An Excerpt from the Book:
“Besides being grounded in good science, the secret to our success
has been to bring extremely talented people into the room –
and then listen”
Bill Danforth is a retired physician, professor of medicine, and academic administrator. He was chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis from 1971 until 1995, leading a team that enriched Washington University’s presence nationally. In 1998, he co-founded the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center to “improve the human condition through plant science”.
I am forever mindful of the great explorers and scientists who have come before us: we benefit from their discoveries and achievements. The reality is that we don’t honor such people for being scientists: we honor them because of what they have contributed to new understandings. And so I have always stressed the importance of high quality science – and capable scientists.
In 1951, after graduating from Harvard Medical School, I came back to St. Louis as an intern at Barnes. At the time, the country was in the midst of a polio epidemic. I took care of a polio patient who was very close to my age, and so I felt a personal connection to him. He developed paralysis of his respiratory muscles and lost the ability to get enough air into his lungs. At the time, the best we could do was to put him into an iron lung. It was frightening but less so than not being able to breathe. Regrettably, the disease kept advancing; he died in the iron lung.
At about the same time, John Enders in Boston was developing methods for growing poliovirus in chick embryos – his work showed that it was possible to grow these viruses outside of the human body. The Salk and Sabin vaccines were developed from his research. That is what science can do.
There is a common belief that scientific discovery happens through individuals in white lab coats. This notion is a thing of the past: today the biologic sciences are a team sport. Scientists work together combining their talents and their technologies to solve complex problems. It is best done in an institution that can support the individuals doing the work, and provide structure where it is needed.
In my early days as Chancellor in the 1970’s, we recruited Roy Vagelos as our new head of biochemistry. Some people may know him through a subsequent role as the CEO of the pharmaceutical giant Merck. I became familiar with his research from reviewing his papers. He wasn’t just a good scientist but an exceptional one, and I was delighted to have him run one of our departments.
Roy looked at the way we were educating graduate students aiming for a career in the life sciences, and he was concerned that the programs were too compartmentalized and narrow. He came up with the idea of a common educational program integrated across disciplines and later joined the scientists in their laboratory, then a radical approach. The appropriate departments joined into the Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences. Graduate students were recruited into the Division rather than into separate departments. Thus, Washington University changed fundamentally. I give all of the credit to Roy.
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