Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Steven Johnson and David Olusoga are guiding viewers through three centuries of health innovations.
“Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer,” airing Tuesdays at 7 p.m. starting May 11, is a new four-part series that examines the science and medical innovations that conquered some of the world’s deadliest diseases and doubled life expectancies for many across the globe. The series will also stream via pbs.org and the PBS Video app.
Set in the context of today’s COVID-19 crisis, this series explores the lessons learned from previous global pandemics—including smallpox, cholera, the 1918 flu and others — and reveals how scientists, doctors, self-experimenters and activists launched a public health revolution, saving millions of lives, fundamentally changing how we think about illness and ultimately paving the way for modern medicine.
Best-selling author Steven Johnson (“The Ghost Map,” “How We Got to Now”) and historian and broadcaster David Olusoga (“Civilizations,” “Black & British: A Forgotten History”) combine expertise to guide viewers across 300 years of medical innovation, and go behind the scenes of modern medicine to meet the unsung heroes who are tackling COVID-19 and other public health threats. Johnson and Olusoga shed light on scientific breakthroughs and reveal how collective efforts around the world can lead to extraordinary outcomes, including doubling the human lifespan in under a century.
While the series features many leading public health authorities and scientists on the front lines of the current pandemic, “Extra Life” examines the bigger picture and sparks a global conversation about how we’ve learned to save lives. The series explores how the pioneering approaches and innovative medical triumphs of the past provided a blueprint for our future in the battle to live longer.
The series is particularly sensitive to the cultural blind spots that influenced our approach to health, tracing the origins of inoculation back to Africa, long before the discovery of vaccination in the west, and highlighting the often-overlooked inequalities in access to health.
“Now more than ever, we need powerful storytelling that captures and explains the achievements in public health and medicine over the past few centuries,” said Johnson. “The fact that we have doubled life expectancy may well be the single most important development in modern history.”
“The revolution in medicine and public health that has taken place over the past three centuries is one of the greatest achievements of all time,” said Olusoga. “The series is a history of unsung heroes and forgotten pioneers whose incredible stories deserve to be better known.”
Each episode will explore one aspect of public health that has played a central role in our battle to live longer.
May 11: “Vaccines”
Explore the history and use of vaccination, from early practices in Africa introduced to America during the slave trade and Thomas Jefferson’s clinical trials, to the first anti-vax protests in the 19th century and COVID-19 today.
May 18: “Medical Drugs”
Focus on the more recent medical inventions that combat illness directly, particularly antibiotics, and the development of antiviral drugs for HIV. Knowledge of how to produce safe, effective drugs and distribute them quickly around the globe now underpins work to find treatments for COVID-19.
May 25: “Data”
See how the emergence of fact-based research, data mapping and analysis has improved public health. The practice evolved out of the 19th century science of epidemiology and cholera mortality reports in the 1840s, where the now ubiquitous “curve” of an epidemic was first documented.
June 1: “Behavior”
Examine the importance of public engagement during a health crisis, from the discovery that the simple act of handwashing could save lives in a 19th century Viennese maternity hospital, to facemasks and lockdowns used to combat the Spanish flu 100 years ago, along with what we are experiencing today.
EXTRA LIFE: A SHORT HISTORY OF LIVING LONGER will stream simultaneously with broadcast and be available on all station-branded PBS platforms, including PBS.org and the PBS Video app, available on iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, Samsung Smart TV and Chromecast.