• Lakshmi Pratury

#50over50: Larry Brilliant

The Person Behind Personality in my 50 over 50 list is one of many who come to India in their spiritual quest. The big difference is that Larry Brilliant ended up eradicating smallpox and polio from the country in that journey. To me, Larry is Always Brilliant!


Winner of the TED prize as well as half a dozen honorary doctorates and honored by the Indian government for his role in eradicating smallpox, TIME magazine called him one of the 100 most influential people in the world. You would hardly have guessed that Larry would become a professor of epidemiology when he first came to India with his wife on a bus filled with 40 hippies in 1970 and they acted as extras in Devanand’s iconic Bollywood movie Hare Rama Hare Krishna.


But while Larry was an erstwhile hippy who traveled around the world hanging out with every strain of individual from musicians to mathematicians; his path was to go in an unexpected direction. He was already a physician when he came to India along with Wavy Gravy and ended up in Neem Karoli Baba’s ashram the same time Steve Jobs was there. He tagged along with his wife Girija (who got the name from Baba and they are in the 50th year of their marriage in 2020). Over time, a connection clicked between him and Neem Karoli Baba who later asked him to go to Delhi to work at World Health Organization (WHO) and told him he (Larry) would play a part in ending a great threat to humanity. Larry had no idea what Baba meant but he kept going back to WHO till he got the job and got to be a part of the team that ultimately eradicated smallpox! That’s when he knew what Neem Karoli Baba meant.


Larry is a great storyteller who keeps you spellbound talking about how he witnessed outbreak of smallpox in Jamshedpur where the dead bodies greeted them when they alighted at the train station, how he broke into Tata executive Russi Modi’s home to beg for help and eventually got huge support from the Tatas, and finally how he went to a remote place in Bangladesh to witness the last case of smallpox. Larry talks with passion about the public-health workers in India who were the true heroes working tirelessly, going door to door identifying cases of smallpox and giving vaccinations to prevent it. He brings you to tears talking about his colleagues who lost their lives doing so. Larry remembers each person who worked with him and meets with his or her children when he visits India. Subsequently, he got to apply the learning as part of a team that eradicated polio. As an epidemiologist, he dedicated his life to public health and brought in technology & corporate power to solving large problems. He was the inaugural CEO of Google.org and then the first CEO of Skoll Global Threats Foundation and is currently working with a global group to end pandemics.

I met Larry Brilliant in the late ’90s through my friend Sriram Viswanathan in the Bay Area. It is hard to imagine but 25 years ago, the Internet was not accessible to the public the way it is today. There was no Yahoo, Google and there was no easy way to communicate the way we do today. He was part of the team that created WELL, the first online community--sort of like Facebook, that was set up when Mark Zuckerberg was barely taking his baby steps. Legends like Electronic Frontier Foundation founder John Perry Barlow to current Internet royalty from Bezos to Brin had their early taste of online communities with WELL. At Intel, we were collaborating with out-of-box thinkers who were implementing technology in unique ways and we partnered with Larry. And that’s how I first met him. He was also the first executive director and co-founder of SEVA Foundation whose projects have given back sight to 5 million blind people across Asia and a close friend of founders of Aravind Eye Hospital from their early days. 


If you are an Indian, within a few minutes of meeting Larry, you would be inclined to having a conversation with him in Hindi and no matter who you are, you would be laughing about something that he said. He is part guru, part big brother, part jester and underneath it all, a serious humanitarian. 


Larry is someone who never planned his career but grabbed every opportunity that came his way and made the most of it. He connected with unusual people and was their friend in sickness and in health. When Steve Jobs was diagnosed with cancer, one of the first calls he made was to Larry. It has been over two decades since I first met Larry and he has not changed much. He is constantly learning and keeping up with the latest technology trends and using his large network of friends to solve global issues. I have known him through his personal tragedies and triumphs and I have seen how he uses Indian philosophy to deal with the ups and downs that keep him grounded.  


During the 2010 volcanic eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull, a group of us were stranded in London when all the flights got canceled. Larry came up with a back-up plan to organize voyage to America on a ship. Before we explored the plan further, the flights resumed and we all went back to America. I still wish that voyage came through because it would have been the greatest adventure of my life traveling with a boat-load of Larry’s friends. 

So, what’s next for Larry? When I was chatting with him a week ago, he told me that a TV mini-series was going to be made based on his autobiography Sometimes Brilliant chronicling all his adventures and much of it will be filmed in India and I look forward to screening of the movie in India in the near future!

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