“If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” –Sir Isaac Newton
I’ve heard that quote many times over throughout the years, but it didn’t come to carry any specific weight until my last semester at BU. In the fall, I took an intro to global public health class (yes, as a “senior” of sorts I was taking an intro class, but I came upon global health a little late in my grad school career. Plus, the professor was awesome and the reading list not too shabby). The professor quoted it often as a way of impressing upon us the importance of knowing who came before you and using them, both their successes and missteps, as guides. Never has this resonated more with me than now.
For the next four months I will be working at the Hôpital Albert Schweitzer (henceforth referred to as “HAS”) as a public health fellow. The grounds of HAS are riddled with giants’ footsteps. Schweitzer founded the hospital almost 100 years ago, and it became his and his family’s life passion. His philosophy of “reverence for life” is still the guiding force behind the hospital’s functioning today. He is certainly the first giant to recognize. But there are also all the fellows that came before me, both medical and public health students, and the staff at HAS. People who know much more than I do about the hospital’s functioning and cultural nuances I am sure to discover. They have laid a foundation for me, the bottom rungs of the ladder. I have to know and recognize what came before me if I am to progress.
But sometimes giants, or ghosts if I can use Hochschild’s term, can be a messy business. Sometimes their intentions or legacy aren’t always as pure as we’d like them to be. Reading the history of the region, one encounters the utter terror and tyranny that occurred there. Schweitzer founded the hospital in the wake of this terror; the hospital was a piece of the road to recovery for the region. It’s that ugly part of history that we try to but cannot deny. And the fact that I am a foreigner, a white American, working in Africa is a potentially contentious fact that I cannot deny.
And so giants can be historical figures—the altruistic or the autocratic kind—but they can also be found much closer to home. I have my personal giants, my friends and family, who have shaped and supported me. No matter how old we get, I’m fairly certain we always learn through observation and imitation, and I’m grateful to have the best to work from.
Thanks for reading and following me throughout this journey! It’s sure to be a wild ride.