Capitalism, Medical Progress, and the Tragic Death of John F. Kennedy’s Son Patrick

Many authors have noted how much progress the world has seen since the coming of liberalism, capitalism, and the industrial revolution about three centuries ago: Julian Simon, Matt Ridley, Indur Goklany – who reminds us that we’re living longer, healthier, more comfortable lives on a cleaner planet – even me. Bryan Caplan mused recently on George Vanderbilt’s magnificent house, Biltmore:

Despite his massive library, organ, and so on, I submit that any modern with a laptop and an internet connection has a vastly better book and music collection than he did.  For all his riches, he didn’t have air conditioning; he had to suffer through the North Carolina summers just like the poorest of us.  Vanderbilt did travel the world, but without the airplane, he had to do so at a snail’s pace.

Perhaps most shockingly, he suffered ”sudden death from complications following an appendectomy” at the age of 51.  (Here’s the original NYT obituary).  Whatever your precise story about the cause of rising lifespans, it’s safe to say that George’s Bane wouldn’t be fatal today.

And now a story on NPR’s Morning Edition reminds me of the same point. Dr. Adam Wolfberg, a maternal-fetal specialist at Tufts Medical Center, discussed his new book, Fragile Beginnings: Discoveries and Triumphs in the Newborn ICU. One of the points he made (first lines only in the audio) reminded us of the tremendous progress in neonatal medicine in just 50 years:

President Kennedy’s baby Patrick was born prematurely with a problem breathing that today would be trivial – would be cared for with the assistance of medicines and equipment that are routine in any hospital in the United States and in most hospitals around the world.

The infant son of the president of the United States, a very wealthy man, could not be saved with 1963 medical technology. Yet today saving such a baby is routine. Thanks to the wealth and technology generated by free markets, It’s Getting Better All the Time.