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The Dean's Convocation Address 2005

Alfred Sommer, MD, MHS '73

Alfred Sommer, Convocation 2005

Dean Alfred Sommer
Photo credits: Andrew Foster

In his last Convocation speech as Dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Alfred Sommer told the 568 graduates of the Class of 2005 that he always did "what seemed most important and most interesting at the time, never what might best position me for the next step in my career." Drawing on such varied sources as Sir Alexander Fleming, Louis Pasteur and Woody Allen, Sommer spoke May 25 at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore.

At this point, I traditionally introduce a distinguished speaker. Not this year. As it is my last convocation as Dean, the staff decided you’d be stuck with me.

You and I are both graduating today, some of you after one year, some after five or six. I was on the extended plan: I am graduating after 15 years as Dean. You will soon be embarking on a new career. I will soon be losing my parking space.

I know some of what you have learned in order to earn today’s degree: p-values, binomial distributions, the health effects of tobacco, factors that spread HIV, and molecular pathways.

Since we don’t require a final exam or thesis from a Dean, you’ve no idea what I’ve learned. Let me share some of those things with you—I apologize for this one last lecture but at least it comes without numbing PowerPoint slides or additional tuition!

My observations are modest and practical, like those that Mark Twain shared with a friend soon after the Johns Hopkins University was founded: “A few months ago,” he wrote his friend, “I was told that the Johns Hopkins University had given me a degree ... I told them I believed they were perfectly competent to run a college as far as the higher branches of education are concerned, but what they needed was a little help from a practical man. I said the public is sensitive to little things, and they wouldn’t have full confidence in a new university that didn’t know how to spell the name ‘John.’ ”

One of the truly great virtues of this institution is its extraordinary vitality and collegiality, both of which spring from its famously and proudly diverse enterprise. You represent a wide spectrum of countries, societies and cultures, and have joined the School at different ages and stages of markedly different careers.  

Dean Alfred Sommer Photo credits: Andrew Foster

You are bound for the most varied futures of any alumni of the graduate institutions on Earth: from basic laboratory research to fieldwork; from leadership of international organizations and ministries of health to assisting marginalized populations living in desperate circumstances.

We hope a few of you will even become wealthy CEOs, as our fundraising depends upon it!

Some of you may be worrying less about your future mountaintops than about having a job this fall! I can assure you, from 15 years of observation, that you will find work! Your challenge is not so much your next job—but the long arc of your future career. You, like me, will be faced with many potential choices—if you are awake to them.

Now the practical advice, none of which is unique or even original:

You all know the classic case study, Sir Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin. He showed up daily to prepare and observe his bacterial cultures. Like the rest of his colleagues, he also observed, on a daily basis, that bacteria failed to grow around spots contaminated by fungi.

One day, instead of “cursing the darkness” of contaminated culture plates, his “prepared mind” asked the obvious, long-overlooked question: “Why don’t those darn bacteria grow adjacent to fungi?” Mind you, hundreds of scientists had stared at this same question daily for years, but never recognized it!

I’m still not entirely certain what Yogi meant—but I’ve interpreted it as a recommendation to “follow your nose.” At every point in my career I’ve chosen to do what seemed most important and most interesting at the time, never what might best position me for the next step in my career. In fact, I’ve never thought in terms of a career, only of a string of interesting challenges and opportunities. Might a different “fork” have been more rewarding? Perhaps. But one can never know. “Forks in the road” are not susceptible to randomized trials. But not taking a fork, whichever it is, leaves you stuck on the same old path.

At various times, people have been completely exasperated by my attitude and considered it dangerously lacking in self-discipline. They might have been right—but for the things I most care about, it seems to have worked.

The life of Ignas Semmelweis might give one pause. A brilliant, driven, nineteenth century Hungarian obstetrician, Semmelweis roamed the wards of Vienna’s famed obstetrics hospital.

Its maternal mortality rate was, unfortunately, horrendous, the number of women dying from infection following childbirth exceeding that of many of today’s developing countries.

“Chance favoring the prepared mind,” he noted that women delivered by nurse midwives were far less likely to die than those delivered by physicians and physicians-in-training. You can imagine the reception this observation evoked from his obstetrical colleagues!

He further noted that the difference lay not in the level of obstetrical skill—but in the fact that nurses wore spotless starched uniforms and were fanatical about washing before assisting at delivery.

Physicians, in contrast, wore gore-covered smocks to the delivery room and rarely, if ever, washed, even when coming directly from the autopsy room.

For his insights and perseverance, Semmelweis was driven from his profession and position and died at the age of 47 in an asylum.

I am not suggesting you adopt Semmelweis’s career path—but evidence-based insights are the jewels we have to offer.

Keeping them to ourselves, or even to scholarly publications, does not do the world much good, and is incompatible with your association with this institution. Those who have preceded you have spoken their discoveries to the world, and persisted in speaking them until the world took notice.

It does not serve any of us when the President cuts the Medicaid safety net for the poor by $10 billion, as he has this year, in order to preserve a $70 billion tax cut for the wealthy.

Or when faculty, who have won highly competitive NIH research support, find themselves on right-wing Congressional blacklists for daring to test public health interventions that have proven effective in reducing the spread of AIDS.

Our country can, and has, done better. You have, and will, continue to help get us back on track.

Prominently displayed in my office is a silver-framed photograph of an ecstatic Helen Keller dancing with Martha Graham’s dance troupe. Colleagues presented it to me when I first became Dean, 15 years ago. Think about that picture for a moment. Helen Keller, deaf and blind, fully engaged in dancing with Martha Graham. Inscribed on the frame are Helen Keller’s words: “Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing at all.”

Each of you leaves the School to find your own life.

Over the course of that life, you will encounter many opportunities—if you are awake to them—where you too can have a “daring adventure” and, because of that, make a real difference in the world.