Touch Wood

There is an oasis of brilliance and calm in New York City, which is not widely known and is the result of the genius and vision of John D. Rockefeller, who leveraged his vast fortune then to help his fellow man in many ways which he could imagine but would never really see.

He loved land and acquired a lot of it in many places including New York City, Westchester County, Mt. Desert Maine, and Wyoming.

Perhaps one of the smallest parcels of his land was on the East River in the east sixties of Manhattan. He gave that land in 1901, and a healthy endowment with it, to what is known today as Rockefeller University [RU].

To say that something is unique is risky because by definition there can only be one. RU is truly unique.

It is both a hospital that does not charge its patients, because they contribute themselves clinically to do research, and an amazing research academy comprised of 76 laboratories where scientists are addressing most of the serious health threats in modern society.

If counting Nobel prizes is a reasonable metric for gauging the quality and importance of their work, there is no other institution of their size anywhere in the world that comes close.

In the 100 plus years they have been at work they have opened more doors in the minds of scientists all over the world to the avenues that lead to dealing with the weaknesses and diseases in the human body and mind.

In recent times they have been using the term “translational” medicine to highlight their focus on connecting or translating the science in their research into clinical applications that can help extend and improve human life with respect primarily to cancers, arterial and neurodegenerative diseases.

The current path of the overall cost of that broad collection of human afflictions in terms of general care, as well as medical care, by 2050 would totally bankrupt our modern society, if those types of diseases are not curtailed.

For that reason alone, simply taking for granted the benefits to humans of reducing suffering, it is an economic and financial imperative that RU and all other scientists succeed in their collective efforts and goals.

The head of RU is Marc Tessier-Lavigne [MTL]. His name suggests that he is French. He was born a French Canadian. He has lived and worked most of his relatively young life in the US. He has been and is both a researcher, general manager [was CEO of Genentech] and an inspiring leader of a broad swath of scientists of many stripes.

He speaks “English” in the sense that everything he says can be completely understood by all audiences including lay people. And he can do the same in French and some German.

He brings to mind the British actor Emlen Williams whose specialty was Dickens. Williams could sit on a stool in an empty black stage with a spotlight on him ‘reading/speaking from memory’ [no paper in hand] some great Dickens pieces. People left the theatre saying “that was the most vivid technicolor film I ever saw.” Indeed the human mind alone can beat Hollywood producers every time!

MTL has Williams gift of bringing alive all the issues and promises of modern sciences to improving and extending human life.

He is also charmingly modest and down to earth. In talking about hoped for promises of some therapies, he taps the arm of his chair and says “touch wood.”

He asserts that, because though there is no science behind the properties of wood in their work, there is a lot of chance and luck.

Let’s all touch wood and hope that he stays well and at the helm of RU until 2050 or the path of those diseases reverses — whichever occurs first.


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