Wednesday, January 24, 2001
This week Dr. Charles Mérieux died. As many of you know, Ursula has known the Mérieux family for 45 years, having met them when she was a teenager learning French in the Haute Savoie town of Annecy.
Dr. Mérieux, or "Docteur" as he was known to so many, was one of the great men of the last century in the area of public health. His own father had worked with Louis Pasteur but had chosen to devote his life to producing vaccines. When Docteur took over the family business after the sudden death of his older brother, he turned it into the most important vaccine-producing firm in the world. The Institut Mérieux produces vaccines against foot and mouth disease, polio, rabies, measles, diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, and meningitis, among others. These vaccines are used all over the world. In the most famous incident, Docteur, when he heard that 4000 people had died in Brazil of meningitis, built a special factory, produced 90,000,000 doses of vaccine and then loaded them on the company plane, together with personnel and equipment, flew to Brazil and innoculated 80% of the population in a very short time, thus saving Brazil from a major epidemic. As the priest who spoke at his funeral said: millions of people owe their lives to Docteur.
Docteur had many other public health interests. He developed Bioforce, an intensive training program for people interested in full-time professional international health service. The program includes a year of training in various practical skills and theory, and then a year in the field with an NGO. Almost all Bioforce trainees remain in public health. Docteur also developed the first health intervention force for use in worldwide health crises. It is located in Lyon and it was his hope that this would serve as a basis for a worldwide health force, not unlike the worldwide peace keeping force that the UN maintains. Docteur also was responsible for developing a program in public health at the University of Lyon. In 1985 when AIDS was scarcely known in the world, Docteur called the first conference on AIDS. Afterwards, he invested tens of millions of dollars in trying, unsuccessfully, to find an AIDS vaccine. When Docteur realized that there was no highest security (P4) biological lab in Europe, he built one. It was opened just two years ago. Just before his death, Docteur addressed the staff of the Fondation Mérieux, the institution through which he did much of his work, saying that the year 2001 was to be dedicated to training a large cadre of health workers to serve in Africa.
Docteur was man who dreamed. He had a mission: to help others. And he had a driving, restless energy. No one can do all that Docteur did alone and, fortunately, he was blessed with his son, Alain, who ran the business, and with his long-time collaborator and friend, Mme. Lardy, who did so much of the administrative work on his many projects.
Ursula, Philippe, and I attended Docteur's funeral in Lyon earlier this week; it was worthy of him and his career. Attended by over 2000 people, the assembly ranged from the wife of the President of France who came in specially, to colleagues, to political personages among them the mayor of Lyon, to employees, and to the common people of the city. The funeral took place in the cathedral with the archbishop, newly nominated to the College of Cardinals, officiating. Ursula and I were seated in the choir, that is, in the seats on the side usually reserved for the monks, in the first row, with the family sitting in the nave right in front of us. The procession included the flags of various military units which, interestingly, were dipped when the coffin came in, when the archbishop made his entrance, and when the host was consecrated. There was a choir, including a boys' choir, that sang several pieces, among them the beautiful "Cantique de Racine" by Gabriel Fauré. The flower arrangements were generous, beautiful, and plentiful.
The reading from the New Testament was taken from Matthew 25:31-46 where Jesus says, "I was hungry and you gave me to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me to drink. I was a stranger and you received me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you visited me. I was in prison and you came to me." And the people asked, "When did we do these for you?" And Jesus replied, "Every time you did these to one of the little ones who are my brothers and sisters, it is for me that you have done these things." For me, this was the epitome of Docteur's life. He served the children and the sick. He made it possible for so many of them to hold onto life and, in so doing, he served his lord and master. As a Jew, I can say: this man was a Christian.
Père Payen, who gave the homily, caught it nicely in saying that the work of Docteur was rooted deeply in his Christian faith. Life was not easy for Charles Mérieux. In addition to his business troubles, he lost his brother early, then his parents, then his wife, then his eldest son, and then his beloved grandson, Rodolphe, whom some of you may have met at our home where he spent three years while attending Emory University. Never in all that time did Docteur waver in his faith, though he had more reason than most. Never in all that time did he stop attending mass as often as he could. Docteur really believed that one simply had to have faith and then to go on with a life of service to "the little ones who are my brothers and sisters" for, in doing so, one serves God.
The rabbis of Jewish tradition teach, "One's position in life does not give one honor; it is the person who gives honor to the position" (Talmud, Taanit 21b). This was so true for Docteur. It was not his position as head of a major business, nor his behind-the-scenes political place that made him who he was. It was not his power or his name that brought him honor; it was he who brought honor to the firm and to the family. Nor was his wealth that brought him honor; it was he who brought honor to his resources. For Docteur, it was not enough to be well-off, to lead the life of ease, or even to run a successful business. Such a life could not bring honor; only service could bring honor. Only power, intelligence, wealth, and energy in the service of love constituted a life of worth as, indeed, the rabbis taught.
At the end of the service, there were formal military honors outside the cathedral because Docteur had earned the highest honor that France bestows on its citizens. Ursula, Philippe, and I then joined the family at the private interment ceremony in the family plot. At the cemetery, Alain very kindly asked me to say something. It was quite cold by then and so I recited Psalm 122, "I lift up my eyes to the mountains," in Hebrew and then I read it in French. I am honored to have participated in the rites for this exceptional human being.
"Lyon a perdu son docteur" was the headline on the local newspaper. It is true of the world, too.
ohhjv rurmc vrurm u,nab hv,
"May his soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life Amen.