Lives of the Lasker laureates Dr. Alfred Sommer administering vitamin A to a child in Nepal. His research established the importance of the vitamin in saving eyesight and saving lives.

September 24, 1997|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

Dr. Alfred Sommer has learned many things in life, but none more important than this: "Scientific advances are not linear. They don't follow a steady path."

Perhaps no one knows this better.

There was the time a Philippine insurgent seized the airwaves and declared that U.S. researchers were poisoning local children with fatal doses of vitamin A.

There was the crushing silence that greeted his discovery that cheap, easy-to-use gel caps not only kept youngsters from going blind, but kept them from dying too.

And there was the snooty editorial in a medical journal that asked whether the news about vitamin A wasn't "too good to be true."

But somewhere along the way, Sommer also learned that overturning established truths required equal parts science, salesmanship and persistence. A thick hide and a dollop of patience didn't hurt, either.

"Don't get upset," Sommer, now dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, once told a young researcher.

"We'll keep doing our work. If we're wrong, we'll discover we're wrong. And if we're right, we'll bury people in data. We'll get to the point where people can't ignore us."

"And that," says Sommer, with a look of sublime satisfaction, "is exactly what happened."

This week, a jury of eminent scientists declared him winner of the coveted Albert Lasker Medical Achievement Award for his groundbreaking studies into vitamin A -- one of the few times the prize has gone to a researcher for accomplishments in the field of public health.

On Friday, Sommer will receive a statuette and $25,000 honorarium at a ceremony in New York.

For Sommer, who was raised in Brooklyn and Queens, N.Y., and was the first in his family to earn a college degree, the prize is a source of immense pride.

But the greater reward is the the fact that his ideas -- after winning broad acceptance in the scientific community -- are now receiving action.

In the past few years, worldwide eradication of vitamin A deficiency has become an important goal of the World Health Organization, UNICEF and, most recently, the U.S. Agency for International Development.

In regions of Asia and Africa where vitamin A deficiency is common, the tablets might become as important as immunizations and oral rehydration salts for diarrhea.

Dr. Mary Ellen Avery, a Harvard pediatrician who sat on the Lasker jury, used the word "breathtaking" to describe Sommer's studies in Indonesia, Nepal, Tanzania and other far-flung places in the Third World.

"It's really a saga," she said of his work. "It will go down in medical history as a case of one person pursuing a problem, noting something unexpected and pursuing that until the WHO and now UNICEF are making sure people living in those parts of the world have vitamin A available."

Sommer, 54, is a tall, slender man who can seem mild one minute and firmly insistent the next.

Colleagues say this range has helped to make him a success in the world of international public health, where one must learn to negotiate with everybody from health ministers to tribal leaders before even dreaming about carrying out a research experiment.

"Many of us are classic American, say-everything-up-front people, and that doesn't always work," said Dr. James M. Tielsch, a Hopkins colleague who collaborated with him overseas.

"He's an incredibly charming guy on a number of levels who has enough cultural sensitivity to get across what he wants people to hear. But he can communicate effectively, too."

On top of that, Tielsch said, he displays a command of the mundane details that are vital to public health work in the arid savannas of East Africa or the swampy outposts of Bangladesh.

Sommer didn't plan a career in public health.

A graduate of Harvard Medical School, he assumed he would go into internal medicine until he realized the field was crowded with talented young doctors jockeying for position.

"It seemed to me if there are lots of people running to beat the other person to the same place, it probably didn't need me to join in that rush."

He discovered that ophthalmology was relatively uncrowded -- and ripe for a young researcher wanting to make a difference.

"Probably anything I might put my mind to might be a contribution to the field rather than a me-too kind of advance," he said.

With the military draft looming, Sommer learned he could satisfy his service requirement by joining the Centers for Disease Control's epidemic intelligence service.

Soon he was dispatched to Bangladesh, where he researched cholera, organized flood relief and helped stem the spread of smallpox.

He would eventually obtain a Hopkins degree in public health and complete his ophthalmology residency -- but he also attracted the attention of an organization dedicated to the prevention of blindness.

Helen Keller International, a not-for-profit organization based in New York, enlisted him to help launch a program that would size up and later tackle the problem of vitamin A deficiency.

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