We're Way Behind Schedule For Curing the Common Cold

Despite all of the wonderful advances we've seen in modern medicine over the last century, we still have yet to crack a stubborn little virus: the common cold. What a letdown.

The February, 1962 issue of Reader's Digest included an article by Robert O'Brien titled "Forty Years From Now." The piece looks at all the magnificent innovations people of the year 2002 would be enjoying, but one of the most interesting predictions is that by the 21st century humans will have achieved "victory over the common cold."

From Reader's Digest:

By 2002, say the researchers, victory over the common cold and other upper respiratory infection will be medical history. Doctors will spend more time preventing disease than curing it. It seems probably that a single injection, or pill, will immunize us against all communicable ailments. Specialists may be able to determine our susceptibility to cancer, and, if necessary, ward it off with anti-cancer vaccines. Heart disease, high blood pressure, hardening of the arteries and most neurophysiological disorders should be well under control by the end of the next four decades.

Advances in immunology will have overcome our built-in resistance to transplanted tissue. This will make possible replacement of diseased or damaged organs by human (or even animal) spare parts — heart, kidneys, livers and other vital organs. Pills will slow down the aging process. Scientists look forward to painless, bloodless surgery by means of an ultrasonic "wand" that anesthetizes tissues and cauterizes blood vessels as it cuts, and surgical glues instead of sutures for closing incisions.

As researchers unravel the mysteries of the living cell, they will provide powerful new weapons against hereditary disorders and genetic weakness. "I am convinced," says Nobel Prize-winner Dr. Hermann J. Muller, "that, unless man short-sightedly destroys himself, as by means of radiation, he will remake himself... By working in functional alliance with our genes, we may attain to modes of thought and living that today would seem inconceivably god-like.

God-like? Well, not quite.

When you look at the number of diseases that became preventable in the 20th century through the miracles of vaccination, it's an impressive list. Measles, mumps, polio, tetanus, typhoid fever, whooping cough; all of the things on this very abbreviated list used to kill and cripple tens of thousands of people a year. We might not have achieved "god-like" status for 21st century humans, but the tools to prevent many of the 20th century's worst scourges are in our hands. Provided we use them.

And yet the common cold—along with the more nefarious threats of AIDs and cancer—persists. Maybe if we stopped complaining about our lack of flying cars and hoverboards (I certainly include myself in this list of whiners), we can get around to the other promises of the 1950s and '60s, like never having to blow our noses again.

Image: Jonas Salk in 1955 from Getty Images