Commencement Address -- Herbert Kaiser '49

30 May, 2004

I am flattered beyond belief to be the recipient of this honor from my alma mater Swarthmore. I would like to think that I am the beneficiary of an honor that could rightfully go to so many of my college peers for their impressive accomplishments — many of which have gone unheralded.

Swarthmore had a profound influence on my life — as it did on many. Just a few months after being on a submarine off the coast of Japan at the end of WWII, I found myself on this idyllic campus — thanks to the GI Bill of Rights that funded college education for returning veterans. I owe so much for what I am — and for what I have been able to do — to the influence of the wonderful professors under whom I studied — and to my fellow students — who came from such diverse backgrounds. Idealism and optimism characterized the post WWII generation at Swarthmore. The quiet Quaker spirit permeating the college community influenced all of us. Chief among Swarthmore's many gifts to me was Joy — my wife and partner of 54 years.

In 1983 when I retired from the US Foreign Service, it was not Eastern Europe where I had spent the bulk of my 30-year career but my three years in South Africa that stayed to haunt us. Why? It is because I benefited from the superb medical care available to whites but denied to black South Africans in apartheid South Africa. In Pretoria in 1971 I was treated successfully for melanoma, a vicious form of cancer. Several years later the white South African surgeon who saved my life wrote me that he was giving up his private practice to train black doctors. That was the germ of the idea for MESAB.

For the two years after my retirement from the State Department, Joy and I began investigating what could be done to address the injustice of apartheid health policies. With the greatest difficulty in getting the data, we learned that out of the black population of over 20 million in 1984 there were only 350 black doctors, fewer than 20 dentists, and less than 120 pharmacists, etcetera. The figures for black infant and child mortality and for maternal mortality were appalling. We saw for ourselves overflowing waiting rooms for sick blacks and hospitals with 300 percent occupancy rates. (Figure that one out! It meant two to a bed or on the floor). We consulted both health authorities and a range of black South Africans, who all saw an urgent need for more black healthcare providers. They appealed to us as Americans to support training for black doctors. We also saw training black health professionals as preparation for black leadership roles in a post-apartheid society. We knew that apartheid had to end — it was morally and economically untenable. We did not guess then that it would implode so soon.

Medical Education for South African Blacks — MESAB — was incorporated in 1985 in the US; its South African arm was established the following year. In 1987 MESAB was able to give the first scholarships to 14 students at one South African university. Since then, MESAB has given almost 10,000 one-year grants to students in medicine, nursing, dentistry, pharmacy, and other allied health professions. Today MESAB makes awards to almost 700 students per year at 26 South African institutions. Some 2500 have graduated — half of whom are doctors. They are now working throughout South Africa and serve many hundreds of thousands in a year.

MESAB has added other programs over the years: it introduced the first-ever Mentor Program at South African universities. The Mentor Program now provides academic and personal support to approximately 6,000 students per year and has become a model for other disciplines.

MESAB also supports advanced training for nurse-midwives in care for newborns and their mothers (including care for HIV positive mothers).

Two years ago MESAB launched the Palliative Care Initiative to address the HIV/AIDS pandemic now raging in South Africa. This Initiative funds the training of professional and community caregivers in palliative care for those infected and affected by AIDS. The disease remains incurable, but palliative care can improve the quality of life, even extend it by treating the opportunistic diseases accompanying HIV/AIDS. And when the drugs that are so effective in rich countries like ours become widely available in South Africa, health care workers trained in palliative care will be needed to monitor the drug regimen and treat any side effects.

That's our MESAB story. Your stories are beginning. You too are the beneficiaries of a Swarthmore education — excellent professors along with an extraordinary student body. I am confident that you will make the most of your education, abilities, and the opportunities you will have to serve the larger community — as we tried to do with ours. My generation thought it had big challenges: the challenges you face are much bigger.

Congratulations and good luck!