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My Lunch With Dr. Vagelos
One of the best teachers at Penn isnt
on the faculty.
By Rachael Goldfarb
I recently served as chair of the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education
(SCUE), the branch of student government that is committed to academic
reform, I must admit that my most profound experience at Penn was not
in a classroom. Nor did I have a grand epiphany as I pored over a textbook,
or while meeting with a professor during office hours. Instead, my greatest
moments in college took place at a corner table tucked away in the back
room of the Faculty Club.
The back room was established
as the SCUE Lounge to designate a specific space for students to have
lunch with their professors. I had the opportunity to dine with the head
of the U.S. Commission on Civil RightsDr. Mary Frances Berry, the
Geraldine R. Segal Professor of Historyand heard her describe being
passed over for a white woman while hailing a cab to a university commencement
at which she was scheduled to give the keynote address. I have listened
to our most talented and interesting professors talk about what brought
them.to Penn and what motivated them to dedicate their lives to research
and teaching. As extraordinary as these lunch hours were, there was one
in particular that I will always remember.
My friend Laura and I had had some previous
interaction with Dr. P. Roy Vagelos C50, chair of the trustees of
the University and former chair of Merck & Co., Inc. During these
exchanges he seemed to be warm and affable, but there was never an opportunity
to talk with him much about his own experiences as a Penn undergraduate
and in his subsequent career. Driven by curiosity about such an accomplished
life, we wrote him a letter asking him to join us for lunch. He accepted.
Although Laura and I were
quite.nervous, he immediately put us at ease. His personality combines
a quiet and gentle nature with a striking forcefulness. When he walks
into a room, he fills it by his very presence, not with an entourage.
At lunch, he proved to be a masterful storyteller. Describing the skepticism
of his colleagues when he took the then-unusual step of leaving the academic
world for the pharmaceutical industry, he recalled how one professor had
said, "Youre going to have to sell toothbrushes and combs when
you go there, right?" His response was, "Probably," and
with that, he embarked on a.remarkable second career developing drugs
that would treat and transform entire communities throughout the world.
As Mercks chair, Dr.
Vagelos has.encountered numerous political and world leaders. He has battled
Hillary Clinton over health care, introduced groundbreaking research alongside
Ted Kennedy and traveled through Africa.to donate and administer drugs
to impoverished communities with Jimmy Carter. It is the story of the
development and distribution of an anti-parasitic drug to cure "river
blindness"a horrific disease contracted from contaminated water
that affects millions of peoplethat I think reveals the most about
Dr. Vageloscharacter. After helping to develop the drug at Merck,
he made the decision to donate it to Africans because those who were affected
by the disease could not.afford to pay for a vaccine. Asked whether this
decision was a tough one, he answered, simply, "No. It was easy.
I was there for the development and the discovery of the drug, and then
I just gave it away."
This past spring, I managed
to.convince Dr. Vagelos to lead a SCUE "preceptorial," a not-for-credit
mini-course that is led by Penn faculty and generated by Penn students
["Dont Worry, This Wont Be on the Exam," Mar/Apr].
His preceptorial, "I Want a New Drug," addressed drug development
and the pharmaceutical industry. Usually, preceptorials feature road trips
or discussions in settings beyond campus, and I envisioned taking a tour
of Mercks headquarters or laboratories. But Dr. Vagelos insisted
that we have discussions here on campus; he wanted to have a conversation
with students. I reluctantly agreed, though I thought students might be
I should have known better.
Even with a dryboard as his only teaching tool, Dr. Vagelos was mesmerizing
and led one of the most engaging preceptorials I have ever participated
Dr. Vagelos ended the preceptorial
by saying, "This is my last teaching experience." I certainly
hope that is not the case and that another opportunity presents.itself,
because he is a remarkable teacher.
Knowing Dr. Vagelos has enriched
my life. My dream is to achieve what he has achieved: great success, tempered
with kindness and generosity. I am even willing to sell toothbrushes and
combs to get there. Thank you, Dr. Vagelos.
Rachael Goldfarb C99 graduated from the University
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1999 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 7/6/99