William H. Foege Building: Dedication Remarks

March 8, 2006: remarks by Bill Foege

The wonderful words of President Carter both move me and increase my apprehension. For what language is adequate to express my gratitude?

My parents raised six children…all here today. They did their best but totally failed to prepare me for this. The closest advice was when my mother told me that if I ever faced a person or group who left me in complete awe, paralyzed to speak, I should just remember that each person is 75% water. I can do the math and the fact that I am now facing 30 tons of water doesn’t actually help me a bit.

One of my bosses in the past, Jim Curran, used to predict that the size of my funeral would be totally dependent on the weather. He called to say he could not be here because of the expected rain.

First, my gratitude to the Gates family…to Melinda, Bill, Bill Sr., and Patty Stonesifer. Gratitude for how they have changed for all time what will happen in global health. In the last century it is clear that the combined efforts of global health agencies, governments, Universities, church groups, Non-governmental organizations, and countless individuals, made inroads on the problem, but never pushed the world to a tipping point. And then to see the last 6 years with a new interest in global health research, global health delivery, and social will, we now dare to have a vision of a time when global health equity will be expected…the social norm…rather than simply rhetoric.

Gratitude for their vision, large enough to worry about vaccines for children in an African village but not diverted by the tyranny of the acute from changing the future by strengthening Genomics and Bioengineering. The last 6 years have been a continuous and daily revelation of what science in the service of humanity can actually mean and what one family can do. One family that gave the lie to the old excuse, “I tried to change the world, but I was outnumbered.”

We are raised to think it is better to give than to receive. But we know, deep down, that the social contract makes an assumption. We will get paid back after we have given…and when we receive we will engage in reciprocity. Indeed, one of the first clear references that I can find to the Golden Rule is when Confucius was asked by a student if he could advise in a single word on how best to live and Confucius replied, “Is not reciprocity that word? That is how we are taught. But a friend, Tom Droege, while living through what he believed to be his final months of cancer, had the discipline to write a book on what it is like, at the end, to receive help, and love, and assistance, knowing he could only receive and never pay back…never give. He concludes, that in the end, you have to break a life-long habit of reciprocity and with gratitude accept the fact that some gifts are simply too big to be paid back. And the biggest gifts, such as life itself…children and grandchildren…are not deserved.

This gift is in that category. Too big to ever pay back. It is like a kidney donation. Why would anyone do that? Since I can never pay back the gift of having my name associated with these buildings I now simply say to the Gates family, sincere thanks.

To quote Saul Bellows, the child in me is delighted; the adult in me is skeptical. The human side of me is bewildered but still pleased. I now understand the philosopher who once said, “He who says he hates every kind of flattery, and says it in earnest, certainly does not yet know every kind of flattery.”

As an aside, it doesn’t escape my attention that the scientific creativity these buildings will encourage is bound to be matched by creativity in the pronunciation of the building.

My gratitude next to President and Mrs. Carter who continue to teach that most valuable lesson “Let your life be your argument.” They have changed for all time what this country will expect of its first family on departure from the White House. But it is not just in this country. They have convinced two former heads of state in Africa to work on health projects. They have defined for us how the purpose of life is a life of purpose. Like the Gates family, they have demonstrated an insatiable appetite for learning, experiences and life and they have translated that capacity to drink deeply of life to the belief that everyone should enjoy those gifts, starting with the most basic gift of health. I am absolutely humbled that President Carter would share his time to be here and to give the keynote talk.

You can tell the character of people by the way they treat those who can do nothing for them. I can do nothing for the Carters or the Gates.

My gratitude also to the University of Washington. I came to the medical school 50 years ago for an interview. My first interview was with a faculty member who asked this very nervous applicant why I wanted to go to medical school. Within my first few words he interrupted me to tell me why I wanted to go to medical school. It was never clear to me whether he did this because he was more nervous than I was or whether he was a surgeon, but his answer was so much better than mine that I used it with the subsequent interviewers…and it worked. [I was learning early to stay in the slipstream of the very best.]

I watched this remarkable institution grow. We miss today one of my teachers, Russ Alexander, who had hoped to be here but passed away last week, a major loss to public health. Rei Ravenholt is here and he was not only my teacher in school but I worked for him after school at the Seattle-King County Health Department as he quite deliberately converted me to the joys of global health. A member of my class, Wayne Crill, became a department chair. Those and many other teachers helped create the excellence of this place and I will never forget the late David Rutstein from Harvard telling me after a sabbatical here that he could never say this in Boston but this was a better medical school than the Harvard medical school.

My gratitude goes to faculty, mentors, family, as well as to parents and a wife who approach sainthood. Thanks to my surgeon, Paul Lange, for agreeing to keep me alive until he retired. I wish him a very very long career.

In addition to my inexpressible gratitude allow me to say two other things. The first regards the challenge for the people who will work in these buildings and the second, a word about a few people who went before who are clamoring to be heard.



The gift is more than buildings. It is a gift from the Gates family for scientists to use their imaginations…to harness intellect and art and passion…to explore what has never been seen before, thought about before, available before. There is the challenge. It will require a building of learners. Eric Hofer said “it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.”

In 1872, Stephen Smith, at 49 years of age, helped to form the American Public Health Association. For the 50 th anniversary he was invited back to speak and at age 99 he walked to the lectern and spoke on “The future of Public Health.” In these buildings are planted the seeds for the future of global health. The buildings, the equipment, the budget…are on loan…first to you and then to others.

For me it was worth a 70 year journey to see this moment…but I hope I return for the 30 th anniversary to say a few words about the future.

Fast forward one hundred years. As the centennial of these buildings is celebrated, a speaker will reflect on the history of global health, and that speaker will talk about the impact of the buildings. The speaker will talk about an auspicious start, with President Carter sending us forth to change the world. The speaker will talk about the Gates family and will speak directly to their children (and I do mean their children because they will have a significant chance of living beyond a hundred) and their grandchildren (incidentally I hope my three grandchildren who are here today, Max, Ella and Olya will also attend) rejoicing that they insisted that medical knowledge is not a gift to be hoarded, but to be shared, and the speaker will recount the origins of this grand adventure that married basic science to the liberation of global health.

So ultimately the gift is not even for those working here. It is a gift given to the people of the world. It is a gift that ripples out for as long as we will have a civilization.

It will encourage new interactions of bioengineering and genomics – Just as antibodies are really biological nano-robots, so the future may see the direct injection of nano-robots to be both curative and preventive.

And the most wonderful of all is the idea of social DNA. The sum total of the changes in future society, all traced to these two buildings.

Indeed…when I see the potential in this small foot print of land, in this exquisite corner of the world and think about software revenue coming from every part of the world, flowing to Microsoft, allowing the accumulation of capital and then the recycling of that capital for the construction of these buildings leading to knowledge, skills and tools flowing back to every place that originally contributed to the software, I recognize the wisdom of Will Durant’s statement that “Money is the root of all civilization.”


Finally, a word about a few people who went before. I love history and see the ghosts of the past attending this dedication. If Polybius was correct that the world must be seen as an organic whole, with everything affecting everything, then the voices of 100 billion people who have preceded us are speaking right now as we launch these buildings. Some wrote their speeches in advance so we don’t even have to guess about what they intended to say.

Many were classified as philosophers or theologians but they were actually scientists. The almost unbearable perfection of Confucius would emphasize morality and the Golden Rule in using these buildings for the good of all.

Amos, the prophet would introduce the need for a social conscience in these buildings.

Imhotep, apparently the first scientist that we know by name, a physician and the builder of the Step Pyramid, would still urge us to combine art and science in every endeavor and in every scientist.

Lucretius, over 2000 years ago, is classified as a poet…but he was also a first-class scientist who attempted a rational interpretation of the universe, of history, of religion, of disease and you will recognize his insights when you hear his words “matter is not created or destroyed! -- All things that grow decay: organs, organisms, families, states, races, planets, stars; only the atoms never die." Will Durant calls this the most marvelous performance in all antique literature.

Nine centuries ago, Averroes, the great Islamic philosopher, lawyer and physician, who saved for us the works of Aristotle, and the first to recognize that an attack of smallpox confers immunity, would urge integration of the knowledge that comes from these buildings into everything, as he did while writing about medicine, philosophy, physics, psychology, law, theology, and astronomy.

One hundred years later, Arnold of Villanova, (1235-1311) physician to James II, went on diplomatic missions and was shocked by the poor health, misery and exploitation of the poor. He did not mince words, condemned the wealth of the clergy, was pursued by the Inquisition and still he was so sure of his positions that he repeatedly warned the King that unless he protected the poor from the rich he would go to hell. He would give a sermon today.

Roger Bacon would probably enjoy this as much as anyone and he would say he saw it coming 700 years ago. He seems to have seen everything else…cars, airplanes, submarines and telescopes. But his warning is still clear 700 years later. Science has no moral compass…so scientists must cultivate one.

Rabelais, born 300 years after Roger Bacon would repeat the 10 words that he has Gargantua saying to his son, “Science without conscience is but the ruin of the soul.”

Francis Bacon would start with his legendary words, “Knowledge itself is power.” But then he would add, “Of all virtues and dignities of the mind, goodness is the greatest.”

Benjamin Franklin would be absolutely delighted by the science that will come from these buildings and he would say, as he did, “O that moral science were in as fair a way of improvement…and that human beings would at length learn what they now improperly call humanity.”

Albert Schweitzer reminds us that ethics goes beyond people to include animals, plants, the environment and he would caution all those with any power, which includes everyone who will ever work in these buildings, to be mindful of the destiny that they are creating for others.

Einstein practiced his speech for today in front of the Cal Tech student body 75 years ago last month, “It is not enough that you should understand…science…concern for people themselves and their fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavors...in order that the creations of our mind shall be a blessing and not a curse.”

And the quote from Einstein that I have used the most over the years is now 85 years old but was a relatively fresh 35 year-old quote when I first read it, “Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind. “

And finally, Richard Feynman, guest lecturer at this University in 1963, became interested in nano-technology and genomics and prevention. He said that time moves in only one direction and that it takes very little energy to scramble an egg but all of science is incapable of reversing that simple process. Therefore, he would urge us to use this science for prevention.


And so the summary of these greats of the past is to say repeatedly that there is something better than science and that is science with a moral compass, science in the service of humanity, science that makes current deeds responsive to future needs.

In 1932, Lincoln Steffens said, “What is true of business and politics is gloriously true of the professions, the arts and crafts, the sciences…the best picture has not yet been painted, the greatest poem is still unsung, the mightiest novel remains to be written.”

And so this place will redefine creativity, and discovery and service and morality. This will be a place of inspiration…combining the talents of the scientific elite, with the vision of Melinda and Bill Gates. It will be, in the words of the poet, a love letter to the children of the future saying we loved you even when we knew we would never meet you.

Thanks to the Gates family for letting me be a part of it.