In “Transcendent Life?” I wrote about the philosophical essay, “Life Transcending Physics And Chemistry,” by Michael Polanyi that was the cover story of the Aug. 21, 1967, issue of C&EN. In this post, I want to take note of another interesting element I found in that issue, one that vibrantly illustrates progress humankind has made in the past half century.

When we created the C&EN Archives, we optically scanned the more than 500,000 pages of C&EN that have been published since the magazine’s founding in 1923. This was, needless to say, a largely automated process that relied on a computer to discern breaks between stories in a given issue. Especially in older issues, that was not always obvious and there are lots of cases in the archive where some extraneous material was assembled as part of another story.

That was the case with the Polanyi essay. Three pages not associated with the essay were included in the printout I read. One page was an ad for the 1967-68 ACS Laboratory Guide; one page was a directory of small ads for companies selling items ranging from Grignard reagents to stainless steel tanks; and one page was headed “Deaths.”

It so happens that while I was occupied with the Aug. 21, 1967, issue of C&EN, I was also reading pages for the Dec. 5, 2011, issue of the magazine, and in that issue we ran four obituaries for Don C. DeJongh, 74; Edwin S. Gould, 85; Angelo C. Tulumello, 79; and Jay A. Young, 91.

Here are the names and ages of the individuals listed in the Aug. 21, 1967, issue: Richard Kuhn, 66; James R. Vaughan Jr., 49; Augustus L. Barker, 79; Lee Cahn, 40; Ballard H. Clemmons, 58; Ira B. Cushing, 56; Thomas W. Delahanty, 75; Samuel L. Gross, 48; William H. MacHale, 59; Edward T. Radley, 48; Elmer W. Rebol, 49; Jesse L. Riebsomer, 61; and Garrett W. Thiessen, 65.

Notice a difference? In the Dec. 5, 2011, issue the youngest person we ran an obituary for was 74 years old. And that’s not an anomaly. We are running nine obituaries in this issue, and the ages of the individuals are 92, 93, 59, 90, 86, 71, 71, 91, and 97. By contrast, in 1967, five of the death notices were for men in their 40s, three were for men in their 50s, and three were in their 60s. Of the 13 death notices that listed an age (a few did not), only two were for men over the age of 70.

I doubt there was anything remarkable about that particular distribution. It is a testament to what we have accomplished in understanding disease and developing drugs and other therapies to treat disease that we now are shocked when someone passes away in their 40s or 50s. Only a half a century ago, it wasn’t unusual at all. The chemistry enterprise has played an enormous role in this profound change in life expectancy, and it is something we should celebrate.

Author: Rudy Baum

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