SAN FRANCISCO — When Larry Brilliant’s widowed mother asked him not to move away for law school, he fulfilled the punch line of a classic Jewish joke.
He went to medical school, instead.
“Martin Luther King, whom I was privileged to meet as a college sophomore, changed my life,” Brilliant says. “My dad and my grandfather both died, and meeting Martin Luther King gave me something positive that I could do.”
Instead of enrolling at an Ivy League University on the East Coast, Brilliant wandered into the local medical school at Wayne State University in downtown Detroit on a whim as he was returning from having his wisdom teeth removed. He hadn’t yet completed his bachelor’s degree, but after taking some exams, he gained admission to the selective program.
“Although I had met Martin Luther King and marched with him, I was not a political persona,” says Brilliant. He did, however, go on to live up to his surname with a storied career, helping to eradicate small pox, polio and cataract blindness in developing countries. “I never thought my life would be touched like this.”
‘My dad and my grandfather both died, and meeting Martin Luther King gave me something positive that I could do’
As a United Nations medical officer in the World Health Organization (WHO), Brilliant worked for more than a decade in South Asia. He retells his fascinating journey in a new book, “Sometimes Brilliant: The Impossible Adventure of a Spiritual Seeker and Visionary Physician Who Helped Conquer the Worst Disease in History,” which debuted from HarperCollins this fall.
“On the cover, it says ‘Sometimes Brilliant.’ That is not what I wanted,” he says. “What I put on the inside in very little letters in parentheses was ‘other times, not so.’”
The grandson of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Brilliant grew up in Detroit, Michigan. In a fascinating encounter with a Russian, he later learned his surname was originally Brilladentov.
“We always joke about HinJews and BuJews,” says Brilliant, whose birthname was Laibl. “It is so beshert [meant to be]… When my wife read my book, she said, ‘I didn’t know you were into that much Jewish stuff.’ And I said, ‘I didn’t realize it either.’”
A resident of the North San Francisco Bay Area, Brilliant says, “I’m 100% Jewish and very proud of being Jewish, but I grew up at a time when Judaism in Detroit, Michigan, was as superficial as you would expect post-Holocaust. People were hiding and wanting to be assimilated.”
As a young doctor, Brilliant traveled to India with his wife, who is also Jewish. The pair learned Hindi and met with a popular guru. It was Neem Karoli Baba who foretold Brilliant would become a UN doctor.
‘We started reading Martin Buber and the Baal Shem Tov, then the Dali Lama, and Ghandi and everyone’
“I went there to mediate,” Brilliant says. “So when we were living in the ashram, both my wife and I kept a spiritual journal.”
The journal has since become a critical part of his memoir.
“I was wearing a long white ashram gown,” Brilliant recalled in an interview. “It’s like sitting with the Baal Shem Tov. That’s what it felt like. And immediately, we started reading Martin Buber and the Baal Shem Tov, then the Dali Lama, and Ghandi and everyone.”
And this is only a very small piece of a very grand journey. In 2006, Brilliant received the first Ted Prize, and dedicated his award to helping stop pandemics in a Ted Talk that has drawn well over half a million views.
He put his $100,000 award toward a global early response system to detect new diseases and disasters. An epidemiologist with a masters in public health, Brilliant also co-launched an early internet community called The Well, which Time magazine described as the “precursor of every online business from Amazon.com to eBay.” Additionally, Brilliant has held management positions in Silicon Valley, serving as Google’s VP, and directing the company’s philanthropic division, Google.org.
Based on his guru’s values of service, Brilliant’s other achievements include co-founding The Seva Foundation with Ram Dass. This international NGO’s programs and grantees have restored sight to more than 3.5 million cataract and otherwise vision-impaired people in more than 20 countries.
To eliminate barriers to surgery that would otherwise cost $2,000, Brilliant says, Seva performs its procedures at no cost.
“The way you restore sight is you take a little bit of glass and a little bit of plastic and you mass produce these lenses. They go inside the eye. And that’s why the procedure is so expensive,” he says. “We built a factory in India that produces those lenses for $1.60 instead of $200 to $300 each.”
These days, Brilliant serves on the boards of two philanthropic entities, the Salesforce Foundation and the Skoll Foundation, where he chairs the Skoll Global Threats Fund. His adventures have sometimes led him to some uncertainty. Back in 2002, in Allahabad, India, Brilliant traveled to identify kids at risk of infection.
“This one guy started following me and he said, ‘Where are you going? Are you American? Are you Jewish?’ I said, ‘Yes,’” Brilliant says.
By then, Brilliant recalls, he was standing in a courtyard surrounded by old Muslim parapets. The stranger said to him, “You’re an American Jew and you’re here in the city of Allah.” At that point, he looked up at the parapets and said, “Brothers, we’ve got ourselves an American Jew,” and they showed up with machine guns.
‘They hug me, and they say “Cousin, thank God you’ve come”‘
It was, Brilliant says, soon after Pakistani terrorists murdered journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in 2002. Brilliant wasn’t sure what to expect.
“So they come rushing toward me and they grab me, and they hug me, and they say ‘Cousin, thank God you’ve come,’” he says.
It’s stories like these that suggest Brilliant’s memoir fulfills what he calls, “an expression of hope.”
“There is so much hate and vitriol you would think we were living in a dystopian age where there is no reason for optimism,” Brilliant says. “My life has shown me the opposite. I’ve had thousands of children die in my arms or the villages I was visiting. I saw the very last case of small pox. How could I not be optimistic? That is the duty that I have.”
When asked about his aspirations for reader response to the tome, Brilliant says, “It matters that they feel more optimistic after reading the book about what good things human beings can do together. And for me, it’s also what we can do together as a world. And that includes Hindus and Muslims and Christians and Jews and Indians and Russians and Americans. During the Cold War, we worked together long enough to eradicate small pox.”
When he first joined the Word Health Organization, Brilliant says, he felt “too young, too inexperienced, too shaggy to be in that room.”
The meeting resembled a rainbow of humanity, a “mystical convergence. It looked as if God had organized faces according to skin tone. I had never been in a room with such diversity,” he says. “I do see the world as a rainbow of faces. The whole is stronger when we are united. The world needs all of us working together. It’s a tough enough world.”