10 Scientific Breakthroughs We Literally Couldn't Live Without

Sewage Disposal
Sanitation, including sewage treatment and disposal, has had a huge impact on civilization and the spread of diseases like cholera. Doring Kindersley RF/Thinkstock

Let's fast-forward to more modern times for our next lifesaving breakthrough. When the British Medical Journal asked a group of experts and readers what the greatest scientific advancement in the last 150 years was, the answer wasn't open-heart surgery or the find-my-phone app on smartphones. Beating out antibiotics and anesthesia, the majority chose advancements in sanitation [source: Katz].

The discovery that proper disposal of urine and feces could save lives wasn't so long ago. It was in Victorian England, where the Thames was glutted with waste and sewage overflowed in the streets, that former journalist and lawyer Edwin Chadwick decided that an ounce of sanitary prevention was certainly worth the cure of typhus, cholera, influenza and many other nasty germs that came with exposure to sewage.

Chadwick drafted plans for hydraulic sewage systems and drainage pumps to remove waste (one of those pathways led directly to the Thames). Of course, proper sewage disposal is still not present globally, and with great consequences: One billion people – 15 percent of the world's population -- still practice open defecation, and 2.4 billion will use unimproved sanitation facilities by the year 2015 [source: WHO/UNICEF].