Ladies and Gentlemen, in the spirit of celebrating the life of John La Montagne, I would like to spend a few minutes telling you something about this extraordinary human being from the perspective of someone who knew him for 28 years, was his friend and colleague for 20 years and was his close professional partner for the past 6 years. In this regard, as many of you know, John at the time of his death was the Deputy Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a position that he had held since 1998.
John died suddenly and unexpectedly on Nov. 2, 2004 as he disembarked at the airport in Mexico City, the place of his birth, on his way to doing what he loved best, participating, and as would certainly have been the case had events turned out differently, contributing substantially to discussions and activities involving international health in the arena of Infectious Diseases. What brought John to this important PAHO meeting on Nov. 2, 2004 in Mexico City?
We need to quickly flash back several decades to answer this question. It all started when John was a young boy and developed a keen interest in science and discovery. This soon evolved into a fascination with microbes and infectious diseases that led to his early training at Tulane where he received his PhD in Microbiology and Immunology and then went on to Pittsburg for post-doctoral training under Julius Youngner. He joined NIAID in 1976 as our first influenza program officer at the time of the swine flu crisis. It was a baptism of fire. It was at that time 28 years ago that I first met John. I was an intramural scientist at the time and his world of extramural programs and mine of the laboratory and clinic here on campus did not often cross. However, my quick impression at the time, and I remember it well, was that he was very smart, a true gentleman and everyone seemed to really like him. I left it at that. Little did I know then how much those qualities would ultimately benefit me professionally and personally, the Institute that I would direct almost a decade later, the global infectious diseases community and global health in general.
In 1983 John advanced to become the program officer for the Viral Vaccines Program, and was named Influenza and Viral Respiratory Diseases Program Officer the following year when I became NIAID Director. Almost immediately upon becoming Director, it was difficult for me not to notice John. It was obvious then that he was a rapidly rising star, a perfect fit, in my mind, to some day lead our infectious diseases extramural program, now known as the Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases. I would remember to keep my eye on him. Coincidentally, however, this period was right at the very early years of the AIDS epidemic. I had started to build up substantially our AIDS portfolio and decided in 1986 to establish an official AIDS Division within NIAID. We needed someone to head this Division who could hit the ground running. The problem was that there really were very few AIDS experts around in these early years of the pandemic. We had to go with the generic qualities of maturity, experience, and plenty of smarts. This was not a difficult discussion. The choice was obvious. Although John loved the field of influenza and respiratory viruses, his loyalty, dedication, and sense of duty to the Institute and to me prompted him to accept my offer to head the AIDS program. He quickly jumped into the job and began establishing what was for a time the largest extramural division in NIAID. But fate had something else in store for John. One year later, the position of Director of the Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases opened up and there was no one in the world more suited for that position than John La Montagne. Again, the choice was obvious. This was John’s meat. The young boy who was born in Mexico City and moved to Houston, Texas to attend High School and who was fascinated by science was now as an already accomplished adult where he always wanted to be. There was malaria, tuberculosis, diarrheal, respiratory, and parasitic diseases, emerging and re-emerging microbes and ultimately biodefense. John accepted my offer on the spot, and so began the golden years of John La Montagne’s professional career.
His accomplishments in this arena are part of the lore of NIAID. He and his colleagues at DMID spearheaded the highly successful acellular pertussis vaccine trials. If one wanted to write a textbook on how to plan and execute on an international scale what we commonly refer to today as government – industry – academic collaborations, the pertussis trial would be the model chapter. John’s fingerprints are all over that highly successful endeavor. The Multilateral Initiative on Malaria was also a project that is strongly identified with John La Montagne. His commitment to the development of a malaria vaccine has been an inspiration to investigators in the field. It was the international community’s trust in John that contributed greatly to the success of this important program. John has also been a major player in the tuberculosis initiatives, the rotavirus and other diarrheal diseases initiatives and the understanding of the importance of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases. Yet, it was in the field of influenza that John has played perhaps his most important role. Influenza, particularly the threat of a pandemic flu emanating from the H5N1 avian flu currently smoldering in Asia has made headline news over the past year. John had been deeply concerned about the yearly burden of flu and particularly the inevitability of a pandemic influenza ong before it became the hot topic that it is today. In fact, he spearheaded the DMID pandemic flu research plan years ago. This was part of his mantra: identifying hot issues and acting on them before they became fashionable. It is no accident that NIAID had the beginnings of a biodefense research program years before September 11, 2001. John would speak frequently to me over the years about his concern over the use of microbes as weapons of bioterror and the importance of our taking a research initiative to help us prepare. Many of our colleagues in the biomedical research community were skeptical and even critical about any investment on the part of NIAID in biodefense research. Once again, it was fortunate that I heeded John’s gentle prodding and moved NIAID in this direction well before September 11, 2001, which positioned us well to accept the enormous responsibilities that the NIH now has in the Department’s broader biodefense agenda.
After eleven years of historic accomplishments at DMID, I again needed John to fill another critical position in NIAID. The position of Deputy Director of the Institute opened in 1998. Once again, John was the obvious choice and once again he did not let the Institute or me down. He accepted only under the condition that I allow him to maintain an active participation in global health issues. By this he meant personal, on-hands involvement including travel to represent NIAID in those places in the world where the action in global health was taking place. For me, there was no choice at all. If I had not agreed to his request, it would have been like asking Joe DiMaggio at the peak of his career to become a coach and not allowing him to continue playing center field. John accepted the position of coach, but continued playing until his very last day, and the Institute and the world are much better off for it.
During those years when he was Deputy Director, I was blessed with daily and intensive interaction with John. I realized even more the extraordinary depth and breath of his truly encyclopedic knowledge of microbiology and infectious diseases. In his understated way, he was second to none in his comprehension of the field of vaccinology. More importantly, his judgment and counsel were invaluable. I soon came to the realization that if we proceeded with an initiative or a direction with which John was uncomfortable, we did so at our own peril. He was calm and steady under crisis conditions, and there were plenty of those. I always knew where the honest broker was….a few steps away, right across the waiting room from me. He was so much more than a Deputy. It was such a privilege to have this decent, soothing, witty man with the keen intellect always there for you when you needed him. He could make me laugh at myself with just an expression on his face. It is a sad truth that you do not fully appreciate some of the wonderful things and people in life as you are experiencing them because they just seem so natural. Such was the case with John La Montagne. Now that John is gone, I ask myself the question how he could have been so incredibly good at what he did.
To answer this question adequately, one cannot separate John, the scientist and science administrator from John, the human being whom I have tried to briefly describe to you. For it is the combination of these elements that explains a phenomenon that I experienced immediately after learning of John’s death. I had barely regained my composure from the shock of the middle of the night call from Mexico City that delivered the tragic news, when the next day I sent out an e-mail to NIAID colleagues that John had died suddenly. I learned something about the capacity of the global network of electronic communication and how it illuminated like a shining beacon just what John La Montagne meant to the world of infectious diseases and global health. Literally within minutes of sending that e-mail, I began receiving in an ever increasing crescendo literally hundreds of e-mails with expressions of shock, grief, disbelief, condolences, and above all affection. Every continent was represented several-fold in the waves of e-mails and telephone calls.
And so what are these qualities of John that has triggered a deep sense of loss among people all over the world, some of whom were his good friends and others who had just met him a few times? Indeed, John was a very, very special person. It is true that he was an accomplished scientist and science administrator. But it was his qualities as a human being together with his scientific capabilities that set him apart.
John was kind, gentle, unselfish, warm, witty, loyal and accessible to everyone from government officials to the woman who emptied the trash can in his office, and with whom he enjoyed so much speaking Spanish. One quality that was eminently obvious to me who saw and spoke with him 10 to 20 times per day for several years is that he was the least self-aggrandizing person that I have ever met. Taking credit for anything that he did (and he did many wonderful things) was beyond him. When I sent out that e-mail on the morning of Nov. 3, I spontaneously wrote down what I was intensely feeling at the time. I told our NIAID colleagues that “Everyone knows that John was one of the finest human beings that we have ever known”. I must have received 50 return e-mails referring directly to that statement and saying that this is exactly the way so many people feel about John.
One cannot talk about his human side without mentioning his devotion to his wife Elaine and to his dogs, the most recent of which was Annie. John would regularly leave in the evening to go home to walk Annie. I would often get very involved in a conversation with John in the evening and I could see that he was getting a bit fidgety. He had to get home to walk his dog, but that never interfered with his responsibilities to the Institute. We had an agreement that he would go walk the dog, but I would call him on his cell phone as he was fulfilling this responsibility. You all cannot imagine how much institute business and how many important discussions took place via cell phone as I was in my office and John was walking Annie along the shores of the Potomac in Old Town, Alexandria, often with the wind whistling in the background. Also, I might add that I do not think that I have ever had to wait for more than 2 rings on his cell phone before John picked up whether he was in Japan, Boston, India, or on his tractor on his farm in Virginia. He was always there for me and for the Institute.
Finally, John was deeply concerned about younger colleagues in the early phases of their careers. What message can I convey to them about John? For the young scientists and science administrators in the audience and beyond: if you are looking for a role model and someone to emulate, you have the perfect one in John La Montagne. Think about what I have told you about John and how you might try to be more like him, a man who in a quiet and dignified manner went about doing his job day-by-day and accomplishing wonderful things in a way that was never motivated by the desire for recognition, but whose death nonetheless triggered an avalanche of recognition in the form of grief, sorrow, and a profound feeling of professional and personal loss from every corner of the world.
John, we will miss you my dear friend, but your spirit will be with us always.
Last Updated March 16, 2005