During these pandemic times, my mind has often drifted back to memories of my small role in fighting another infectious scourge: polio. In the first grade, I stood in a long line down the dim, tiled halls of Public School 178 in Queens waiting to get my Salk vaccine jab (later replaced by the more effective, orally administered Sabin vaccine). My parents, like so many during the 1950s, were desperate to protect me from the devastating effects of polio. To their great relief, I did my small part for herd immunity against an illness that has virtually been banished from the earth through vaccination.
So it was especially poignant for me when Michael Miller, M.D., a physician colleague and consultant, recently forwarded an article from a Connecticut newspaper noting that the state’s governor, Ned Lamont, had allocated $500,000 to upgrade the facilities of Camp Harkness in Waterford. Camp Harkness was founded in the 1920s by Mary Harkness and her husband Edward to care for disabled victims of polio. It is located on a portion of what used to be the Harkness family estate, which itself has become the Harkness Memorial State Park. Since the eradication of polio, the camp has been open to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
As president of the Commonwealth Fund, I now preside over a philanthropy endowed by the same Harkness family. My office occupies Edward Harkness’s former study; his portrait hangs above my desk. From that vantage point, he is seemingly still observing the work of the foundation his family founded to support the common good. We carry out that mission today by working to improve U.S. health care. Since the pandemic began, we have focused much of our energy on better understanding how our health system can confront and defeat it.
It is not lost on me that — perhaps because of the polio vaccine — I am here today, in the midst of COVID-19, to honor the charitable commitments of a family that did what it could in the 1920s to help victims of a devastating, random, and unpreventable disease. Drawing a line from then to now, it is easy to see how continued focus on vaccinating the population against the modern-day scourge of COVID-19 is a worthy effort and wholly consistent with the Harkness legacy.
Our personal histories are full of strange circles and resonances. I am the beneficiary of investments in science that have protected me — and now my children and grandchildren — from a vast array of infectious threats. I am also the beneficiary of the vision and generosity of a privileged family that used its wealth to advance the common good.
The question we now face is how to combine biomedical ingenuity and human generosity to fight current and future pandemics. I would like to think that if the Harknesses were alive today, they would be fighting to make sure all Americans were vaccinated against COVID-19, especially our most vulnerable and disempowered citizens, and that they would be urging us all to join the vaccination line not only to protect ourselves and our families, but our communities as well.