The Nobel in Biology won today by Robert Edwards is definitely in that class. (Picture from the Nobel Prize web site.)
Edwards, a retired professor at
Sweden's Karolinska InstituteCambridge University in England, won for work done at Sweden's Karolinska Institute and was called "the father of in-vitro fertilization (IVF)" although, as with Intel's Robert Noyce, there is some sadness in that co-creator Patrick Steptoe, passed away in 1988 and thus could not share the award.
Edwards is now 85, and the award took so long to grant because IVF was controversial for so long. Few inventions have changed the world so utterly as IVF.
Before IVF, an infertile couple had no hope of having a baby. If two women fell in love their only natural choice for children was adoption. Same for two men.
Today we take it for granted. While on my way to Europe last week I fell asleep to Jennifer Lopez' latest movie, The Back Up Plan. IVF was integral to the plot, Robert Klein playing a doctor who gave her the procedure right before she met male lead Alex O'Laughlin. The movie failed for me in part because the IVF plot device has become a yawn.
But in fact it's anything but. Since the birth of Louise Brown in 1978, it is estimated that 4 million people have joined the human race via IVF. IVF has changed the nature of the western family and, in some ways, changed our conception of being born human.
If having a family does not require sex, and all that entails, if humanity is something that can come from a test tube, then we really are in a new place on humanity's journey across the cosmos.
We are, I suppose, in the 21st century.
UPDATE: As I expected when I wrote the headline, critics are now weighing-in against the award. A Catholic Church official offered his personal opinion that Edwards' work resulted in the destruction of embryos and creation of a "market for eggs."