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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University July 7, 2008 | Vol. 37 No. 39
JHU's Al Sommer Named Chair of Lasker Foundation Board

Alfred Sommer

By Lisa De Nike

Alfred Sommer, dean emeritus of Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health, has been elected chair of the board of the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, a philanthropy that supports biomedical research aimed at conquering disease, improving human health and extending life.

A director of the Lasker Foundation since 2004, Sommer is best-known internationally for his long-term research and advocacy supporting the widespread use of vitamin A to prevent blindness and child mortality in developing nations.

That work won Sommer recognition as the 1997 winner of the foundation's Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research. Sommer is one of five Johns Hopkins researchers who have won a prestigious Lasker Award, which many consider the "American Nobel." The World Bank has declared the vitamin A supplementation he pioneered as one of the most cost-effective of all public health interventions.

Sommer will succeed James W. Fordyce, who has served as chair of the Lasker Foundation since 1994.

"It's a special honor to have been asked to do this, particularly at a time when the foundation is on the cusp of some very new and exciting ventures, all designed to power up its ability to promote medical research," said Sommer, who will serve a three-year initial term as chair. "I look forward to working with our energetic new president and our very committed board on developing new and innovative approaches to continuing to do what we already do, but even better."

Maria Freire, president of the Lasker Foundation since March 1, said, "I am delighted to welcome Al Sommer as chairman of the Lasker Foundation. A Lasker Award winner, Al brings a unique combination of scientific perspective, proven leadership and managerial experience. His energy and vision will help guide the foundation into a new and exciting era in support of medical research with public health impact."

The New York City-based Lasker Foundation was established in 1942 by philanthropist and activist Mary Lasker to increase public support for research by creating awareness and appreciation for the achievements of medical science. The annual Lasker Awards for Medical Research are the centerpiece of the foundation's activities. More than 300 Lasker Awards have been given out since the program's inception in 1945. The foundation is widely credited with inspiring the White House and Congress to greatly expand federal funding for medical research, particularly through the National Institutes of Health.

"Mary Lasker and her foundation are given — and should be given — a large portion of the credit for the expansion of the NIH in the 1950s, through the launching of a citizen-led campaign designed to improve the health of our nation," Sommer said.

More recently, the foundation has organized symposiums and forums aimed at tackling difficult issues in medical research, from the intersection between business and medical research to the economic benefits of national investment in research.

Sommer not only plans to continue that tradition of advocacy but also to expand upon it in new and groundbreaking ways.

"The fact that the foundation cuts across all branches of the medical sciences and has a tradition of innovation puts us in a position to do some unique things," he said. "Our goal is to continue to pioneer ways to approach complex medical issues and find solutions that work."

Johns Hopkins President William R. Brody said he believes Sommer will make an ideal leader for the foundation.

"Being elected chairperson of the board of the Lasker Foundation is a well-deserved recognition not only of Dr. Sommer's extraordinary contributions to world health and medical research but also of his ability to lead the foundation to greater heights in securing lasting benefits for humanity," Brody said.

Sommer, who still serves as a professor of epidemiology, international health and ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins, was dean of Public Health from 1990 to 2005. Previously, he was founding director of the university's Dana Center for Preventive Ophthalmology, which focuses on clinical epidemiology and public health aspects of blindness prevention and child survival. Sommer earned his medical degree from Harvard Medical School in 1967 and his master of health science in epidemiology from Johns Hopkins in 1973.


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