Convocation 2018: Dean Michelle Williams address

Dean Michelle Williams speaks at convocation 2018
Dean Michelle Williams

May 23, 2018

Welcome remarks

Dear graduating students, family members, and friends; dear members of the faculty, staff, and of the larger Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health family. Welcome!

This is an exciting day! I am thrilled to be among the first to congratulate the Class of 2018 on finishing this step of their journey—and joining the ranks of Harvard Chan alumni.

You are an impressive group. Altogether, 663 of you are receiving degrees. You come from all over the globe – from 64 countries and 39 U.S. states, plus the District of Columbia.

It is wonderful to be here with you today. But there is one graduate who was not able to join us, and he deserves special congratulations. Conan So was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in early April and rushed home to Seattle to start treatment. His teachers made special arrangements to enable him to participate in his remaining classes. And despite a grueling regimen of chemotherapy, Conan maintained a 4.0 grade point average. He successfully completed his coursework and is graduating on time with his classmates.

I’m sure you join me in congratulating Conan on this astonishing feat. We wish him a fast recovery and a quick return to the work he’s doing to improve the health of others.

Now, I’d like to tell you a story.

Back in 1997, in a small town called Yuma, Arizona, a teacher named Judith Toensing was teaching sixth grade at a public school where one-hundred percent of the kids qualified for free school lunch. Mrs. Toensing had a remarkable student—the class president, in fact. Working with two classmates, this student completed a science project that Mrs. Toensing remembers to this day. The sixth-graders wrote a 100-page prospectus, interviewed the mayor, and envisioned how recycling could work in their town 15 years before it actually happened. At the end of the year, Mrs. Toensing wrote a note on this 12-year-old’s report card. The note read: “It has been a joy to have you in class. Keep up the good work! Invite me to your Harvard graduation!”

Well, that student was our own Christin Gilmer. Christin has kept that report card ever since. And now she is graduating from Harvard with her Doctor in Public Health Degree. Congratulations Christin! It is a special privilege to welcome Mrs. Toensing here today to watch you cross the stage.

And to Mrs. Toensing, who’s in the audience today, I thank you for your work—and the work of so many other teachers at every grade level. It is so immeasurably important. You don’t just teach young people. You inspire them, and you propel them along a path of fulfilment and service to others. Your work is what makes our work possible. Thank you for everything you do, and please keep sending students our way!

I want to congratulate everyone else who made this day possible—so many family members, friends, mentors, and supporters. I know all of you are just as proud of these graduates as I am. And you, too, deserve a round of applause.

I’d like tell you another story now.

It’s the roaring 20’s, an exciting time of technological growth and innovation in the United States. The Harvard-MIT School of Health Officers has just changed its name to the Harvard School of Public Health. And a young assistant professor in the Department of Ventilation and Illumination—a man by the name of Philip Drinker—has begun a collaboration with Boston Children’s Hospital.

Drinker created a unique, air-conditioned room that helped keep prematurely born infants alive. But the technology was new, and whenever the room’s temperature fell by half a degree the nurses would call Drinker and he would rush to the hospital to make adjustments.

On his way through the wards, the young professor passed rows of beds filled with polio-stricken children, suffering from respiratory paralysis. The small blue faces, the children struggling for air, were seared into his memory.

This harrowing experience changed Drinker’s life. He made it his mission to find a way to help these children breathe. And over the months that followed, he invented the Drinker respirator, now known as the Iron Lung, which went on to become a critical device in battling the symptoms of polio.

Ninety years ago this year, on a Sunday morning in 1928, the first patient to use the respirator was an eight-year-old girl. When Drinker arrived at Children’s Hospital she was unconscious. The hospital staff had placed her in the machine, but they were afraid to turn it on. Drinker started the pump, and within a minute the little girl regained consciousness. She asked for ice cream. And, as his sister later wrote, Drinker stood there and cried.

It was a pivotal milestone in the fight against polio, responsible for saving thousands of lives. But it was only the beginning.

In the decades following, many heroic researchers followed in Drinker’s footsteps. They attacked the problem from an entirely different angle and began working on an even more ambitious project: the polio vaccine.

Thomas Weller, who would later become a Harvard School of Public Health professor, was one of those researchers. Weller unlocked the ability to grow poliovirus in a lab, a landmark breakthrough on the path toward a vaccine.

And soon after that, Jonas Salk and Albert Bruce Sabin picked up where he left off, developing safe and effective vaccines, which over time completely eliminated polio from the United States.

This, traditionally, is how members of the public health community remember the origin of the polio vaccine.

But this story is not complete. Because the fight against polio was not isolated to the Ivory Tower labs and classrooms of Harvard. It was a national project, and a social movement, which brought together millions of men, women, and even children—of all ages, races, and creeds—in pursuit of a common goal.

Founded by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, this movement eventually came to be known as the March of Dimes. And at its peak, President Roosevelt was receiving fifty thousand letters every day at the White House, filled not only with dimes, but quarters, and occasionally even dollar bills. According to FDR, these letters were “mostly from children who want other children to get well.”

In just a few short years, the organization brought in billions of dimes, which fueled funding for polio treatments, and, eventually, financed Salk’s famous vaccine.

I tell this story today for two reasons:

  • First, it illustrates the power of one individual committed to making a difference, whether that’s Drinker or Weller or Salk or any one of the small children who took the time to write a letter to their president and enclose whatever money they had.
  • And second, to remind you of the importance of building movements bigger than any one person. Because bringing together diverse minds, and working together, really is the only way to make a difference on a global scale.

The March of Dimes, of course, is just one example of the importance of individual courage alongside open-hearted collaboration.

  • Late one night in October 1980, Harvard Chan School graduate Donald Hopkins had an idea. He scrambled out of bed and began writing.
  • That night, Don drafted a detailed plan to eradicate Guinea worm disease, one of the world’s most gruesome and preventable illnesses.
  • As of the mid-1980s, Guinea worm was affecting 3.5 million people across more than 20 countries. Today, only two countries report cases of Guinea worm—and in 2017, there were only 26 patients with this disease worldwide.
  • Donald Hopkins should serve as an inspiration to everyone here today. As President Jimmy Carter once put it: “There have been few heroes in my life, and Dr. Donald R. Hopkins is one of them.”
  • But Don Hopkins would be the first to tell you that he alone did not take down Guinea worm. Thousands of brilliant public health officials, doctors, and human rights advocates from the World Health Organization and the Carter Center played indispensable roles. So, too, did the African ministers of health who pledged to support this effort; the chemical company that donated larvicide to kill Guinea worm-laden water fleas; and the firm that sent millions of square yards of nylon to affected areas, so they could filter their water, free of charge.
  • This was, truly, a global display of collective action, spawned by the relentless positivity of one of public health’s greatest leaders.

Don Hopkins’ optimism was born in part from his involvement in the battle to eradicate smallpox.

  • The long journey towards ridding the world of smallpox began way back in 1796—when a man named Edward Jenner realized that the only group of people in his community who weren’t catching the disease were milkmaids, who had once been infected by cowpox.
  • Shortly thereafter, Jenner had the crazy idea of injecting an eight-year-old boy with cowpox, to see if he would be protected against smallpox. And on that day, the vaccine was born.
  • But it would take centuries and a diverse collection of scientists, doctors, governments, and nonprofits coming together to eradicate the disease from all seven of our continents—something we still haven’t been able to do with polio.

In a recent article for the Boston Globe, MIT Professor Thomas Levenson wrote: “In polio’s tenacious survival, we can trace the historical evolution of a world in which it is, for now, getting harder to mount collective action for the common good.”

I can see where Professor Levenson is coming from. At a time when science itself is being cynically undermined and treated as if it just one belief system among many—when facts are in danger of losing their meaning—marshaling collective action can sometimes feel impossible.

But this past year has shown us that even today—even in 2018—movements like the March of Dimes really are still possible.

After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a few brave students chose to speak up, and they ignited a massive public health movement. And now, millions of Americans are walking out of schools, and marching down streets, demanding a safer country.

After a few courageous women spoke out in the New York Times and the New Yorker about the abuse they faced in Hollywood, millions of women have followed and are taking on their abusers and their enablers, and shouting out those words, harrowing and empowering as they are: “Me too.”

You, the Class of 2018, showed what’s possible when you organized to support public health colleagues and patients in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. In your willingness to stand up, you strive to make our School, our University, and this entire country more diverse and inclusive at every level. And in the work so many of you do, you support communities and lift lives from Mission Hill to Mumbai.

These movements should serve as an inspiration to, and a call to action for, every person here today. As graduates of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, you are armed with knowledge and skills that make you uniquely well-equipped to bring about lasting change on a population scale.

But as powerful as we all are individually, that is nothing compared to what we’re capable of together.

Public health has always been about hunting in packs—collaborating across boundaries of all kinds. That is the lesson of the war on polio. It’s the lesson of the eradication of smallpox. And it should be a lesson we never lose sight of as we work to unlock human progress and build a healthier world.

Which raises the question: What, exactly, are we working towards? What does it even mean to be healthy?

Innovations like the polio vaccine have enormous implications for public health. They save and improve lives on an astonishing scale. But they are narrow in their effects. They only protect us physically and they only fend off one disease at a time.

But, as I hope you all know by now, the WHO defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being.” And this definition obligates us to consider not just the absence of disease or infirmity—not just the health of individual bodies—but also of whole people and entire communities.

We use words like “well-being,” “thriving,” and “flourishing” to get at this idea. I especially like the word “flourishing,” because it speaks to continued growth and positive change, not just a static state of being.

The idea of human flourishing also encompasses the social connections we form along the way—at religious gatherings and family dinners; on meditation retreats and cheering on home runs from the right field bleachers of Fenway Park; during late-night study sessions and vibrant classroom discussions.

For the people here today, there is no better place to find these sorts of connections—and this kind of meaning—than in one another.

The community you have helped create during your time here is not breaking up today. It’s not dissolving. I prefer to think of it as a geographic expansion. You are spreading out, but you will remain connected.

Tom Insel, an entrepreneur and former head of the National Institute of Mental Health, recently mused about creating a “Camelot of public private partnerships.” This is a powerful idea. But I’d like to take Tom’s words one step further. Let’s aspire to make this community a Camelot of Collaboration. A home for innovation where, together, we can achieve things no biostatistician or epidemiologist, no policy analyst or social scientist, no immunologist or geneticist—no expert or activist—could ever do alone.

So if I leave you with one message today, I hope it is this: No matter where you end up next, never lose that spirit of collaboration.

In the words of one of my favorite African proverbs: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

This moment in our history presents plenty of new challenges—but the solution, today, is the same as it was 90 years ago at the beginning of the battle against polio: individual courage paired with a fierce commitment to working together.

So, I hope all of you will think like Drinker, and Weller, and Hopkins, and the kids whose influence stretches from the March of Dimes to the March for our Lives.

I hope all of you will continue to find the courage to go after the really big problems you can’t fix alone; and discover new ways to solve them together.

The relationships you’ve made during your time here and the habit of working together to tackle problems that matter—these are as powerful and important as the knowledge and the degrees you carry into the world.

Most of all, I want all of you to remember that one person with an idea is unimaginably powerful. But the power of collective action—that’s what will change the world.

Thank you, all, for the chance to speak here today; and for allowing me the privilege to serve as your Dean.

Closing remarks

In past years this would have been the moment where you moved your mortar board tassels from right to left as a sign of your entry into the company of learned women and men. However, today’s event is in fact a convocation, not a commencement. Your final commencement will take place in Cambridge tomorrow.

Nevertheless, this moment marks the end of our academic year – and the end of your time at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. To mark this passage, I ask all our graduates to please stand.

May your future be filled with joy, satisfaction and success—as you work to make the world a healthier, happier, and more just place.

Congratulations to all of you—and best wishes on your journey ahead! Please join me in a rousing cheer to congratulate our graduates!

photo: J.D. Levine

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