Historian and broadcaster David Olusoga, along with author Steven Johnson will present a new BBC series, Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer.

David Olusoga
David Olusoga
Credit: BBC / TWENTY TWENTY / MARK BOURDILLON

If you have ever wondered about how humanity has been able to conquer some of the world’s deadliest diseases and doubled life expectancies for many across the globe through science and medical innovations, then this is one for you.

Set in the context of the current Covid-19 crisis, the new four-part BBC Four series explores the lessons learned from previous global pandemics – including smallpox, cholera, the Spanish flu and others.

Historian and broadcaster David Olusoga (Civilisations, Black & British: A Forgotten History) and best-selling author Steven Johnson (The Ghost Map, How We Got To Now) combine their 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.

The programme sheds 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.

David Olusoga said: “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. The series is a history of unsung heroes and forgotten pioneers whose incredible stories deserve to be better known.”

“The fact that we have doubled life expectancy may well be the single most important development in modern history.”

Johnson added: “Now more than ever, we need powerful storytelling that captures and explains the achievements in public health and medicine over the past few centuries… The fact that we have doubled life expectancy may well be the single most important development in modern history.”

Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer 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.

Each episode will explore one aspect of public health that has played a central role in our battle to live longer.

“Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer is particularly sensitive to the cultural blind spots that influenced our approach to health, tracing the origins of inoculation back to Africa..”

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: 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 three: Medicine, 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 four: Behaviour, 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 Nutopia production for the BBC.

No UK release date has been set yet.

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