As biomedical scientists, we witness on a daily basis the intersection of medicine and science in an academic environment, hoping that our investigations lead to a better understanding of biological phenomena that might be relevant to disease. Less common is the recognition of the critical intersection of medicine and social justice. More often than not, the incidence and prevalence of various diseases are related not to a lack of understanding of their biological mechanisms, but rather to forms of social organization that lead to the exclusion and marginalization of large sections of our communities. And the prevalence of some diseases is also associated with the influence of powerful economic lobbies that promote the consumption of harmful, unhealthy products. This is why doctors sometimes hang up their lab coats to become activists, or combine the two activities. The life of Dr. Tabaré Vázquez was a striking example of this commitment.
In 2009, the then president of Uruguay, Dr. Tabaré Vázquez, visited Einstein. He brought with him a clear message that articulated the value of social justice and how it applies to the worlds of science and medicine—and beyond. In his remarks at Einstein, Dr. Vázquez explained the common motivation for his two careers—as a healer of people and as a maker of laws. “It’s not easy for me to express in words these reasons that also have a good dose of passion, but perhaps the most apt reasons are a profound love of life, enormous respect for human beings, a strong commitment to the dignity of everyone, and unalterable confidence in society.”
Dr. Vázquez, who passed away from cancer in December, was an internationally recognized oncologist and a chair of radiotherapy at a medical school, whose convictions about social justice later turned him into a politician. He became mayor of Montevideo in 1989 and was twice president of Uruguay (2005–10 and 2015–20), leading a center-left coalition of progressive parties. As president, he promoted a successful agenda of change, enhancing wealth redistribution, mitigating poverty, promoting a universal healthcare system, and prosecuting human-rights violations that took place from 1973 to 1984, when Uruguay was controlled by a military dictatorship. It was under his first presidency that the remains of missing victims of the dictatorship (“desaparecidos”) began to be found.
Other notable programs that were inspired by Dr. Vázquez include those that provided a computer for each child in primary school and tablets for senior citizens, thus promoting Internet access for all families. Consistent with his medical interest, he supported strict and aggressive antitobacco regulations and defeated a lawsuit brought by the Philip Morris cigarette and tobacco manufacturing company. A small country of 3.4 million people defeated one of the most powerful multinational companies to protect public health. This led to a domino effect in which other countries felt encouraged to implement more-stringent regulations on tobacco use. The success of these policies brought Dr. Vázquez great international recognition.
We see science as a tool that humankind uses to satisfy its existential curiosity. And social activism is one of the only tools we have to promote social justice. Aware of this never-ending journey, a few months before his death Dr. Vázquez emphatically asked his followers and fellow citizens to “never give up” in the pursuit of social justice. Dr. Tabaré Vázquez’s academic and social commitment embodies the values that the Einstein and Montefiore communities have held dear since the school’s inception.
Simply put, as a socially conscious academic clinician Dr. Vázquez “walked the talk,” an example that we should follow here at Einstein beyond simply speaking about the values of social justice.
A link to an article about Dr. Vázquez’s visit to Einstein and his entire speech, “Science, Medicine, and Social Commitment,” can be found here: http://einsteinmed.org/features/stories/426/uruguays-president-v%C3%A1zquez-brings-good-medicine-to-einstein/.