As a young ophthalmologist in the 1970s and early 1980s, Alfred Sommer ’63 discovered that four cents of vitamin A could save the sight and lives of more than a million children each year.
His pioneering research on vitamin A deficiencies, particularly in developing countries, helped establish Sommer as a global leader in public health and has won him numerous national and international awards and honors, including 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.
“Public health is an extraordinarily powerful and increasingly popular choice as a calling and a career,” Sommer said. “It appeals to students because it is global in scope, engages numerous disciplines and makes a real difference in the world.”
Sommer provided a historical overview of some of the critical issues facing public health experts during his keynote address for Founders Day in Memorial Chapel Thursday. The event commemorated the 219th anniversary of the College’s charter.
His visit was part of the College’s focus on wellness this year.
Sommer addressed the role public health has played in dramatically reducing the death rate from diseases such as tuberculosis and measles.
He also touched on two modern day epidemics, lung cancer and obesity, for which “we have no one to blame but ourselves.”
In 1900, few American women died of lung cancer, according to Sommer, but by 1990, the disease was killing more American women than breast cancer because women started to smoke after World War 1.
“I’m constantly fascinated by the annual ‘Run for the Cure’ in the quest for a cure for breast cancer,” Sommer told the audience, “when these same motivated women could help stop lung cancer within a generation by simply getting other women to stop smoking.”
Clinical obesity, Sommer said, is generating an epidemic of diabetes and deadly metabolic syndromes.
“The answer is not better drugs for diabetes; it is in preventing obesity in the first place.”
People are seduced by marketers, Sommer said, citing the popularity of “Super-size” items at places like movie theaters, and the caloric gluttony available at restaurants.
“Do you know how many calories are in a slice of carrot cake at The Cheesecake Factory?,” he asked. “Eighteen hundred. And do you know how many miles you have to run to get it off? 16.”
The key, Sommer said, is to get people’s behaviors to change through what he called the five “shuns”: education, legislation, litigation, regulation and taxation.
He cited former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s successful use of these tactics to fight smoking.
“He vastly increased taxes, outlawed smoking from public places including restaurants and bars, fought tobacco in the courts and mounted an aggressive counter-advertising campaign.”
A modest and unassuming man, Sommer barely mentioned his own groundbreaking work in public health. His early research showed that children with vitamin A deficiencies, which often led to death and blindness, could be treated quickly, effectively and for only pennies with oral high-dose vitamin A supplementation.
Today, more than 400 million vitamin A supplements are distributed annually to children around the world, and the World Bank has called this solution one of the most cost-effective of all health interventions.
In introducing Sommer, President Stephen C. Ainlay said:
“Imagine it: millions of eyes, millions of lives, have been saved by his many years in the field, his many hours of study, and his insightful interpretation and reporting of data. And, as he puts it in his new book on the lessons he’s learned in public health, “these eyes and lives have been saved by his sheer persistence.”
Ainlay presented Sommer with the John Bigelow Medal. Established by Ainlay in 2008, the medal recognizes friends of the College who have contributed to the advancement of humanity. Bigelow, of Union’s Class of 1835, was an author, publisher, lawyer and statesman who was instrumental in the formation of the New York Public Library.
Sommer is dean emeritus of the Bloomberg School of Public Health and University Distinguished Service Professor of Epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University. He concluded by thanking the numerous teachers who inspired him to think critically and follow whatever course most engaged his imagination. He also quoted Horace Mann, who urged students over a century ago to “be ashamed to die before you have won some victory for mankind.”
“I’ve known many Union alumni who have lived by that sentiment,” Sommer said.
Also at Founders Day, Therese A. McCarty, the Stephen J. and Diane K. Ciesinski Dean of Faculty and Vice President for Academic Affairs, presented Christian Talbot, the head of Malvern Preparatory School in Malvern, Pa., with the Gideon Hawley Teacher Recognition Award.
The award, named for the 1809 graduate of Union who was New York state’s first superintendent of public education, 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.
Kaczmarzyk participated in a senior seminar designed in part by Talbot focusing on the brain mind and soul.
“It brought together science and the humanities, and changed my life in no small way,” Kaczmarzyk, an interdepartmental major in biology and music, said of his teacher. “I was always interested in neuroscience, but I did not recognize how interdisciplinary a subject it was until participating in this seminar.
“I was, for example, pushed to communicate the cultural relevance of recent scientific findings, to psychoanalyze characters in Georges Simenon’s ‘psychological novels,’ and most important, to have and defend opinions on ethical and moral matters in neuroscience. For the first time in my life, I was driven to think, connect and act. And it was all thanks to Mr. Talbot.” The ceremony also featured the Camerata Singers, under the direction of John Cox, performing Edward Elgar’s Weary Wind of the West.
The celebration opened with remarks from William A. Finlay, College marshal and chair of the Theater and Dance Department; Mark Walsh ’76, chairman of the College’s Board of Trustees; Ron Bucinell, associate professor of mechanical engineering and chair of the Faculty Executive Committee; and Richard Harris ‘14, Student Forum president. The hour-long ceremony concluded with Ode to Old Union, led on organ by Professor of Music Dianne McMullen.
For Ainlay's Founders Day greeting, click here.
To read an article on Sommer in the Times Union, click here.