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Stamping out smallpox is just one chapter of his Brilliant life story

March 9, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
Larry Brilliant jokes that he doesn't live up to his last name, but he has lived a remarkable life, from his early days in the San Francisco hippie scene, to his work as one of the world’s leading disease fighters who helped eradicate smallpox. Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro sits down with Brilliant to look back at his career and current work identifying today’s global threats.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Next: the memoirs of a hippie, physician and disease fighter.

Fred de Sam Lazaro reports, part of our ongoing series Agents for Change.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The shiny red T-bird convertible is a nod to its owner’s Detroit roots. But it’s in San Francisco that he first made a name for himself. It was quite a name to begin with.

DR. LARRY BRILLIANT, Epidemiologist: It’s so arrogant to have a name like Brilliant that I put Sometimes Brilliant and Sometimes Not So Brilliant. And that’s what I sign.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The memoir Larry Brilliant is autographing chronicles a life of unusual journeys, a civil rights, an anti-Vietnam War activist, and hippie, who helped eradicate smallpox from the world.

Today, he’s an adviser to Silicon Valley philanthropists who are helping him tackle other major diseases.

DR. LARRY BRILLIANT: In the last 30 years we’ve had 30 pathogens, viruses jump from animals to humans. We know some of them, SARS, MERS, swine flu, bird flu, Ebola, Zika.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: It all began in 1969 in San Francisco, where Brilliant had come for an internship after medical school and volunteered to work at the recently closed federal prison on Alcatraz Island, which was occupied by a group of about 100 Native American protesters. That stint got him on the evening news.

DR. LARRY BRILLIANT: Somebody from Warner Brothers saw me on television, and they called me the next day and they said, we’re starting a movie in two or three days. We’re going to be gathering at the same place I got off the boat, and it’s going to be a movie about hippies and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s going to have the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane and Pink Floyd.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: He joined the crew as a doctor, the film was a flop, but Brilliant became friends with some of the era’s iconic figures.

MAN: What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: They included the Woodstock emcee who became famous in clown costume as Wavy Gravy.

DR. LARRY BRILLIANT: This is Wavy Gravy.

MAN: I am so honored to meet you.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: At 80, he’s slowed only physically. The friends still gather often and recount their adventures, including a journey across Europe toward India. They had planned to feed flood victims in what was then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh.

WAVY GRAVY, Entertainer: And the idea was that we had so much media from doing the free kitchen at Woodstock, that if we got there and started feeding people, that it would embarrass the government: My God, there’s hippies doing it. We better do it better!

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: For Larry Brilliant and his wife, Girija, this was a transformative journey. They became disciples of a spiritual leader or guru, Neem Karoli Baba.

Were you able to converse with him in Hindi?

DR. LARRY BRILLIANT: Yes.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Hindi was a big asset for the assignment the guru gave him: to help eradicate small pox in India and Bangladesh, which were among last holdouts for the virus that had killed half-a-billion people through history.

DR. LARRY BRILLIANT: Bad disease. Most people thought it could never be eradicated. We had had a vaccine for 200 years, and what we were doing is we were vaccinating everybody.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: That strategy worked in the West and developed countries, but could never work in India, he says, with a population then of 600 million people, some 20 million of whom were on a bus or train on any given day.

The hippie doctor coaxed his way into the World Health Organization team that took a different approach: tracking down every single infected person and vaccinating everyone around them, creating a so-called ring of immunity, so the virus couldn’t spread. It was a Herculean task.

DR. LARRY BRILLIANT: We had to visit every house in India every month for 20 months. We made two billion house calls, 150,000 people, doctors from 170 countries.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Smallpox became the first disease ever eradicated from the planet. Brilliant went on to become a leading expert on infectious disease, a consultant to the White House most recently when Ebola threatened to escalate.

MAN: What is it going to take to prevent an outbreak?

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Today, Larry Brilliant heads a group called the Skoll Global Threats Fund, which focuses on issues like climate change, nuclear proliferation, and pandemics.

It is an affiliate of the Skoll Foundation, which also helps fund the NewsHour.

MAN: It’s about detect and report.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: These epidemiologists are setting up pilot studies to gather data in 28 countries, trying to determine early patterns of how a disease breaks out.

DR. LARRY BRILLIANT: Wouldn’t you like to create advisory panels and partnerships with tech companies, major universities, epi departments?

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Brilliant has raised millions of philanthropic dollars for other efforts that include the Seva Foundation, an eye care charity now in several countries that he started with Wavy Gravy.

After the smallpox campaign, Larry Brilliant began forging ties in Silicon Valley, where he’s been a kind of guru to many tech industry leaders, including the late Apple founder, Steve Jobs. The two men met in the ’70s here in India, where both had come seeking spiritual harbor.

DR. LARRY BRILLIANT: We have Shiva and Krishna to welcome you.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The Brilliants’ California home is replete with symbols that reflect an embrace of all major religions.

DR. LARRY BRILLIANT: When I was with Neem Karoli Baba, he would always say sab ek, all one.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: That was the spirit of the ’60s and ’70s, he writes, when beautiful flowers blossomed alongside vicious weeds, an era that was neither all Martin Luther King nor all Charles Manson.

For the PBS NewsHour, this is Fred de Sam Lazaro, in Mill Valley, California.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Fred’s reporting is part of the Under-Told Stories Project at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

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