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Lynn Hummel: How to get a genius grant

I’m not a name-dropper, so I won’t name any names, but I’m impressed by all the smart young people I see all around me geniuses, really. Sincerely. The MacArthur Foundation makes genius grants to 20 to 40 people every year. This year the grants are $625,000 each, payable quarterly over five years. They are “no strings attached” grants for “showing exceptional merit and promise for continued creative work.” They are not given as rewards for past achievements, but as investments in originality, insight and potential. They have been granted yearly since 1981 and have been awarded to such people as poets, novelists, historians, philosophers, surgeons, agriculturalists, community development leaders, jazz composers and climatologists.

As a service to all the young geniuses who read this column and their parents, friends and promoters I’m going to tell you about Paul Farmer, who received a genius grant in 1993. His story is told in Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder.

Farmer grew up in Alabama where his family lived in a 50 foot boat without running water. He got a full academic scholarship to Duke University in Raleigh, North Carolina and lived among the privileged. But he quit his fraternity when he realized they were an “all white” organization.

He got interested in migrant labor camps not far from the Duke campus, and went to check them out. He met a Belgian Nun, Julianna DeWolt, and through her became acquainted with a number of Haitian farm workers living in wretched conditions near the farm fields. He read everything he could about Haiti and began studying Creole, the native language of Haiti.

In 1987, Farmer went to Haiti to spend a year working as a volunteer. He had applied to go to medical school and connected with a small charity called Eye Care Haiti with outreach clinics in the countryside. He had $1,000 in his pocket from winning an essay about Haitian artists and figured he could manage on that because the average Haitian lived on less. Being a smart fellow, within weeks he picked up an amazing grasp of the native language and was told he could already speak Creole “like a rat.”

Farmer discovered that 80 percent of Haitians were living below the poverty line, malnutrition affected half of the population with 50 percent of children being undersized as a result, clean drinking water and sanitation systems were unavailable to millions, only 43 percent of the people were getting the recommended inoculations and life expectancy was only 54 years.

He tramped through the countryside taking a survey, going from hut to hut, sometimes catching rides on the back of pickups. He ate food he bought along the streets and came down with dysentery. He came to know sick and discouraged people resigned to their poverty and illness. He discovered that what few hospitals there were, fees kept the poor from seeking help. He saw people ill because they didn’t have the $15 needed for a blood transfusion. He said “I’m going to build my own (expletive) hospital and there will be none of that there, thank you.”

He came upon a wretched, squalid settlement named Lange, way out in the country that was totally without without a clinic, without a hospital, without running water or sewer and without a community health system. He asked questions and put together a community health census that showed huge mortality of infants and mothers. He was discouraged by conditions and said of some of the dead, “They died of Haiti.”

After a year, Farmer returned to Boston and entered the Harvard Medical School at age 24. He often skipped classes, going back and forth to Haiti in between. Working with a South Carolina Episcopal group and a one-doctor clinic not far from Lange, he opened a clinic at Lange. It had one sink and solar generated power. He brought what supplies he could lift from the Harvard Medical School, including the clinic’s first microscope, which was stolen from Harvard. “Redistributive justice,” he called it “we were just helping them not to go to hell.”

Farmer was committed and passionate to the point of obsession. He became a doctor and returned to the clinic in Lange. In 1987, he, some friends and well-healed supporters organized a non-profit named Partners in Health, dedicated to the idea of preventing diseases to avoid the necessity of curing them. Partners in Health took over the little clinic, hired doctors and nurses and eventually developed an all-Haitian staff. The organization built schools, homes, communal sanitation and water systems, they vaccinated children and greatly reduced malnutrition and infant mortality.

Local rules required the clinic charge user fees roughly the equivalent of eighty American cents per visit. Even that minimal amount kept poor people away. So Farmer, the medical director, dictated that every patient be required to pay eighty cents, except women, children, the destitute and anyone who was seriously ill. Farmer’s rule was that no one could be turned away. The result was, the eighty cents made a difference patients came in passenger trucks, on foot and by donkey at great distance.

This is a long story that needs to be made short. The clinic in Lange grew. Today it includes a 104 bed hospital, an outpatient clinic, women’s health clinic, a lab, pharmacy, blood bank, x-ray services and area schools.

Partners in Health became known and consulted as world-class authorities on providing medical services to the poor. Near Port au Prince, Haiti, the 2010 earthquake center, Partners in Health has just opened a state-of-the-art hospital that sees 500 patients a day, serving an area of 185,000 people and provides high quality medical education for Haitian medical students, doctors and nurses. The organization now has 6,500 employees at clinics in the area, almost all Haitians. Other hospitals and clinics are being opened in third world countries around the globe.

For all this, and more, Farmer was awarded the Genius Grant. Later, he received a Conrad N. Hilton prize of $1.5 million. But here’s the catch young geniuses he gave all the money to Partners in Health. If you really want to do something great, do it with passion, and do it for someone else. Hedgefund managers need not apply.