Dr. Alfred Sommer ’63, a global leader in public health, to speak at Founders Day

Publication Date

Dr. Alfred Sommer ’63, a global leader in public health whose pioneering work in studying vitamin A deficiency has helped to save millions of children’s lives and eyesight, will deliver the keynote address at Founders Day Thursday, Feb. 27, at 12:45 p.m. in Memorial Chapel.

The event commemorates the 219th anniversary of the College’s charter.

Sommer, whose visit is part of this year’s theme of wellness, will talk on “Health, Genes, Behavior and Environment.”

A prominent ophthalmologist and epidemiologist, Sommer is dean emeritus of the Bloomberg School of Public Health and University Distinguished Service Professor of Epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University.

During a series of studies that began in Indonesia in the mid-1970s, Sommer and his research team discovered that children with vitamin A deficiencies are at a greatly increased risk of death and blindness, particularly in developing countries.

His research showed that the deficiencies could be treated quickly, effectively and for only pennies with oral high-dose vitamin A supplementation, which the World Bank's World Development Report declared one of the most cost-effective of all health interventions.

Today, more than 400 million vitamin A supplements are distributed annually to children around the world, preventing blindness and saving literally thousands of lives each year.

Sommer’s groundbreaking research has won him numerous awards and honors, including the Helmut Horten Medical Research Award, the Warren Alpert Foundation Prize (2003), the Fries Prize for Improving Health, the Helen Keller Foundation Prize for Vision Research and the Albert Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research, widely considered the American equivalent of the Nobel Prize. He was only the second ophthalmologist to receive the Lasker award.

In 2013, he was named a Dan David laureate, an internationally distinguished award administered by Tel Aviv University. Sommer was honored in the future category, which recognized achievement in preventive medicine.

In 2005, a PBS documentary, “Rx for Survival” featured Sommer as a global health champion.

In 2004, the Bloomberg School of Public Health established a $22 million scholarship program, the Sommer Scholars. The programs aims to "recruit the next generation of public health leaders to devise new, effective interventions to improve global health."

Last year, Sommer published his memoir, 10 Lessons in Public Health: Inspiration for Tomorrow’s Leaders.

Also at Founders Day, the College will present the Gideon Hawley Teacher Recognition Award to Christian Talbot, the head of Malvern Preparatory School in Malvern, Pa. Named for the 1809 graduate of Union who was New York state’s first superintendent of public education, the award is given to secondary school teachers who have had a continuing influence on the academic life of Union students.

Talbot was nominated by Jakub Kaczmarzyk ’16. Talbot was an English and art history teacher at Regis High School in New York City when Kaczmarzyk was a student there.

Past Founders Day speakers have included Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Richard Russo and James M. McPherson; Paul LeClerc, retired president and chief executive officer of the New York Public Library and a former professor at Union, and Ira M. Rutkow ’70, a surgeon and author whose writing has focused on the history of American medicine.