Bruce Beutler remembers exactly when he learned about death. He had four years of life under his belt, and assumed it was the kind of thing that went on forever.
When his older brother informed him otherwise — in the callous way that older brothers sometimes dump pearls of wisdom onto their younger siblings — Beutler was terrified.
“This was a scary revelation for me,” he said, speaking to a crowd of Albany Medical College graduates and their families at commencement on a cloudy Thursday afternoon. “My father responded to my newfound terror by informing me that the average lifespan for an adult male in the United States was 63 years old. He probably thought that this would seem like an eternity to a 4-year-old child.”
But young Beutler found no comfort in this. It was 1962, and the vision of himself spending eternity in a hole in the ground happened to be one of several factors that eventually led him to a career in medicine and science.
And now look, he exclaimed to the hundreds of maroon-robed graduates seated inside the Saratoga Performing Arts Center: 51 years later, the lifespan of the American male is 80 years. And some demographers claim that the average child born in the U.S. right now will live to be 100 years old, he added.
“What progress,” he said. “It’s much more so if you go back to Victorian
England, when the median lifespan was a scant 10 years. That was what you could expect as a human being. By that measure, we’re practically a different species than we were then.”
It’s doctors, researchers and scientists who are to thank for developing the new drugs, surgical techniques and insights that have extended our years on this earth, Beutler said. It was a stark reminder for the more than 200 Albany Medical College graduates receiving their medical, master’s and doctoral degrees Thursday that the careers they were about to embark on were some of the noblest and most important to humankind.
The class of 2013 commencement speaker has already contributed much to his fellow humans, at least according to those handing out Nobel Prizes.
Beutler received half of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discoveries in “the activation of innate immunity.” To put it simply, he discovered the proteins that are the first to fight attacks on the body, opening up new avenues to prevent infections, cancer and disease.
As director of the Center for the Genetics of Host Defense at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, he is best known for his pioneering studies in inflammation and innate immunity. He has invented molecules that treat rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, psoriasis and other types of inflammation. And along with his colleagues, he has identified the genes that help regulate iron absorption, hearing and embryonic development.
At Albany Medical College’s 175th commencement ceremony, Beutler asked that the graduates remember and appreciate all the science and technology that came before them that will allow them to build careers. But at the same time, he urged them not to be afraid to look beyond what they’ve been told by the medical and scientific communities.
“Remember that your greatest enemies are consensus and dogma,” he said. “Our present state of knowledge in 2013 is hopelessly naive.”
Beutler received an honorary degree at Thursday’s ceremony, along with community business leader and philanthropist Morris Massry, who owns Tri City Rentals/Massry Realty Partners in Albany. Massry has served on numerous local boards and provided community service to dozens of local organizations, including the United Way, Center for Disability Services, the University at Albany Foundation, Daughters of Sarah Nursing Home, Troy Jewish Community Center and St. Mary’s Hospital Foundation, among others.
Work in the community was something Albany Medical College Dean Vincent Verdile urged the graduates in his remarks to mimic.
“Throughout your education here, many of you participated in initiatives that allowed you to feed the hungry, help care for the homeless, make a child’s holidays happier,” he said. “For some, this was a continuation of community service instilled in you at an earlier time. For others, it was new and inspiring. I implore you to keep your minds and hearts open and to help others in their times of need.”