Apologies to my other mentors, Patricia Jones, Brian Chen, John Hogenesch, Mike Nitabach, and Patty Parker, but this column is dedicated to my first really influential teacher (aside from my parents, of course).
I met Don when I was 18. At the time, he was an Emeritus Professor of Biological Sciences at Stanford, and he was interested in energy policy relating to climate change. He had had at least three notable careers before this incarnation of himself: (1) he was a classical electrophysiologist and made enormous contributions to our understanding of neuromuscular control, (2) he was the head of the FDA under the Carter administration, and (3) he was an accomplished university administrator, culminating in his term as President of Stanford. Shortly after I met him, he would be named Editor-in-Chief of Science, which makes FIVE enviable careers. Altogether, he’s the most accomplished person I’ve ever known.
At the time, I thought my purpose in life was to go fix climate change. I was pursuing the very nebulous Stanford major called “Earth Systems”, and most of my classes were economics, philosophy, and public policy. Don’s first major impact on my career was convincing me that it was better to get a degree in the hard sciences — preferably neuroscience — and return to policy issues later. In retrospect, I see the wisdom of this advice. To the extent that my career has made a contribution to science, it’s owed ultimately to Don. He also did more than anyone before or since to teach me to write. To the extent that this blog has merit, it’s owed ultimately to Don.
Given our mutual interests in environmental policy, Don and I discussed politics. He was passionate about the need for injecting informed scientific opinion into the public debate, especially about energy policy. I was 18, I read Marx for fun, and I was passionate about how right my opinions were. I recall saying something glib and adolescent along the lines of needing a ‘revolution’ or a ‘fundamental transformation’ in order to replace the carbon economy. Don, always the teacher, very patiently explained that although climate change science is solid, public policy is ultimately an exercise in compromise. Compromise between different opinions, and compromise between different priorities. So, although the science says that climate change is real and needs to be addressed, the policy choices to attain that end aren’t altogether clear. He also gently chided me, saying that it’s impossible to bring people around to your way of thinking when you’re talking about the end of the world or proposing that we burn the system to the ground. Moreover, he argued that it will be impossible to get people to give up the essential advances of modernity and industrialization; instead we need to develop rationale policies to address this challenge. In his way of thinking, this requires mature, responsible adults taking a hard look at data.
To my credit, I’m not a complete dolt, and I realized how superficial and childish I had been. This conversation has stuck with me and has formed the basis of my politics ever since.
In musical terms, when you’re 18, John Lennon’s “Imagine” sounds brilliant and deeply wise. Paul McCartney’s “Let It Be” is square and churchy in comparison. But, in your mid-30s, it’s easy to see how “Imagine” is naive and adolescent, while “Let It Be” (although still square) brings to mind the virtues of patience, moderation, and resiliency. So, the second big lesson from Don was to appreciate moderation and compromise. Lacking Don’s gravitas, I’m afraid I don’t pull it off as well as he does. I’m probably more like Joseph Heller’s character Clevinger in Catch 22 who “was constantly explaining conservative positions to his socialist friends, and making excuses for his socialist friends to the conservatives. Naturally, he was despised by both.”
Don was old-school American liberal, but when we discussed the 2000 election, he said he was fatigued by the (first) Clinton administration, and although W. Bush worried him, he thought it would be good for the country to have a change. Imagine that, a partisan who appreciates that unbroken rule by one’s “side” is neither desirable nor advantageous? At the time, it seemed like the 2000 election is the biggest thing that would ever happen. I’m in awe that he had enough perspective to realize that losing one election wouldn’t be the end of the world for his party or the issues he cared about.
What would Don think about the current election? I fear he would be utterly depressed by one candidate who is proud to consider politicians on the other side to be her “enemies”, and equally depressed by another candidate who treats women like disposable masturbatory dolls (to steal a phrase from Christopher Hitchens). This isn’t to suggest a moral equivalency between the major candidates in this election — we all have to make our choice — but it is intended to bemoan the necessity of making a lesser-of-two-evils choice. Perhaps in the spirit of moderation and compromise, we can all agree that people who vote against our candidate may have a point as well?
Unfortunately, I can only surmise what Don would think of this election. The last time I saw him in person, he told me about how his doctors had begun to detect deficits in executive function. I’m sympathetic, having had my own executive function deficits. At his age — mid-80s — that puts him at risk for some really unpleasant diagnoses. He also told me how he and his wife were investigating assisted living options. He told me all this in a matter-of-fact manner, without the least hint of despair or self-pity. I suppose if he were feeling those things, he probably wouldn’t have revealed them to me. In any case, I admire his fortitude in facing enormous adversity. Perhaps he was trying to teach me something, the same way I was trying to teach my daughters how to deal with a life-threatening disease? I assume so; among Don’s many admirable qualities, he was a teacher to the core, and I’ve never known a scientist of that caliber with a greater interest in education.
Between the time I got sick and my surgery, I sent out a bunch of emails to friends and family to convince myself and everyone else that I was being brave and that I’d see the other side. I emailed Don at the time. He never responded. In those eventful days, I didn’t think much about it. A couple weeks ago, I tried again. Sadly the response I received was an auto-reply:
Your message to Donald Kennedy has been forwarded to this temporary email address. He is ill and is not currently reading email.
Please remove Professor Kennedy‘s name from your mailing list until further notice.
This is an entirely unsuitable end for the greatest mind I’ve ever known. I would complain about the unfairness of it, if I thought fairness had anything to do with such things. I’m trying really hard to end this column on an optimistic note.
- It’s inspiring that Don had such an enormous impact on his students, the university, and the government.
- He probably hasn’t had to watch this squalid presidential election grind towards its entirely predictable end.
- He’d be delighted that I came out on the other side of my illness, and he’d take a great deal of pleasure knowing that the time he spent with me is remembered and cherished.
That’s the best I can do.