The Press and the Partnership: Remarks by Richard M. Smith

Richard M. Smith is a member of HAI’s International Advisory Council. He attended the Botswana Harvard Partnership’s 20th anniversary celebration in Gaborone, Botswana on January 26, 2017 and delivered the following remarks:

April 1983 issue of Newsweek
April 18, 1983 issue

It was in 1983 that I first heard about HIV/AIDS. I was the Executive Editor of Newsweek magazine, and our medical editors and reporters had come in to describe a mysterious disease that had received no national media attention, but was spreading at an alarming rate. By the time their briefing was over, our natural skepticism had vanished, and we ultimately scheduled a cover story. The cover image was a vial of blood, and the main headline was simply: EPIDEMIC.

The story created a firestorm. Our critics said that we were guilty of sensationalism—that we had just discovered another disease of the month. How could we raise so much fear about a disease that was still afflicting a relatively small group of people?

Looking back, how I wish that our critics had been right and we had been wrong. Over my next 23 years at the magazine, we carried roughly 30 cover stories about HIV/AIDS. One of the last ones showed a small African boy. That cover carried the line: AIDS in Africa—10 million orphans.

Cover of January 17, 2000 Newsweek
January 17, 2000 issue

As you can imagine, many of those stories were tragic and discouraging. But gradually, the themes turned more toward hope and heroism—of progress in tracking the origins of HIV, of breakthroughs in antiretroviral therapy and preventing maternal-child transmission.

Almost 20 years ago, my wife Soon-Young, whom you will hear from next, and I had the privilege of joining the Harvard AIDS Initiative Board. And what an extraordinary experience it has been to learn about the Mochudi Project early on. Incidentally, we had a wonderful visit to Mochudi yesterday. And it’s been inspiring to meet genuine heroes who have been on the frontlines in the battle against the disease.

Some of those heroes are in this room. I’m thinking of course about Max Essex and Ric Marlink—superb scientists and equally fine human beings.

But I would also like to offer a special salute today to Harvard’s Botswana partners—the researchers, the physicians, the nurses, and the staff—who have brought so much life to the research center we celebrate today and who have literally given life and hope to countless people in Botswana and beyond who are dealing with this cruel disease. You are all heroes in my book.

(l to r) Ambassador Earl Miller, U.S. Ambassador to Botswana; Sir Ketumile Masire, President of Botswana, 1980-1998; Dr. Soon-Young Yoon; Richard M. Smith
(L to R) Ambassador Earl Miller, U.S. Ambassador to Botswana; Sir Ketumile Masire, President of Botswana, 1980-1998; Dr. Soon-Young Yoon; Richard M. Smith

I know it will come as a shock to some of you that Harvard has the reputation of occasionally not being the easiest partner to work with. (I can say that because I’m not a Harvard graduate.) But what has inspired me from the very beginning is that the Botswana Harvard Partnership is a truly collaborative venture—a genuine partnership in every sense of the word. And I can tell you that Max emphasizes that spirit of collaboration in every board meeting and research update.

On the way here, I read the briefing document that is given to every Harvard student, researcher, and faculty member who comes to Botswana. I was struck by one line in particular: “We work with our partners in Botswana for mutual benefit and educational exchange. We are not giving any more than we receive.”

I don’t know whether Max wrote those lines himself, but he certainly could have. So it’s in that spirit, that I would like to offer my deepest thanks to the people of Botswana, their enlightened political leaders, their scientists, and public health workers, and all others who have made the Botswana Harvard Partnership a great success for the last two decades and whose work will guarantee continuing success for years to come.