Infectious Diseases chief credits Jesuits for helping him explain complex situations in lay terms.
On a visit to his alma mater, the Jesuit-run Regis High School in New York, last Spring, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, confided a fear with fellow alumni. What worried him most, he said at a fundraising dinner, was a pandemic of a disease that attacks the lungs.
A video of the event, on the Regis website, got a few hundred clicks.
That was almost a year ago. Since the novel coronavirus that originated in China in December and has become a pandemic, claiming tens of thousands of lives, the video has — at the risk of sounding flippant — gone viral.
Fauci, who graduated from Regis in 1958, went on to study at another Jesuit school, the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, and then Weill Cornell Medicine (then Cornell University Medical College). The 79-year-old physician, who has served six presidential administrations, beginning with that of Ronald Reagan, has appeared at many of the White House daily briefings on the current health crisis. He has thus become very much a public face in the fight against the pandemic he feared.
Before the Covid-19 crisis, however, Fauci had made a name for himself in the fight against another viral infection, one which gripped the nation’s attention beginning in the late 1980s: the human immunodeficiency virus. Fauci has since advised six U.S. presidents on HIV/AIDS and many other domestic and global health issues.
“He was one of the principal architects of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a program that has saved millions of lives throughout the developing world,” says a brief biography of him on the website of the NIAID.
It is work that earned him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which he received at the hands of President George W. Bush. Fauci says the younger President Bush is the one who really deserves credit for PEPFAR, based on his concern for people in Africa.
In a 1989 interview for an NIH oral history project, Fauci explained how he was brought up in the New York City borough of Brooklyn and attended Catholic grammar and high school.
”I went to Our Lady of Guadalupe Grammar School in Brooklyn and to Regis High School, a Jesuit high school in Manhattan,” he said. “I had the interesting experience of having to take a bus and three separate subway trains to get from my home in Brooklyn to high school in Manhattan.”
Regis, considered one of the city’s prestigious schools, educates promising young men from all parts of the metropolitan area, at no cost to their families. The school had a “major impact” on Fauci’s career, he said in the NIH interview:
It was a highly academic, exclusive scholarship school. Students from every parochial grammar school in all the five boroughs of New York competed to receive admission, making it highly competitive, and the courses were extraordinary. They were very heavily weighted towards the classics. We took four years of Greek, four years of Latin, three years of French, ancient history, theology, etc. When I was at Regis, it seemed that the very bright people in school really had just a few options. If you wanted to go into medicine, that was fine. The other choices were law, science, engineering, or careers like that. My interest in medicine stems from my keen interest in people, in asking questions and solving problems.
His college, Holy Cross, had an “extraordinarily fine reputation for premedical work.”
“At that time, it was not unusual for premedical students to take a very strong classics course in premed. The title of my premed course was A.B. Greek Premed, which was a classics course very heavily weighted with philosophy—32 credits of philosophy, plus French, Greek and Latin,” he recalled. “The students did very well, getting into the best medical schools in the country but with a very strong liberal arts background. The liberal arts background is something that was very much a part of my family because virtually all of my relatives on my mother’s side — her father, her brother, and her sister’s children — are all artists. … I still am very interested in the classics.”
Fauci believed the humanistic education he received had a “very positive influence on my ability to deal with sensitive situations with people.”
”I credit very much the Jesuit training in precision of thought and economy of expression in solving and expressing a problem and in the presentation of a solution in a very succinct, accurate way,” he said. “This has had a major, positive influence on the fact that I enjoy very much and am fairly good at being able to communicate scientific principles or principles of basic and clinical research without getting very profuse and off on tangents. This is something that was drilled into us from the very early days in high school.”
It’s a quality that many Americans have been witnessing, as Fauci continues to explain the current state of the pandemic and what to expect in the coming weeks.