Emory Report
March 28, 2005
Volume 58, Number 24


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March 28, 2005
Foege looks to the future in second annual Sheth Lecture

BY Michael Terrazas

In introducing William Foege to a capacity lunchtime crowd, March 22 in Miller-Ward Alumni House, former CDC director Jeffrey Koplan listed several striking attributes of his one-time boss. “He is tall,” said Koplan, vice president for academic health affairs, of the man to whom he reported some 30 years ago while working for the CDC’s smallpox eradication program. “He is very tall.”

But it was another attribute besides Foege’s height—his “ability to make anything he talks about interesting,” as Koplan said—that was on display that day, as the Presidential Distinguished Professor of International Health at the Rollins School of Public Health delivered the second annual Sheth Distinguished Lecture, sponsored by Emeritus College.

Foege’s subject was the future as he sees it through the window of epidemiology. But his lecture ventured far afield of disease investigation, as Foege offered predictions not only for public health but for culture, religion, higher education and other aspects of the human experience.

“My grandchildren will not realize how new democracy is,” he said, stating that “clear trends” show democracy is taking hold all over the world. “They will take democracy for granted.”

But the United States may no longer be the unchallenged epicenter of that future world characterized by self-rule; in higher education, for instance, Foege said U.S. restrictions on stem-cell research and immigration will push the nexus of biological post-graduate education East, to India and China.

Making oblique references to everything from the Terri Schiavo case to the U.S. intervention in Iraq, Foege said the United States will be significantly responsible for its future loss of influence. “Over the last century, we developed the reputation of using strength with restraint—now we’re squandering that reputation,” he said. “In the arrogance of becoming the world’s only superpower, we’ve become blind to the proper use of that power.”

Many of those in attendance had personally witnessed the evolution of U.S. hegemony, as the crowd was made up almost exclusively of seniors. Eugene Bianchi, professor emeritus of religion and director of Emeritus College, welcomed everyone to the event, the purpose of which is “to combine sociability with intellectual inquiry.” Bianchi also pointed out that three former CDC directors were in attendance: Koplan (who served from 1998–2002), Foege (1977–83) and David Sencer (1966–77).

Foege, who also directed the Carter Center from 1986–92, had more predictions: that biology will be the defining science of the 21st century; that fundamentalism would begin to decline as fissures within fundamentalist movements sap its strength; and that genomics would issue in a new era of single-payer health care. (“Once you have your [personal] genome on a $100 disc, insurance companies will find it hard to find people who are insurable,” he said.)

Though many of his predictions seemed dire—“Tell me when I’ve said more than you want to hear,” he said at one point—Foege closed his address with a bit of sunshine. Saying that all cultures and even individuals were a mix of fatalism and nonfatalism, he gladly reported that his own field was composed predominantly of the latter.

“Public health people are by nature optimists; there is no logical reason for pessimists to go into that field,” Foege said. “I tell my students that there’s a time for optimism and a time for pessimism, but when the time for pessimism comes, contract out for it.”