I am the last of four sons of Lena and Edmund, she, the daughter of a carpenter and he, the son of a Lutheran Minister.
My mother’s family was nurturing, valuing highly the arts, education, simplicity and living ethically. At the age of 14 my father started supporting himself and becoming a quiet, effective laborer, never going to college, but after graduating from Medical School, becoming a US Army surgeon and making remarkable, important contributions. My parents took me on trips, to concerts, islands, museums and countrysides, and encouraged me to question and learn.
Twelve years at Germantown Friends School imbued me with a questing Quaker ethic. At Yale College I concentrated in the field of History, and my heart remains in the humanities and the arts. Awards in various fields at Germantown Friends and Yale - such a Phi Beta Kappa and All-American Soccer - were not sought; they just happened as a result of talents passed to me from my parents, and how I was brought up. When finishing Yale I was concerned about whether I could support myself and a family as a poet or composer, and whether I would create anything of value. Not knowing what else to do, but having watched my father improve the lives of thousands as a result of his courage and skills as a physician and by sharing his knowledge by teaching and writing, I decided to learn how to help people be healthy, and so enrolled in Harvard Medical School.
Though doctors presumably serve a useful purpose, seemed useful, I was surprised while at medical school and after that, by what seemed an inappropriate emphasis on theory, algorithms and laboratory research, rather than on careful observation, logical reasoning, and demand for relevance, the goal being healthier people and healthier societies, not publications or awards. The medical profession seemed to want to act as it saw fit, using statistical theory to define health and disease, ignoring qualitative information such as “I don’t feel good.” Doctors seemed to perceive themselves as free of bias and conflict of interest, when the opposite seemed clear. Physicians were not taught that every person is unique, that diagnostic and procedural labels are at best approximations, that signs are often misleading surrogates for the more important symptoms, and that patients' concerns are cost, convenience, how they feel and how they function in their daily lives. I gradually came to believe that the way for people to be truly healthy - healthy physically, artistically, spiritually, financially and emotionally was for them to learn how to take care of themselves well so that they would become truly well, well physically, artistically, spiritually, financially and emotionally, and then act on the basis of what they knew intuitively and had learned. When individuals are truly healthy so will be society also.
In 1961, while a resident at the Wills Eye Hospital, I discovered a previously unknown disease, homocystinuria. Working with G. Winston Barber we found it to be a relatively common metabolic cause for abnormal development and intellectual disability; we also found a partially effective treatment using the simple vitamin, pyridoxine (B6). The same year I was the first person to use a then new antiparasitic drug, thiabendazole, to treat a sick young adult woman with severe trichinosis. I started understanding that by observing carefully, asking relevant questions and then trying to answer questions I could make lives better. In 1963 I enlisted in the US Public Health Service, primarily because I did not want to fight in the Korean War, and spent two years at the National Institutes of Health, assigned to the field of glaucoma.
Since that time I have developed an international influence in ophthalmology, partly as a result of the 400 or so papers published in refereed journals, the 200+ editorials, the 24 books, the better ways to examine and characterize the eye, the development of methods to test vision and functional ability, and the 300 or so trainees who now work in 24 countries on six continents. Some of these students have become well-known, for various reasons, but those less visible contribute as much or more to making the world better. These activities have led to awards; around 2015 a survey of ophthalmologists internationally concluded I was the most influential ophthalmologist in the world.
The world, due to us, is desperately sick and will not recover unless we change the way we are living...
But, the world is burning up, disastrously overpopulated, increasingly polarized with many obscenely rich and vastly more desperately poor, with exponentially decreasing wilderness and species diversity. Many say we need are technological solutions, and that “everything is going to be fine.” The reality is that technology is amoral, neither good nor bad, neither useful nor destructive in itself. “Technology” is not the solution to any of the world’s great problems. It never was and never will be. Technology wisely used has been and can be helpful. But it is the use to which it is put that determines its value.
In short, the world, due to us, is desperately sick and will not recover unless we change the way we are living by acknowledging that we are the worst thing that ever happened to our planet, and that we don’t need to continue in that role. If we start to live in a way based on becoming well in the most inclusive sense of the world, rather than a manner primarily egotistical, tribal, and characterized by denial of reality, there is probably a chance that a world can evolve in which humans become increasingly realistic, disciplined, and lovely, living together harmoniously with each other and with that which was here long before us. I have come to believe that my first responsibility is to try to become a pragmatic, inclusive, idealistic, and good person, good for the long-term health of all that lives, and as I try to do that, share my thoughts in hopes they help others move towards being good, inclusive, pragmatic, idealistic people.