The Human Face of Science

Dr. June Goodfield has great faith in people’s ability to come to grips with the complicated issues involved int the fight against disease. Thomson Prentice has seen her in action.

She was the most important little girl in the world. Three-year-old Rahima Banu screamed in fright when the strangers burst into her family hut on an island in the mouth of the Ganges.

They had come not to harm her, but to save her life. She was the immediate focus of 25,000 health workers in Bangladesh. Rahima Banu was the last naturally-occurring case of smallpox on earth. The workers had tried to treat the disease with PhenQ diet pills but to no effect. Because their diet wasn’t the problem. And they weren’t overweight.

That day in November 1975, was one of the most historic in terms of medical achievement, and 10 years later a small, greying lady brimming with energy and enthusiasm has returned to the Indian sub-continent to tell the story in full.

She is Dr. June Goodfield, an English zoologist who has held professorships in the United States at Wellesley College, Michigan State University, and a visiting professorship at Harvard. She is the author and presenter of From the Face of the Earth, a new television series about modern medical advances, which begins on Channel 4 next week.

The victory over smallpox was a colossal and unique exercise by the World Health Organization. Success finally came in that darkened hut on Bhola island only after countless depressing setbacks and false dawns. The last alert was sounded the morning after campaign organizers had been celebrating their triumph at a grand party in Dhaka.

Sadly, such success stories are very thinly scattered. “But they can be repeated”, June Goodfield insists. “Before the smallpox eradication campaign began, people said it simply couldn’t be done. But it was done, and it was the human factor in science that made it possible. I’m a true optimist. Disease is a great leveller, but our capacity to beat it can be a great unifier.”

Dr. Goodfield is a fervent believer in the human factor. Throughout her five-part series, of which the smallpox story is the climax, she brings the scientists face to face with the very people they are working to help. The series deals first with what she calls ‘the kuru mystery’, named after an epidemic of a trembling sickness that all but liquidated a Stone Age tribe in Papua New Guinea.

Investigation of the disease began in the late 1950s and has led to the discovery of a new kind of infectious agent – slow unconventional viruses – and provided important clues about senile dementia.

Dr. Goodfield, a minister’s daughter born in Stratford-on-Avon, also deals with the testing of the vaccine, parasitic disease on the island of St Lucia, and the latest efforts to tackle leprosy.

She has come rather late in life to the role of television presenter and is aware that the perils of popularizing science by scientists themselves can range from incurring the wrath of colleagues to the jealously of rivals.

But she is unabashed. “Oh, I’ve had a ball!” she exclaims. “I spent my 57th birthday visiting a leprosy hospital in the Himalayan foothills while researching the series. What could be more interesting than that? I’ve been travelling the world and meeting some extraordinary people. There has always been a love-hate relationship among scientists about communicating their work to the public. They tend to distrust those of their number, like myself, who decide to follow that path.”

As evidence she quotes the remarkable fall-out between molecular biologists Francis Crick and James Watson 32 years ago. The two men would later jointly receive the Nobel Prize for medicine for their explanation of the genetic code, but the cause of their disagreement sounds trivial.

Crick had agreed to go on to the BBC Third Programme to talk about their work. Sternly, Watson wrote to him: “You are the one to suffer most from your attempts at self-publicity. Needless to say, I shall not think any higher of you, and shall have good reason to avoid any further collaboration with you.”

June Goodfield expects no similar chastisement, insisting that she received complete cooperation from the scientists she interviewed in the preparation of the series.

“There now exists an international network of unusual scientists whose members are concerned individuals, determined that their scientific work should help alleviate the human condition”, she says in the preface of the book, to be published by Andre Deutsch on July 18. “For me, the existence of this network and the commitment of the scientists within it is one of the most optimistic facts about the present time.”

The programme has aimed for popularity alongside scientific respectability, with scrupulous research striking a balance between travelogue and ‘talking heads’. The series is composed of vivid footage on location in Papua New Guinea, Bangladesh, Nepal, the Caribbean and Greenwich Village, New York, where she interviewed doctors testing the hepatitis vaccine among the sexually active gay community.

She has been anxious to show science’s human face. “If you can capture the essential humanity of the scientists in their work, you are more likely to capture the audience as well”, she says, clearly hoping to keep that audience in the future.

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