At one of the opening sessions of the Aspen Health Forum, Peter Agre and Michael Bishop, both physician researchers and Nobel laureates, recounted their childhoods, their families, their likes and dislikes, their school experiences, and the barriers, successes and lucky breaks that led them into lives of discovery. Dr. Agre won the award for identifying the mechanisms that allow water to cross the cell membrane. Dr. Bishop won for discovering how certain defects in genes can lead to cancer.
Those of us in the audience were struck by the commonness and good humor of their stories, but also by these individuals’ profound humility and, most of all, their passion. What Neen Hunt, Director of the Lasker Foundation, the third speaker on that panel, in her description of Dr. Charles Kelman, an ophthalmologist who revolutionized the way cataract surgeries are performed (more on that in another post), called “a rage to know.”
You could hear the same dedicated, focused passion in many of the
senior attendees. There was Sir Roy Calne, Professor of Surgery
Emeritus at Cambridge, a pioneering giant of organ transplantation, who
at the end of his presentation gave special thanks to the organ donors.
An exhibition of Dr. Calne’s paintings overwhelmingly conveyed the
gravity and humanity of surgery.
The tone was in Tony Fauci’s presentation as well. Dr. Fauci is Director of the National Institutes of Health’s Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the leader of the US’ Global HIV/AIDS program, and was just awarded the Lasker Foundation’s 2007 Public Service Award for his contributions as architect of two major governmental programs, one on HIV/AIDS
and the other on bio-defense. He explained why AIDS explosive growth
now demands greater attention to and resources for prevention. More
than 20 million have died worldwide so far, and 60 million more now
have HIV/AIDS. For every patient who receives anti-retroviral therapy,
six more become infected.
Dr. Fauci was joined on that panel by Mary Robinson, President of Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative
(the Aspen Institute is an institutional partner on that effort). Ms.
Robinson was Ireland’s first woman President (1990-1997), and then UN
High Commissioner of Human Rights (1997-2002). Ms. Robinson’s compelling, articulate voice called for helping women gain control of their own sexual and life choices,
which play enormous roles in the complex of this monstrous disease.
You arrive at the Aspen Institute not knowing quite what to expect. You
know it is special, an international force in bringing together thought
leaders from every area of human endeavor. And it is certainly
beautiful, with the mountains rising around the campus,
punctuated in autumn by yellow and orange.
But the true pleasure of the Health Forum was listening to and talking with
this collection of extraordinary scientists, physicians,
philanthropists, economists, business leaders, venture capitalists and
policy experts, who have come together for no other purpose than to
share and to learn. There are 28 and 78 year olds, people at the end
and beginning of their careers, but no sense of caste or clannishness.
You walk into every meeting aware that everyone has something
interesting to say, that they are informed, thoughtful, deliberate and
focused on translating idea to action. There is a tacit understanding
that, in their rage to know and do, they are most passionate about
achieving something larger than themselves.
The Aspen Institute is a critical mass of extraordinary exchange. A few
days of that make it an honor and an indelible experience, with the
capacity to energize and facilitate meaningful change once we have
returned home and to our daily work.
Brian Klepper is a health care analyst based in Atlantic Beach, FL. He recently attended the Aspen Health Forum as a Fellow.