By Sanford D. Greenberg
“The Call” is the story of how diverse actors from across different fronts are converging toward a major victory for humankind: the end of the scourge of blindness.
For me, that improbable-sounding call began in 1960 when I was nineteen years old , midway through my third year at Columbia University. As a consequence of developing a case of glaucoma so severe I needed to have my eyes surgically altered, I lost my ability to see. While I was still in a hospital bed in Detroit, newly blinded, I swore an outrageous oath that has been with me ever since: That no one else should have to go blind.
It was a promise I made not just to myself but to God. Whatever the swings of luck I have experienced in my life, that has remained my personal mission: I must do something to ensure that no one else undergoes the suffering I experienced. Put into its unadorned, brutal essence, that something has been: to end blindness!
The initial shock of realizing that one has become blind—in hard, cold, ever-present, inescapable fact—floods a person with a self-preoccupation frozen and devoid of momentum. At first. But although the situation seemed to me in its earlier moments to be irreparable, as with all setbacks it also blessedly unleashed the need for hope—hope for a future for me beyond making screwdrivers (as was suggested to me by a well-meaning social worker back home in Buffalo) and hope for all of us similarly afflicted.
Medical science has achieved great things since I was a blind kid making that grandiose vow, of course. Previously unthinkable technological possibilities began to nurture an unfocused hope that we might someday be able to reverse blindness by targeting one of its root problems: damage to the optic nerve—a major element of my own condition. Over time, that “lesser” hope of mine evolved into an expectation.
Some years after I lost my eyesight, an intriguing thought occurred to me: How wonderful it would be to sit down with a number of thought leaders in different medical, scientific, and even engineering disciplines to see whether we could chart a way—across those disciplines—to develop overarching clinical technology for nerve-tissue regeneration. Moreover, I wished to develop technology that would go beyond just the optic nerve, making people who are blind not blind, but that could also make people who are deaf not deaf (concerning auditory nerves) and possibly to make people who have been wounded by traumatic spinal cord injuries whole again, among other benefits.
Perhaps if I and others managed to get the relevant experts together in a room and lay the problem in front of them, I speculated, then maybe, just maybe, by their feeding one another insights or suggestions from their separate disciplines, innovative new scientific insights would emerge—and new clinical solutions would eventually follow.
Collective discussion has characterized American society since its earliest days, most dramatically through the “we the people” principles of James Madison and other Founders that have powered much of the success of our democratic republic. Similarly, the free and open exchange of scientific knowledge has energized America’s intellectual achievement, and as I hope to make clear, it is the basis for my participation in the Call.
My original vow, to ensure that no one else undergoes what I experienced, had become a mission. Beyond a casual motivation, it had escalated to a dominant urge to make some sort of contribution—one way or another."
As a result of financial success as an inventor and entrepreneur, I was eventually able to arrange just this sort of conclave on nerve regeneration more than once. The first time, in 1984, came about with the kind personal help of Dr. Torsten Wiesel, winner of a Nobel Prize for mapping the visual cortex. Dr. Wiesel organized a symposium of outstanding scientists, held privately in Washington, to assess the work going on in the field. Unfortunately, we learned from that gathering that the relevant science was not yet far enough along to be likely to yield feasible clinical results. Further, equally inconclusive colloquies were later held through the good auspices of Dr. Elias Zerhouni, then director of the National Institutes of Health.
I felt two ways about each conference. For one thing, having now attempted in good faith to fulfill my contract with God after so many years, I could relax a bit. I had honored that promise made back in 1961—at least to the degree that I was actually trying to find a way so that never again would youngsters like me have to go blind.
But I also felt anxiety. Even though I may have done all I could toward my vow, I was unable to muster any confidence that these broad conversations on regeneration of the optic nerve specifically and nerve regeneration generally would produce anything close to the desired outcome. I imagined that if I went back in time and told the nineteen-year-old me in the hospital that I had tried “really hard” to accomplish what I had promised, even though I had not actually gotten it done, the nineteen-year-old me would say, “Not good enough! Just trying is insufficient.”
For this hospital-bed ghost of my youthful self, nothing but complete fealty to my early promise would be acceptable. After all, it, like me, was victimized by human failure—in my case, a physician’s failure to diagnose glaucoma. To say that one gets over such things is just not so.
Somewhat paradoxically, however, the remarkable medical technologies about which I learned in those conferences left me with a strengthened confidence in the possibility that my long-ago vow might indeed be fulfilled. More than that: My original vow, to ensure that no one else undergoes what I experienced, had become a mission. Beyond a casual motivation, it had escalated to a dominant urge to make some sort of contribution—one way or another.
The History of an Irresistible Idea
One Way or Another
The concept of human agency seems to me a useful heuristic tool for outlining the etiology of the Call among the diverse actors mentioned at the outset. We demonstrate strong personal agency when we take up the lawnmower and mow the lawn, but an ordinary citizen has scant if any personal agency for launching a war against a foreign country, say. What agency could I possibly hold, then, so as not just to make passing contributions toward my mission but to attain the unimaginably high level of complex actions necessary actually to regenerate the optic nerve, let alone to tackle other aspects of blindness? I have no laboratory or clinical skills whatsoever; it would be criminal even to entrust a Bunsen burner to me.
Nevertheless, fate has unaccountably offered me a fair degree of agency, in a broader sense. Through a cascade of utter happenstance, undying friendships, and — to be honest — brutally hard work, I returned to Columbia the semester after I was blinded, graduated with my class, and went on to graduate school in government at Harvard, with an intervening Marshall Scholarship at Oxford University, eventually receiving a doctorate from Harvard and later an M.B.A. degree from Columbia.
Later, I became one of the earliest White House Fellows, working in the Lyndon Johnson White House, where I met many distinguished people who became lifelong friends. Foremost among those was the guiding spirit of the Fellowship program, David Rockefeller, who became a mentor. We remained close until his death in 2017 at the age of 101. His influence in my life has been profound, in my business career but particularly in the approach to philanthropic activity.
After I left service as a Fellow, some of those friends—including Willard Wirtz, President Johnson’s secretary of labor; Orville Freeman, his secretary of agriculture; James Goddard, his commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration; Bill Moyers, his press secretary and special assistant; and Maxwell Rabb, secretary to President Eisenhower’s cabinet—joined with me in the start-up of my first company.
When I founded one or another company, many of which were involved with medical technology, I focused not only on the profitability of each but also on whether each one might provide value for the common good: an opportunity for people with physical afflictions to live in a manner more dignified and satisfying than might otherwise have been possible. I am not one to shy away from making a profit with my endeavors, to be sure, but the mandate to contribute more directly to the public good has always been with me—as a director of the National Committee on United States-China Relations, as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and in other ways.
Some of those endeavors helped to set the stage for later action toward ending blindness: as a member of the National Science Board, which operates the National Science Foundation, and as chairman of Congress’s 1997 Rural Health Care Corporation, which, among other things, initiated programs to bring the benefits of telemedicine to America’s rural healthcare facilities.
Along the way, I was happily made a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Thus, I joined the company of many of the nation’s most gifted civic leaders and scientific minds—some of whom, with their extraordinary accomplishments and expertise, are dedicated to responding to the Call. I am forever thankful that this arc of my life has generated a byproduct: a degree of personal agency that has positioned me to contribute value to the Call as well.
The Jonas Salk Epiphany
The mandate to contribute has not functioned for me solely on the institutional level but also through personal relationships—an avenue I consider an important aspect of what I have referred to as collective discussion, and indeed one that may, in the end, turn out to have been even more useful than waving an institutional c.v.
I had never shared the promise I had made to God with anyone other than my mother (and that was while I was still in the hospital) and later with my wife and with my college roommates Art Garfunkel and Jerry Speyer, but eventually I also shared it with Sol. Sometime later he called and said that he would like me to meet Dr. Jonas Salk of polio fame to talk about my promise.
The three of us met in Sol’s office for the better part of an afternoon. When the meeting was over, I walked outside to a peaceful open space so I could be alone. At first listening to the chatter of birds, I became increasingly excited. For the first time, I felt there was realistic hope for the promise to God. The reason: Dr. Salk had urged upon me a focus beyond the treatment of a disease’s symptoms or its individual physiological effects. After all, he had made his own objective nothing less than to end a disease—and he succeeded. I now repeated to myself, “End it! End it! End it!”
I have never forgotten that day and that bold concept. It was the first step toward regaining confidence in delivering on my promise. On the other hand, Dr. Salk’s concept raised a new dilemma. Polio had been a discrete target, and above all a unitary one. But ending “blindness” per se is decidedly neither a discrete nor unitary objective.
Dr. Jonas Salk had urged upon me a focus beyond the treatment of a disease’s symptoms or its individual physiological effects. After all, he had made his own objective nothing less than to end a disease—and he succeeded. I now repeated to myself, “End it! End it! End it!”
In later years, at a time when the gusts roiling a life typically begin to steady out, I found myself increasingly mulling over the dilemma of how to reframe my tottering 1961 promissory aspiration. After all, as I suggest, if something doesn’t work one way, we usually try to find another way. I found my thoughts returning often to my close friend Sol Linowitz, a career diplomat who earlier was instrumental in taking the floundering Haloid Corporation to great success as the Xerox Corporation.
The JFK Epiphany
Another amazing initiative—one that impressed me deeply at the time—crept insistently back into my thinking as well: President John F. Kennedy’s electrifying pledge in the early 1960s that we Americans would put a man on the moon within a decade. Not “might.” Would.
In particular, I came to appreciate more fully the power that such a singular call had, in and of itself, to galvanize broad attention, opening the way to the national mobilization of an immense concerted effort far beyond that which was orchestrated by or at the behest of President Kennedy himself. JFK’s call, coming as it did in the context of our “space race” with Soviet Russia, forged an intense national unity of purpose without which a Neil Armstrong would surely not have set foot on the moon within that decade, if maybe even within the century. I saw how the mere statement that we might put a man on the moon suddenly made such a gargantuan objective believable and worthy of serious national conversation—because, of course, it was coming from the President.
President Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the moon came in 1961—the year I lost my eyesight, it so happens. JFK’s rash pronouncement would have been a laughable fantasy half a century earlier, in 1911, but the Second World War had provided the setting for dazzling advances such as in rocketry and computers built on heat-resistant semi-conductors. Without such new technologies, and especially with only vacuum tubes, no moon shot. Those resources and others seemed to me, as I now looked back on them, to have been practically waiting to be called together to enable getting a human being onto the moon and back.
The Value of Signposts
As intelligent and aware as the President was, his call—in the form of his pledge that we Americans, collectively, would land a man on the moon—came from someone who knew next to nothing about the intricate aspects of the science and technologies required. The power of his call lay, instead, in the realm of communications. His call functioned as a signpost—one that proclaimed not a fact but an ideal, a bold aspiration that demanded attention. When communicated without requiring clouds of explanation, that ideal could be grasped easily by anyone and everyone in the nation, even children. That signpost was a function of the President’s agency, from his “bully pulpit.”
As my thinking focused more and more on finding a way truly to fulfill my hospital-bed vow of 1961, the utility of a signpost began to assume greater potential value. The problem, again, was that with medical subjects such as polio and smallpox, you can somewhat reasonably say, “Let’s end polio” or “Let’s end smallpox.” People at all levels can grasp the concepts right away and, given some reasonable expectation of success, get behind them. At a minimum, those subjects are well suited for communication.
Not so in the arena of pathologies of the eye. “Let’s end glaucoma” or “Let’s end retinitis pigmentosa” or macular degeneration or other individual disease categories are simply not signposts around which to rally people. The array of target diseases within “blindness” is too disparate even to qualify as a spectrum, and the basic definition of each is too complex. Moreover, the current expectations for uniform success across the entire array are mixed, perhaps iffy at best.
In the face of those considerations, the plainspoken vow I made in 1961 stands stubbornly. At the heart of it was the end of blindness, not just the end of this or that aspect of eye disease.
The Possibility of Progress
Despite today’s muted expectations for a cascade of dispositive medical breakthroughs in diseases of the eye, the outlook for advances is hardly dismal. In the same light that the critical role of the advances in rocketry and electronics played in JFK’s moon challenge, consider the clinical advances in ophthalmology made in those same fifty years, from 1911 to 1961.
During the lifetimes of many people alive today, what is now considered irreversible blindness of any sort may commonly become a scourge of the past. I believe that we are morally obligated to exert our collective power of agency to make it happen … but that has to begin with our collective belief that it will happen.
In 1911, in contrast with 1961, there were no electronic tonometers for measuring ocular pressure or accepted techniques for cataract surgery. Now consider the advances in knowledge and treatment in the succeeding fifty years, from 1961 to 2011. They are close to logarithmic. Laser eye surgery is only one such treatment. Treatment of macular degeneration (although not yet fully satisfactory) is another.
But how about ophthalmic capabilities in yet another fifty years, say—by 2061. Well, one researcher at the
Wilmer Eye Institute of Johns Hopkins University has suggested that, with the use of retinal chip technology, the blind may be able to drive by as early as 2040. And so it goes.
I am trying to show, albeit in a crude way, how the unlikely can shift, sometimes with a snap, to the conceivable … on to the possible … then to the probable … then to the likely … and finally to reality. A momentum is often fueled by accumulated yet unanticipated scientific discoveries that turn out to work together to yield successes in disease management. Another example stands out: the virtual worldwide elimination of smallpox. The very last public case of the deadly variola major type on the planet was identified in 1975 in South Asia—an astounding outcome that would have been pronounced impossible even fifty years earlier.
In that light, how off the wall is the rash promise I made in 1961? Didn’t we end polio? Yes. But can we cure blindness? It’s speculation, but I am here to speculate. Yes, I (along with some authorities in the field) believe it is on the horizon—and coming before the year 2061. Not just this or that aspect of blindness but virtually all the wildly disparate eye diseases and types of trauma. During the lifetimes of many people alive today, what is now considered irreversible blindness of any sort may commonly become a scourge of the past, as smallpox and polio have become. I believe that we are morally obligated to exert our collective power of agency to make it happen … but that has to begin with our collective belief that it will happen.
Indicia of Progress
President Kennedy wielded a power of personal agency to a great degree, of course. He was born of a prominent family and the elected President of the most powerful nation on Earth. I was a Buffalo junk dealer’s blind son. But the lesson I drew from the JFK epiphany was that perhaps I did after all have (or might reach toward) broader agency than I had thought, even though on a vastly smaller scale than JFK’s.
When I was asked to join the boards of Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Medicine, with its medical school and hospital and its acclaimed Wilmer Eye Institute for advanced research and treatment in ophthalmology, I eagerly accepted. I later became chairman of the board of governors of Wilmer—a position breathtakingly appropriate for a blind person who had dedicated himself to ending blindness in human beings. It seems to me, in retrospect, that in a not fully conscious way, I had been approaching a personal agency sufficient to participate more meaningfully in the Call that began to emerge for me back in 1961, and at just the right time.
Thanks to the string of developing associations within the research community dedicated to the science of the eye, I have become aware of the many indications that the clinical disposition of blindness—not just due to nerve damage but from other causes, too—appears to stand at a point rather similar to that of the nascent American program of space exploration in the 1950s and early 1960s.
Eliminating all blindness is at the cusp of becoming not only a theoretical objective to be desired but a reasonably doable one: “reasonably,” as in amenable to reasoned discourse based on evidence. Broader awareness of research achievements seems to be poised to coalesce into a movement. A case in point: the N.I.H.’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences program has lately developed the initiative “Therapeutic Strategy for Eye Diseases.” We note the plural: diseases. The Center’s focus is on how science is done as well as what it does—which is to say, by customized cross-discipline teams, each one assembled to solve a particular problem.
Research into the many physiological aspects of blindness, including nerve-cell replication, has indeed been achieving striking, albeit incremental, breakthroughs in medical knowledge—a fact to which leading clinical authorities on blindness attest. (This is not to overlook the many disappointments, such as in the deployment of pluripotent stem cells.) But attention to vision has likewise been ballooning in the wider scientific arena. For example, National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins recently said, “If I were trying to understand how the brain works, I think I might choose to look [first] at vision.” Some thirty to fifty percent of the neurons in the human cerebral cortex are said to be involved in vision; the optic nerve itself is considered to be part of the brain.
Thus, in the due course of time and luck, my thinking has steadily led me in a full circle right back to my sweeping universal but essentially adolescent promise in Detroit in 1961: that no one will have to become blind.
The neuroscientist Dr. Eric Kandel, Nobel Laureate in medicine and Professor at Columbia University, likewise believes that vision research may provide an avenue for beginning to understand “globally” how the brain itself works. Inspired by such potentials, President Barack Obama pledged $100 million in funding to the so-called BRAIN Initiative, one of whose tracks concerns the intersection between the eye and the brain. The initiative’s leader, Stanford neuroscientist William Newsome, has done important work on understanding the neuronal processes that underlie vision.
A number of leading authorities on eye and eye-brain research believe that scientific advances have, in the aggregate, reached a point where ending blindness clinically seems to them at least theoretically possible, if not yet feasible. Ending blindness? Possible to any reasonable degree? Yes, possible—although undoubtedly not all in a single stroke. As possible, perhaps, as success has been with polio and smallpox. Thus, in the due course of time and luck, my thinking has steadily led me in a full circle right back to my sweeping universal but essentially adolescent promise in Detroit in 1961: that no one will have to become blind.
Around the same time, a systemic problem in the field of scientific research on disorders of vision increasingly stood out from my observations of the field and came to dominate my thinking. The individual triumphs in the broad arena of research into the physiology of vision have remained disparate, even fragmentary. Some observers in the research community have lamented that a truly thorough industry-wide exchange of clinical research developments is lacking. Aside from a few programs such as the N.I.H.’s team-based concept of its Therapeutic Strategy for Eye Diseases initiative, progress toward the optimal degree of the transfer of knowledge and technology for eye diseases has been unremarkable.
The very concept of fragmentation in any human endeavor—whether science, business, or governance—implies the suboptimal. To my mind, that condition is unacceptable on its face. It cries out for the sort of radical refocusing that John Kennedy and Jonas Salk provoked. As I hope to show, a dramatic shift in the climate of opinion surrounding mankind’s approach to problems of vision is timely, and of course morally important for us all.
In scientific research, scattershot and the fragmentary are most definitely suboptimal. The contrary of fragmentation is integration of effort. Superior organization is clearly indicated for a clearer path of progress, as any business manager or engineer would tell us. But integration of effort doesn’t just happen. Organization doesn’t just happen, either. These are not passive functions; they must be created. Unfortunately, the multiplicity of pathologies of vision signals an innate tendency toward impediments to integration. My dilemma dictated finding a way to signal integration, not fragmentation.
The Value of Throwing Deep
It was dawning ever more clearly on me that the very practical essence of the bold and brilliant strokes of President Kennedy and Dr. Salk was that each had raised signposts for others to see and follow. They each created a charter whose execution would demand organization.
I was struck by the realization that, in general, without such lofty signposts, mankind is left largely to wander helter-skelter. In such a situation, ideas and discoveries that might clear a path for the progression of mankind (skeptics: such a thing as progress does exist) might well never coalesce collectively and tend merely to accumulate in a jumble.
I have never forgotten the wisdom of Congressman Jack Kemp, the late Buffalo Bills quarterback: “Throw deep,” a bit of advice I have often followed, both in my business life and in my quest to satisfy my promise to my ghostly monitor to help make blindness a thing of the past. More wisdom underlies “throw deep” than may at first be apparent. Why? Because it is contrary to a default bit of human nature, which is to give priority to negative aspects of a contemplated action. That mental bent tends to end with the potential action compromised or even avoided. Many desirable outcomes are unknowingly—or even needlessly—stifled by that reserve.
I have never forgotten the wisdom of Congressman Jack Kemp, the late Buffalo Bills quarterback: “Throw deep,” a bit of advice I have often followed, both in my business life and in my quest to satisfy my promise to my ghostly monitor to help make blindness a thing of the past.
Throwing deep is not the same as acting rashly; instead, it is acting toward that which one truly desires, after having well considered—and rejected or countered—the limitations and downsides. That differs greatly from the sorts of internal compromises and toxic regrets that negotiating with oneself tends to produce. To throw deep is to honor one’s highest beliefs and aspirations. When Jack Kemp provided that vague bit of advice for success in any worthwhile endeavor, there was no inkling of how much more important it would become to me many decades later. For an adventure such as pushing toward an end to blindness, his advice is hardly hyperbole. It is of the essence.
Thus, that one simple phrase prompted by the example of Jonas Salk became ever more prominent in my thinking: End it! The campaign coalescing in my vision would have to throw deep indeed. Rather than engage in a probably futile attempt to find some obscure common physiological threads among all the eye disorders in the textbooks, we would go right to the simplest, most communicable objective. If the profusion of pathologies of vision is a case of not seeing the forest for the trees—as it seems to be—then let us turn the spotlight on the forest. Simply, on blindness.
A signpost worthy of John Kennedy and Jonas Salk, I came to think. One that dissolves my dilemma of the singular versus the multiple. A banner that by its very presence rises beyond the awkward discontinuities among the pathologies of vision. One that by virtue of its very boldness elbows its way into the realm of possibility: to end blindness.
Our Signpost—The Prize to End Blindness by 2020
Accordingly, on October 18, 2012, my wife, Sue, and I, together with other family members and friends, announced the establishment of a prize, accompanied by a substantial award, to be bestowed as of a set date in the future upon the persons, groups, or institutions judged to have made the greatest scientific and medical contribution toward advancing vision science for human patients. We chose December 2020 for the formal announcement of the winners of the Prize.
Alongside the Prize, we have established a deceptively simple rallying cry, a slogan: End Blindness by 2020. This virtual signpost, accompanied by an information campaign, has already gained support from business, scientific, and political leaders such as senators Ron Wyden of Oregon, Chris Coons of Delaware, and Kentucky’s Rand Paul, himself an ophthalmologist. I’ve carried the message to the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, several times. Multiple media outlets have also taken note, including “The Charlie Rose Show” and National Geographic magazine.
The virtual signpost is supported as well by my old comrade Art Garfunkel—neither a business leader nor a scientist but a poet—who wrote about our Call, “We are searching for nothing less than light.” Or in the late Nobelist astrophysicist Riccardo Giacconi’s phrase, “Lighting up the darkness.”
As welcome as such attention has been, the purpose of the prize and (ultimately, most important) the campaign behind it is to shift the focus of leaders in scientific research, medical care, related industries, and influential policy makers from a fixation on individual eye diseases. In the spirit of Jonas Salk and President Kennedy: The overarching identifier of the problems of vision—encapsulated by the simple term “blindness”—is by far the more powerful position for organizing attention and support for the ophthalmological field.
The Sanford and Susan Greenberg Prize to End Blindness by 2020 is therefore unashamedly inspired by those earlier Kennedy and Salk signposts that so affected me. Each called attention not just to an unlikely seeming endpoint but to a truly grand one. In the same incautious spirit, our signpost would no longer be just for optic-nerve regeneration specifically but now for the other diseases and dysfunctions of the eye as well. All of them.
Our Deeper, Long-Term Intent
Our prize and these related initiatives to end blindness might at first appear to be a one-shot effort, vaguely inspirational in purpose. In fact, the Prize is designed to drive a deeper, long-term intent. Hence the deliberate heft of the Prize’s Governing Council and the Scientific Advisory Board — a virtual who’s who of public service, civic involvement, and Nobel winners both to date and to come. Hence, too, the critical importance of elevating awareness of the Prize among the research communities and the institutions that support them.
In its essence, the End Blindness Prize is not really a prize; in a word, it is a campaign. In communications terms, it is geared to awareness, designed to disseminate a call to action within a specific audience segment. The objective is to enlist in the Call the one community that commands the power of agency capable of actually delivering on my hospital-bed vow: the scientific research community.
Thus, in the due course of time and luck, my thinking has steadily led me in a full circle right back to my sweeping universal but essentially adolescent promise in Detroit in 1961: that no one will have to become blind.
That research community lies right at the center of the End Blindness by 2020 Prize and campaign to end blindness. Those of us involved with the Prize hope to induce the investigators involved in hands-on research on vision and related neurological repair—as well as those who support them with administration and resources—to raise their heads and look at the broad scope of vision and eye-brain issues beyond their own essential but narrowly focused individual projects.
Beyond occasional efforts by the research industry toward sharing research information through pro tem specialist teams, the campaign built around the Prize is specifically intended to induce a broader swath of researchers in science and their mentors to embrace the aggregate thrust of the latest research findings.
It is our judgment (or, more appropriately, our faith) that enlisting medical investigators and supporting organizations in a virtual worldwide community devoted to diseases of the eye as a unitary concept—“blindness”—is likely to be the most effective as well as the speediest approach to neutralizing the fragmentation effect of the contra-integration “headwind” and to accelerate ending blindness forever as a scourge to humanity.
The End Blindness Prize and campaign have been designed to induce scientific and medical researchers engaged in medical research on all issues of the eye to maintain awareness of research activities outside their day-to-day specialties. Why is such cross-connecting important?
Specialties within ophthalmological research include optic nerve damage, macular degeneration, genetic approaches, and stem-cell manipulation, among a number of others. Investigation within these disciplines requires a variety of mindsets, different analytical techniques, and different presumed endpoints. Individual researchers or research organizations may tend to be well aware of developments within their own well-delineated thrust of investigation—in industry jargon, in their silo—but less aware of developments in other lines within the overall vision category.
However, a development in one silo may be capable of providing a profound clue to researchers in another silo—but only if information about it is shared. If an investigator in genetics, to take one specialized field, were to make a discovery of some considerable value—but not a “eureka” one within that particular field—it may well be that a researcher in, say, macular degeneration would find that discovery a real breakthrough in his or her work … if made aware of it. But how can a mere prize, as noble as it may be in itself, manage to accomplish such an ambitious, complex objective? Again, because at its root our Prize is not a prize. Its ultimate intent has been to introduce and, by degrees, make thinkable the Salk-ian idea that we can speak openly about the seemingly preposterous notion of ending all blindness.
To lift their eyes to the end of blindness per se is ipso facto to encourage researchers to consider their work more broadly, outside their exclusive attention to a silo. This is perhaps a version of the saying, “If you build it, they will come.” The End Blindness Prize is an awareness-building device; again, the phrase “end blindness” is the signpost carrying the very notion of thinking of blindness as a unitary category.
At heart, we are advocating investigating the eye and eye-brain system in the cockeyed spirit of break-down-the-borders optimism bequeathed to me by those two great exemplars, John F. Kennedy and Jonas Salk.
By definition, the End Blindness by 2020 campaign ended in 2020, with a formal presentation of the Prize and its winners on December 14th in the United States Supreme Court as guests of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The location and our host lent gravitas to the award, but Justice Ginsburg’s involvement sends a second, powerful message as well: Just as she has fought her entire career for justice before the law, so we are fighting for justice for those denied what the poet John Milton once called “that one talent which is death to hide”—vision, sight, a birthright of our species.
Where the End Blindness by 2020 campaign ends, though, the final breakthrough work begins, and that solemn, even sacred obligation falls to the Sanford and Susan Greenberg Center to End Blindness. The organization of the Center, its range of inquiry, and its institutional emphasis on younger researchers can be found in the opening pages of this declaration of its establishment. I will not attempt to further delineate its mission at this in utero stage because to over-define is to craft limits and create horizons, and my nearly sixty years as a blind person has taught me time and again that you don’t get to the end zone by thinking small.
A Steadfast Goal for All Humanity
Our aspiration may lead us to wonderful synergies across the whole range of nerve-related suffering, but the goal of the Greenberg Center shall be steadfast throughout: to eliminate suffering from disease or trauma of vision. To borrow again from my dear friend Art Garfunkel, our quest is for light — to illuminate this world for those who have never seen or no longer can. How can we not rally together and find a common path forward for such a purpose? And how can we not hope that the discoveries we might foster will spread like a balm over a wide swath of human misery? To do less, to hope less, to expect less would compromise our entire effort to this point, and we the people, all the people will not allow that to happen. Too much is at stake. Failure cannot be an option.
Throw deep. Dream big. Imagine a world without blindness, then watch it dawn. That sunrise will live in human memory forever.