Celebrate Unsung Heroes of Public Health in “EXTRA LIFE: A SHORT HISTORY OF LIVING LONGER” starting May 11

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New Four-Part Series Explores the Life-Extending Role of Science, Medicine and Public Health

May 11, 2021 on PBS

Amid COVID-19 Pandemic, Steven Johnson and David Olusoga Guide Viewers Through Three Centuries of Health Innovations


EXTRA LIFE: A SHORT HISTORY OF LIVING LONGER, a new four-part series from Nutopia 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, will air Tuesdays, May 11-June 1 at 8:00 p.m. on PBS, and stream via 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 Spanish 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.

David Olusoga holding up petri dish
David Olusoga

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.”

David Olusoga rolling out a map.
David Olusoga rolling out a map.

“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.

Episode One: “Vaccines” explores 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.

Episode Two: “Medical Drugs” focuses 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.

Episode Three: “Data” looks at 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.

Episode Four: “Behavior” examines 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 is a multiplatform collaboration. The series will be accompanied by an extensive education outreach component in partnership with The Pulitzer Center, which will distribute resources to schools and colleges.

The New York Times Magazine will publish a special issue, featuring a lead article by Johnson, that will delve into the larger history of science, medicine and public health. The issue will also feature data visualizations and articles by historians and other science writers.

Timed to the series premiere, Riverhead will publish a book authored by Johnson titled EXTRA LIFE: A Short History of Living Longer (Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House; on sale May 11, 2021). Johnson is the best-selling author of 12 books, including The Ghost Map, one of the seminal books on epidemics.


EXTRA LIFE: A SHORT HISTORY OF LIVING LONGER will stream simultaneously with broadcast and be available on all station-branded PBS platforms, including and the PBS Video app, available on iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, Samsung Smart TV and Chromecast.