University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman described Dr. Larry Brilliant as a 60s Hippie idealist, a 1990s entrepreneur, and 21st Century high-techer. And Brilliant proved to be all those things March 16 when he delivered the 2011 Peter M. Wege Lecture for the U of M’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment.
Larry Brilliant got his start as an activist for good causes while an undergrad at Michigan when he was one of a few students to hear an unknown black pastor named Martin Luther King speak. “None of us were ever the same again,” Dr. Brilliant told his audience at Rackham Auditorium.
This year’s Wege lecturer went on to earn his M.D from Wayne State followed by an M.A. in Public Health at Michigan where he served on the faculty from 1977-86 teaching international health and epidemiology. Dr. Brilliant is a physician board-certified in preventive medicine.
In 1985 he founded a non-profit called Seva that ultimately restored eyesight to 3 million people by eliminating preventable and curable blindness. He also co-founded The Well, one of the early digital communities, as well as inventing and patenting an upgrade for online transactions.
The public-health epidemiologist moved to India where he helped mobilize 15,000 health workers to visit homes looking for smallpox. While over half a billion people died of smallpox in the 20th Century, when Dr. Brillant’s campaign was done, smallpox was officially declared “eradicated” – the first time in history that a united effort had wiped out a contagious disease.
As Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman put it, Dr. Brilliant “does not do small.”