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'Extra Life' Series Traces Our Astonishing Gains in Life Expectancy

The new PBS four-parter examines scientific and medical innovations that have conquered some of the deadliest diseases

By Dawn Fallik

At one point in the docu-series "Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer," author and host Steven Johnson strolls down the streets of Philadelphia. But — unlike almost every other medical history review — Johnson doesn't talk about Pennsylvania Hospital, the nation's first hospital, founded by Benjamin Franklin. Instead, his focus is on W.E.B. Du Bois, the famous Black sociologist, founder of the N.A.A.C.P. and its magazine "The Crisis," and one of the first to illuminate the health care disparities between Black and white Americans. 

A man in front of a microscope holding up a petri dish. Extra life, PBS, Next Avenue
David Olusoga, a British-Nigerian historian and professor of public history at the University of Manchester, holds up a petri dish  |  Credit: © Nutopia

"Extra Life," a four-part series that premieres on Tuesday, May 11 on PBS, is full of these unexpected and appreciated detours into the world of medical history that illuminate the field's unsung heroes. 

"At the end of the Spanish Flu, life expectancy was 41 years, globally. Now almost every place in the world is double that."

The narrators don't simply tell viewers the well-known stories of people like Edward Jenner, who created the smallpox vaccine, they delve into the vaccine's origins in Onesimus, the West African man enslaved by Boston minister Cotton Mather.

Onesimus told Mather that he knew people who rubbed the pus from an infected person into an open wound of another. Mather confirmed the story and tried to share the idea widely, then known as "variolation."

Johnson and co-host David Olusoga, a historian, dig into archives and discuss how investigations in the past may help predict medical problems and pandemics in the future.

Experts from Dr. Anthony Fauci (director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) to Kizzmekia Corbett (a viral immunologist who is the scientific lead of the National Institutes of Health's Vaccine Research Center's coronavirus team) share their thoughts on today's COVID-19 crisis and the lessons scientists have learned from previous disease outbreaks.   

Speaking to Next Avenue from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y., Johnson, whose book "Ghost Map" focused on the 1854 London cholera outbreak, discussed writing about pandemics during one and how even medical historians take lifesaving discoveries for granted:

Dawn Fallik: Why did you think people would be interested in a series about medical history?

"Everyone knows about the Manhattan Project, the top-secret project to develop the nuclear bomb. But why don't they know about these incredible life-changing events, like these drugs that have saved lives?"

Steven Berlin Johnson: One of the things about writing 'Ghost Map' was that it really resonated with people. It was a reminder how much progress we've made in a hundred and fifty years. Once upon a time, getting a glass of water could kill you in forty-eight hours.

Part of that book was that we really should pay attention to progress, and how we're all the beneficiaries of this work in science and public health from this time in London where they separated the waste [sewage] from the drinking water.

There are challenges to getting people interested in a show about the discoveries and dangers found in fecal matter.

Yeah, people have been trying to make 'Ghost Map' into a movie for years, but it has this problem that it's about human excrement. But 'Extra Life' is a bigger canvas, using life expectancy as a framework.

Think about it, a hundred years ago, at the end of the Spanish Flu, life expectancy was forty-one years, globally. Now, almost every place in the world is double that.

Two men standing outside on the street in front of a "John Snow" sign. Extra life, PBS, Next Avenue
Steven Berlin Johnson and David Olusoga narrate the new series "Extra Life" on PBS  |  Credit: © Nutopia

How did this show come together in the middle of a pandemic?

PBS had been interested in the show and we'd been trying to put the financing together. It was a little stuck. Suddenly, it's March 2020 and everyone is talking about masks and this [idea of an invisible protective] shield is at the center of everyone's life.

It got a lot of financing, but we couldn't wait to make it, we thought: 'We've got to make this right now.'

I had this surreal experience in March [2020]. I was living in Ground Zero of the pandemic in Brooklyn and then I went to my family's home in the Blue Ridge mountains in Virginia and I didn't see anybody for five weeks. I was just working furiously on these episodes. It was a life in pause.

Suddenly, we had this unique perspective, this two-hundred-year history coming to this very present moment of developing a vaccine. Where did they even start and how do they get to this point?

I noticed there were several points where you weren't wearing masks, including your interview with Dr. Fauci.

We did try and show several times that we were wearing masks, and we had a really rigorous protocol; we were tested every other day. Even when we were shooting in New York, I wasn't staying at home, to protect my family. Everyone would wear masks until we would sit down for the interview and then we would take our masks off. I was probably about fifteen feet from Dr. Fauci.

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What did you learn doing this series that surprised you?

How late medical drugs arrived on the scene. We really had very little that worked until penicillin, and that came along in 1945. That whole story is fascinating. Everyone knows about the petri dish, but it's really a compelling story about a race against the clock in World War II to get that drug to soldiers.

That's the thing – everyone knows about the Manhattan Project, the top-secret project to develop the nuclear bomb. But why don't they know about these incredible life-changing events, like these drugs that have saved lives?

Maybe it's because it's something that's part of our everyday lives?

Exactly. I was talking with David Olusoga, and he said the same thing. He takes a pill every day that saves his life, and where does it come from? We need to take a step back and not take these things for granted.

Is there one interview that stands out for you?

There were so many. The day we interviewed Dr. Fauci was the day he got the numbers back from the Moderna [COVID-19 vaccine] trials, and he was almost dancing. He was saying, 'You have no idea how good these numbers are.' They were hoping for maybe fifty-five [percent effective] but ninety-five percent effective? That was amazing. He said, 'I've had a lot of bad breaks, but this, this is an incredible break.'

Dawn Fallik
Dawn Fallik is a medical and science reporter who has written for NPR, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. She lives in Philadelphia and teaches medical writing at the University of Delaware. Read More
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