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In 1962, a chance encounter with Martin Luther King Jr. would transform the life of a young medical student named Larry Brilliant.

Larry Brilliant with an early Apple II computer. All images courtesy of HarperCollins.

Dr. Brilliant would go on to help eradicate smallpox,direct Google.org,help save 4 million people from blindness, and become one of the foremost experts in global pandemics.

But at 19 years old, Brilliant was holed up in his dorm room, subsisting on stale peanut candy and comic books, grief-stricken at the thought of losing his father to cancer.


One rainy Michigan day, Brilliant pulled himself out of his dorm and stumbled into an auditorium to see a black preacher from Atlanta, Georgia, speak of hope, truth, and justice.

Only 60 students stood in a cavernous room meant for 3,000. The school administrators were embarrassed by the low turnout, but Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t. Chuckling warmly, he told the assembly, “Why don’t y’all come up here. That way, there’s more of me to go around.”

Martin Luther King Jr. at the University of Michigan, 1962.

Brilliant joined the others at King's feet and sat transfixed as a one-hour lecture turned into six.

“[King] famously talked about the arc of the moral universe that would bend towards justice, but it wouldn’t bend on its own. You have to jump up, drag it, twist it, pull it down towards justice. You have to influence that arc,” Brilliant said.

The experience changed Brilliant. He knew he couldn’t just lie around feeling unmotivated.

Brilliant started a journey of self-discovery and transformation that would help save the lives of millions in the process.

Inspired by King, Brilliant became an activist. He marched in civil rights rallies. In 1970, he delivered a Native American baby on Alcatraz Island during a standoff with the United States government. He even saved the life of a former Green Beret who attacked him on the island with a knife.

Larry Brilliant at Alcatraz Island.

Ensuing fame led to a call from Warner Brothers, and soon, Brilliant was starring in a "Woodstock on wheels" film called "Medicine Ball Caravan," playing a doctor alongside musical luminaries like Alice Cooper and B.B. King. Then, he ended up taking a caravan across the Khyber Pass with his wife, Girija, and his best friend, a hippie named Wavy Gravy.

Brilliant's adventures can seem too wild to be true. But, through it all, he was on the way to finding his destiny.

In 1972, Brilliant ended up in the Himalayas at the feet of a holy man. The guru, named Neem Karoli Baba, clasped Brilliant's hand and gave him the realization of a deep, profound, and universal love for everyone in the world.

Brilliant with his guru, Neem Karoli Baba.

“These machines that we live in, these bodies, they don’t come with an operating manual, and I did not know that mine was capable. I didn’t know where the on switch was that loved everybody. But he turned it on,” Brilliant said of their meeting.

The guru — who referred to Brilliant as "Dr. America" —  told him that his destiny would be to work to cure one of the worst pandemics of all time: smallpox.

Smallpox killed over 300 million people in the 20th century, and it was wreaking havoc on families in India.

Following the instructions of his guru, the now 27-year-old Brilliant took the 17-hour train ride to the World Health Organization headquarters in New Delhi. But success didn't happen overnight for the young doctor.

“I was kicked out in 30 seconds," Brilliant said. "I walked in with a dress on, and a beard down to my knees, and it was a gown. But you know, they thought it looked like a dress. It was an ashram robe. And they kicked me out." 13 attempts later, he finally got the lowest paid job there.

In just a few years, Brilliant went on to lead a WHO team that would play a key role in eradicating smallpox.

Smallpox eradication team from Chota Nagpur.

Brilliant recalled that there were staff from 170 different countries in the WHO smallpox eradication program — all fighting the disease together despite deep division among many of their countries.

"In the middle of the Cold War, Russians and Americans worked together to eradicate smallpox, and the people sitting around the table were from every race, every religion, every language you could think of," Brilliant said.

The team was greater than the sum of their parts, and in 1975, they won. Brilliant saw the last case of killer smallpox with his own eyes: a girl named Rahima Banu. After contracting the disease at 2 years old, she was cured.

Rahima Banu, the last known smallpox patient.

Brilliant went on to mobilize friends — including Steve Jobs, whom he had met in his Guru's ashram in India — to do even more good.

He contacted former members from WHO and created Seva, an organization that gave sight to 4 million blind people.

He became executive director of Google.org and won the TED Prize. He laid out his wish for an early warning system to stop pandemics and helped create Google Flu Trends.

He chaired the Skoll Global Threats Fund, becoming one of humanity's greatest hopes in the fight against global pandemics.

Ultimately, Brilliant is one of the biggest heroes in global health today.

Larry Brilliant gives polio vaccine drops in Chitrakoot, Uttar Pradesh, India.

He's truly lived a "brilliant" life. Just like many of us, he’s struggled with depression and fear, and he's wondered what his purpose was — but he's always known to listen.

"I used to tell my students when I was a professor, always expect the imponderabilia. That’s a made-up word," Brilliant said. "It’s a little creature that comes upon you when you least expect it and whispers in your ear something you haven’t thought of. Always expect that little unexpected twist. Always be willing to listen."

Brilliant’s story teaches us that incredible human accomplishments can only be achieved through faith in ourselves and joining together with a common goal in mind. It takes all of us to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice.  

Photo by Jeremy Wong on Unsplash

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