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A Ceremony in Memory of John La Montagne, Ph.D.

Remarks of the Honorable Tommy G. Thompson
Secretary of Health and Human Services
November 30, 2004

I am honored to join all of you in paying tribute to Dr. John La Montagne.

This has been a very sad month for the Department of Health and Human Services. The untimely collapse of a new parking garage yesterday took the life of a young man. And, earlier this month, we lost our dear and wonderful friend, John La Montagne.

John was the kind of man who would spend five days a week advancing science and medicine, and two days a week working on his farm in Virginia—a place he and Elaine dearly loved. He also loved cheering for the Longhorns, playing with his dogs Maggie and Annie, and learning new words.

We can say of John what Erasmus said of Sir Thomas More, “…it would be hard to find anyone who was more truly a man for all seasons and all men…”

The seasons of John’s life flowed in a circle. John departed this life where he began it, in Mexico City. In between, he traveled the world, bringing curiosity, generosity, and better health wherever he went. Whenever Elias or Tony or I asked, he was always willing to go anywhere and meet with anyone to advance the cause of good science.

Every hour spent with John was an hour of enjoyment and enlightenment. And John was unflappable. He had the ability to think rationally, especially in a crisis. In September of 2001, when the scientists around him were anxiously reviewing their plans to respond to any threat of smallpox, John threw himself into the work. But he had enough perspective to tell a colleague, It’s good that we’re doing this. But if anything is going to get us, it will be the flu.

Influenza is not a glamorous disease. That’s part of its danger. It rarely attracts attention from scientists, but it captivated the attention and energy of John La Montagne. In fighting the flu, John wasn’t just protecting us from a few sick days. He was defending the old, the young, and the weak, from devastation and death.

In fact, John’s last scholarly publication was on influenza. In the latest issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, John and Tony argue that, if necessary, a supply of flu vaccine might be safely extended by injecting smaller doses between layers of skin instead of muscle. If we ever face a pandemic flu, John’s research could save millions of lives. This is John’s legacy, and a more fitting one I cannot imagine.

Beyond the flu, John was a world leader in the fights against tuberculosis and malaria. He helped develop the swine flu vaccine, the whooping cough vaccine, and vaccines against childhood diarrhea and pneumonia. Because of him, Americans are safer from bioterrorism.

In the early days of the AIDS epidemic, John and a few colleagues adjusted their Institute’s priorities to devote time and energy to understanding HIV. Thanks to their foresight, we know how to prevent and treat AIDS.

John’s excellence was recognized and awarded by Secretaries, Presidents, and Surgeons General. And it was appreciate by everyone who worked with him.

Some scientists with achievements like John’s are hard to talk to and even harder to like. But everyone who spoke with John enjoyed his focused attention and his warm sincerity. And his warmth radiated across the Department. That’s why we all love him. That’s why we all miss him.

We mourn the loss of our friend and colleague. And I join the entire HHS community in offering our sincere condolences to Elaine and their family.

As Hamlet said, “He was a man: Take him for all in all; I shall not look upon his like again."

May he rest in peace.

Last Updated March 17, 2005