Good afternoon. Thank you, Dr. Miller, for that kind introduction, and for this wonderful recognition.
I've been given special degrees before, but being made an honorary doctor by real doctors in front of future doctors is the ultimate and may be about the best news my mother has ever heard. Considering the anemic academic record I amassed during my undergraduate years here at Hopkins, this really reaffirms my belief that anything in life and at JHU is possible.
Let me begin this afternoon by assuring you of two things.
First: I'm going to be brief. And second: I'm not going to play the guitar and sing "I did it my way" like I'm told the commencement speaker did last year. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but I think you graduates have undergone enough punishment to get your degrees…and for humanitarian reasons, I won't pile on.
Still, before I impart some indispensable words of wisdom to you, I want to say something about another important group. I'm talking about the parents who are sitting out there this afternoon, beaming proudly and not even thinking about what it cost to get to this day - or about what happens if you become an academic and have to move back home to make ends meet. So let's give them a big hand. They deserve it!
Now, like all good scientists, I've done some research in preparation for this occasion. And I've learned a lot about today's distinguished graduates. Here's what I found out:
Some of you will practice medicine or do research; others will manage fancy Mexican restaurants in Federal Hill.
Some of you took anatomy with Doctor Rose; others actually enjoyed anatomy with Doctor Rose.
Some of you have studied here for four years; others have for six, seven, or eight - and I think one MD/PHD started just around the time The Dome was built!
All of you, though, shared a few experiences:
Those first-year lectures in the beautiful, windowless confines of the Wood Basic Science Building basement.
The glamorous and nutritious take-out dinners from "Taste of China."
And I know you all share a deep, personal satisfaction that whatever happens in your professional life, you probably won't ever again live in Reed Hall.
But you also share something quite serious. Two things, in fact. Each one of you has had two important principles deeply embedded in you through your association with this amazing institution: An unwavering allegiance to the power of science and a profound commitment to use that power to help people. And this is a good thing, because now more than ever, these two fundamental concepts are being ignored, or are under attack.
Today, we are seeing hundreds of years of scientific discovery being challenged by people who simply disregard facts that don't happen to agree with their agendas. Some call it "pseudo-science," others call it "faith-based science," but when you notice where this negligence tends to take place, you might as well call it "political science."
You can see "political science" at work when it comes to global warming. Despite near unanimity in the science community there's now a movement - driven by ideology and short-term economics - to ignore the evidence and discredit the reality of climate change.
You can see "political science" at work with respect to stem cell research. Despite its potential, the federal government has restricted funding for creating new cell lines - putting the burden of any future research squarely on the shoulders of the private sector. Government's most basic responsibility, however, is the health and welfare of its people, so it has a duty to encourage appropriate scientific investigations that could possibly save the lives of millions.
"Political science" knows no limits. Was there anything more inappropriate than watching political science try to override medical science in the Terry Schiavo case?
And it boggles the mind that nearly two centuries after Darwin, and 80 years after John Scopes was put on trial, this country is still debating the validity of evolution. In Kansas, Mississippi, and elsewhere, school districts are now proposing to teach "intelligent design" - which is really just creationism by another name - in science classes alongside evolution. Think about it! This not only devalues science, it cheapens theology. As well as condemning these students to an inferior education, it ultimately hurts their professional opportunities.
Hopkins' motto is Veritas vos liberabit - "the truth shall set you free" - not that "you shall be free to set the truth!" I've always wondered which science those legislators who create their own truths pick when their families need life-saving medical treatment.
There's no question: science - the very core of what you have been living and breathing these past several years - is being sorely tested. But the interesting thing is this is not the first time that graduates of the School of Medicine have faced such a challenge. When the institution was founded more than a century ago, medicine was dominated by quacks and poorly-trained physicians. In that world, Johns Hopkins and its graduates became a beacon of truth, and trust and helped to revolutionize the field.
Today, in just a few hours you will each evoke that same respect - and with it, you will each bear the same responsibility: To defend the integrity and power of science.
Now, the second ideal that has been ingrained in you by Hopkins is a commitment to use science to help people. That's true at the Medical School and it's true across Wolf Street at the Schools of Public Health, and Nursing. In fact, it is a calling that is at the very essence of the entire East Baltimore campus.
When Johns Hopkins developed the original principles by which the hospital should operate, he specifically decreed that it should "treat the indigent sick of the city… without regard to sex, age, or color."
It may sound obvious that the goal of every doctor and scientist is to use knowledge to improve the lives of others, but this cannot be taken for granted anymore. Look at some of the recent federal and state governmental, medical, and scientific policies and then tell me that, in every case, the end goal is always about helping the patient. I don't think so!
I work at the city level, dealing with real world problems and delivering actual services. We have to put the care and treatment of our neighbors front and center. We can't let ideology get in the way of truth.
We have pursued a ground-breaking agenda built on facts, and on a commitment to those who need it most. A patient-driven program that cares about outcomes, not incomes. Let me give you some examples:
We have taken aim at tobacco - the country's biggest killer - by raising cigarette taxes, running hard-hitting ad campaigns, helping smokers quit, and wiping out smoking in bars, restaurants, and other workplaces.
We have taken aim at AIDS by focusing on reducing risky behavior, improving the quality of care, and expanding testing - because knowledge is power.
We have taken aim at diabetes - the only major health problem in our country that's getting worse - by beginning to address childhood obesity and working to create the nation's first-ever population-based diabetes registry.
And we have taken aim at unintended pregnancies by increasing access to high-quality reproductive health care services for all our citizens. Last June, we became the first city in America to run a public campaign to raise awareness and increase access to Emergency Contraception.
None of these initiatives is steeped in ideology, but they are all brimming with common sense. To me, that's really the essence of good public health policy, and it's the same approach that I hope you will carry with you wherever you go, whether it's into research, practice, teaching, or the private sector.
If you think about it, the cardinal rule of medicine - "Do no harm" - really aims too low. To improve health means being rigorous, being inquisitive, keeping up to date with scientific progress, and always pursuing the truth. It also means thinking beyond just medicine, and addressing the broader social, political, and economic issues that affect health: Housing, education, discrimination, and most of all, poverty.
Addressing these issues will increase access to care and improve patient outcomes, but there's no doubt, it will take courage and strong leadership to make society confront them. Fortunately, as graduates of this institution, I believe you can be those leaders.
Let me conclude today with a story that I think illustrates everything I've been talking about.
Although New York City is now, by far, the safest large city in America, tragic crimes do continue. Last November, a young New York City police officer was gunned down during a traffic stop on the streets of Brooklyn. He was rushed to Kings County Hospital, where doctors heroically tried to save him. But despite their best efforts, the officer's massive heart wounds were too severe and he died on the operating table.
Moments later, Dr. Robert Kurtz - the hospital's Co-Director of Trauma Surgery, who also worked at Johns Hopkins Hospital during the late 1960s - joined me and our Police Commissioner to address the press. The doctor was exhausted, still in his scrubs, which were covered in blood.
First, he talked about his patient. He calmly and professionally explained how his team had tried to save the officer… how they had reopened the young man's chest after the first surgery had failed…how he had held the officer's heart in his hands. All to no avail.
This man's devotion to his patient was palpable, and powerful. And so was his commitment to the truth. At that moment, having seen too many gunshot victims in his ER over the years, he felt compelled to speak out forcefully and publicly, to tell the assembled politicians and press the truth about the problem of guns on our streets.
There's no question this single act did a great deal to spark a renewed commitment in our fight against illegal guns, a scourge that has created a true public health crisis in our city, and all cities. Dr. Kurtz could have left the advocacy to others. He could have said that wasn't his job. But leadership is part of his job, and part of the job of all doctors.
Now, like him, you must fight - both to heal, and to be heard. And, despite the obstacles that will be placed in your path, you must lead us to a stronger, safer, healthier world. I have no doubt that you will succeed.
Today, you celebrate. Tomorrow, your great work begins.
So get up early. Have that last 8A.M. beer at Jimmy's. And then welcome to the battle. It is one we not only can win; it is one we must win.
Congratulations on your graduation, and all the best in your lives and careers.