buffett Giving Pledge,” in which they promised to donate to charity at least half of their wealth over time, and invited others among the wealthy to follow suit.
According to Roger Lowenstein in Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist, Buffett “did not subscribe to his familyʼs religion. Even at a young age he was too mathematical, too logical, to make the leap of faith. He adopted his fatherʼs ethical underpinnings, but not his belief in an unseen divinity.”
In his own words, Buffett says, “[If reincarnation is true] Iʼd like to be born again as Sofia Lorenʼs boyfriend. Iʼm personally an agnostic. Iʼm a true agnostic, right in the middle. Itʼs not because Iʼm a closet atheist nor a closet theist. I grew up in a religious family, and as I began to think for myself I came to the conclusion that I donʼt know… I donʼt disagree with people of faith at all. In fact I regard all faiths pretty much equally being an agnostic. But I donʼt think you can wish yourself into a faith. And I donʼt have the feeling of faith. I donʼt question other people that have it. I donʼt feel they are wrong. I just donʼt know. And I prefer to find out the answer at some distant date too.” *laughter in audience*
Above was Uploaded on Mar 28, 2011 to youtube. It is from a Question and Answer session with Warren Buffet of Berkshire-Hathaway during his first-ever visit to India where he was asked questions. That was his answer on rebirth and religion.
- Charity, Religious, Non-religious
- Billionaires Who Donʼt Mix Business With The Bible by Ryan C. Fuhrmann, CFA | July 11, 2012, published at investopedia.com
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