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A Community of Rambunctious Scholars Celebrating People
Who Have Made Lifesaving Discoveries And Encouraging
Students and Politicians to Read 1000 Science Stories!

Al Sommer
Discovered that Vitamin A pills have a remarkable ability to save children’s lives

Quotes by Others About Dr. Sommer

"Dhaka changed him forever."
- W. Henry Mosley, who hired Alfred Sommer in 1970 to work in the epidemiology division of the Cholera Research Laboratory in Dhaka, Bangladesh.  Mosley sent Sommer and his team to Dhaka to assess the health care needs after a massive cyclone killed more than 240,000 people.   

"There are relatively few absolute, new ideas in the world. If you have one in your life, you're really something. Al Sommer has had several of them." - Bruce Spivey, Secretary General and President-Elect, International Council of Ophthalmology.

"Over and above being a friend and mentor, I'd call him the greatest advocate of public health in our modern day."
- Keith West, The George G. Graham Professor in Infant and Child Nutrition, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Famous Quotes by Sommer

“I say ‘data talk to me, tell me what you have to say…. You have to know your data, you have to smell it, you have to be in it. If you're not living inside the data you are going to miss the most interesting things, because the most interesting things are not going to be the questions you originally proposed; the interesting things are going to be questions you hadn't thought about.” 

“As you peel back the layers of the onion one at a time, there's always another mystery behind it, another medical detective story. Often the answers come at odd times. You don't get the insights you need—either the answer or how you are going to approach a question—while you are actively thinking about it. I'll wake up at two in the morning, and I'll say, ‘Aha, I know how I'll approach that now.’  Unfortunately, a lot of times in the morning what I wrote makes no sense.”

"Whatever contributions I have made have largely been something other than what I started out looking for, as is the case with many contributions in science.  Basically, there are lots of important issues and lots of hints that come your way. I have had that opportunity many times, that when you are concentrating on an issue in a broad perspective, some clue comes along, a hook that gives you a unique insight that you wouldn't otherwise have had."

“I think it's real goofy but governments have multiple objectives — one of them is warfare, and one of them is peace, and one of them is health, and sometimes they get them confused.”

Quotes by Sommer on Specific Subjects

After assessing health care needs following a massive cyclone in Bangladesh:
"I began to think of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people," he said. "From then on, my orientation was different. I was always looking at bigger issues as far as research was concerned. It gave me a population perspective.  That's also where I became very interested in epidemiology and public health."

During an interview for the Lasker Foundation:
“In the broader context, if we improve health in the world, we're improving our own health at the same time.”

On the failure of researchers to remember the proven seriousness of vitamin A deficiency:
"A profound amnesia appears to have settled over the broader context of vitamin A deficiency once it ceased to be a major concern of wealthier nations.”

On the role of public health:
“To be fascinated with what you’re doing - I went overseas and had this marvelous experience working in the field and literally having millions of people’s welfare and lives hinging upon decisions that I made and investigations that I carried out and I found that extraordinarily exhilarating - that the amount of leverage, the amount of impact I could have was so much greater than I could on a one-to-one patient-physician basis. As fulfilling as that is in its own right, I made then the commitment to public health. And public health research is an area where I knew that I was going to enjoy myself.”

“There's a curious paradox at the heart of public health: When it works, nothing happens. Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, 'Boy, it's great that I don't have cholera, or Isn't it wonderful that my children aren't crippled by polio?' ... We dream one day of ridding the world of blinding trachoma, death during childbirth, autism and AIDS. We know that when we realize those dreams, we shall perpetuate the paradox that lies at the heart of public health. ... [It is] a remarkable achievement ... when nothing happens.”

On a Smallpox Epidemic:
Sommer remembers the Bangladesh smallpox epidemic as: “a horrific time. Ten million Bengali refugees were streaming back home.  I was dealing with smallpox epidemics in both urban neighborhoods and dense refugee camps. The only thing you could do was pray for early detection and then mass immunization, to prevent the disease. Once someone had the disease, one-third would die. The key to success was immunizing everyone in the camps. Many refused immunization; I had to resort to holding back ration cards until they agreed to vaccination.”

On the need to be fully prepared:
“My guiding philosophy has always been, 'Chance favors a prepared mind,' which is a quote from Louis Pasteur. My own complement to that: 'If a research project turns out as expected, you haven't learned anything.'”

On the nature of epidemiology:
“An area of medical research and investigation and endeavor that I didn't know very much about and literally fell in love with – epidemiology - which, in its best sense, is medical detective work. It's Sherlock Holmes played out in the medical arena and clearly has had and still has the opportunity to impact positively on the lives of literally millions of people at any one time.”

On the lack of acceptance of his discovering the effectiveness of oral vitamin A treatments:
"Nobody was willing to accept that two cents worth of vitamin A was going to reduce childhood mortality by a third or half, let alone when that information was coming from an ophthalmologist.  A lot of people had spent their lives studying the complex amalgam of elements leading to childhood deaths, and here we are suggesting that we can cut right through this complex, causal web and give two cents worth of vitamin A and prevent those deaths. It didn't sit well."

On his satisfaction in successfully replicating his vitamin A studies in several other countries:
"All the trials came out the same, which was really quite to my amazement, given all the different cultures and environments in which the trials were done. Yet, all the studies had a 35% to 55% reduction in childhood mortality, whether you gave the capsule once every 6 months, every 4 months, or every week, or if you put a little vitamin A into something they ate once a day.  It all came out essentially the same, which was quite heartening."

At his last convocation speech as Dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, 2005:
“My first and most important rule is attributable to that great twentieth century philosopher, Woody Allen—‘90 percent of success is showing up.’ Nothing will happen, or come to mind, if you are not around to observe or experience it. Of course not everything you observe or experience is worth a second thought, but I’d be surprised if you haven’t already exchanged some nuggets of potentially brilliant opportunity—even if rare and far between—over beer and pretzels at Friday Happy Hour.”

“Yogi Berra famously exclaimed, ‘When there is a fork in the road, take it.’ He actually said this—I heard him on an old TV documentary.  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.”

On his grandmother’s influence on his becoming a doctor:
“My becoming a doctor in the first place was very easy.  I truly believe that my grandmother, on the day of my birth, imprinted it somehow on my soul and, in fact, I can never remember a time when I did not want to be a doctor.  She was somebody who had been an immigrant to the United States from Eastern Europe and just thought that physicians were somebody who did good and did well while doing good and thought that her grandson couldn't choose a better career for his life and it was never a tussle.”

On his own nature:
“I ought to provide a disclaimer.  Some people are far more directed and deliberate than I am and I have lived most of my career by doing whatever seemed most interesting at that particular moment.”