Sunday, August 8, 2010

Tony Judt, Gone Before His Time

Tony Judt died on Friday , at age 62, of Amytrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.   

Earlier this year at SMS, we noted his declining medical situation.   Yet in his six decades and two, Judt built up a huge body of work; back in 2006, I admiringly reviewed his book on postwar Europe.   Judt was a man of the secular left; although Jewish, he was a sometime critic of Israel.  Yet above all, he was a fresh thinker, always capable of surprising: An essay in the August 19 issue of The New York Review of Books provides a stinging critique of English education, told from a distinctly conservative perspective.  Actually, it was a meritocratic perspective, which might make him seem conservative to some.   (The picture of King's College, Cambridge, where Judt graduated, is taken from Judt's NYR of B essay.) 

What Judt really believed in, we can conclude, was hard work and scholarship--and the resulting intellectual rigor inevitably led him into surprising and perhaps upsetting directions.  Such is the life of the mind, and all of us who admire free thinking must lament the silencing of his voice.  All that human capital--all that he knew, all the knowledge he had piled up over 62 years, now lost, like tears in rain.  

In addition, from a Serious Medicine perspective, we can marvel at the perverse system Uncle Sam has set up, in which funding for treatment is near-unlimited, but funding for cures is starved.   Such an ex post facto system is great if you are in the nursing-home business, but not so great for the rest of us, who wish to maximize our productive and happy lives.  It's astonishing that so little progress has been made on ALS in the 70 years since Lou Gehrig died of the disease.  Hollywood made a movie about Gehrig's life, starring Gary Cooper, but for some reason, a political-scientific coalition--of the type that we saw for the war against polio, or the war against TB, the war against AIDS--did not come into being for ALS.  

And the helluvit is that some day we will think that it wasn't just tragic that Judt died at 62 of ALS--we will think that it was a waste, a stupid waste. 

Just as it was stupid for us to allow John Keats to die of TB at 25, or for Frederic Chopin to die at 39 from the same disease, or Baruch Spinoza and Henry David Thoreau, both dead at 44 from TB.  Even in the 20th century, we lost George Orwell when he was only 46.  Such early deaths seem strange now, because we fought and won that war.   

But there are more wars to be fought.   And as we observed recently about the sad case of Christopher Hitchens, the best time for militance in the fight against disease is  before you get sick, not after.   

There's a strategy question there--timing is everything. Hence the name of this blog, Serious Medicine Strategy.  


  1. A serious medicine strategy is common sense. The course of Obama and Boehner will set back the cause of medical reform, because they represent only 2 sides to this "issue", and both are politically impossible. Disease, and cures, should not have to take 'sides.' I really don't need 'Huckabee' to advise my daughter on her health choices, but thanks for asking.

    As a leader, you should point out and praise the positive aspects of serious contributors.

    There are probably two serious leaders left in the senate, Tom Coburn and Bernie Sanders. Lock them in a room and common sense will be the result.

    Gary L. Wilkinson

  2. Rather than arguing over whether this or that politician or party would be the best to collect all of the money and power of the medical sector or over what once they have that power and money how they should use them how about if we get real about this. It's not their money. They don't deserve the power to act on our behalf. All of this discussion about how the power and money should be exercised, interesting though it may be, presupposes the most disastrous circumstances at work here which is the end of freedom in America. Let's not just gloss over that.