David H. Smith
Visionary. Conservationist. Leader.
These are some of the words used to describe Dr. David Hamilton Smith, founder and sole benefactor of the David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellowship Program. From the inception of his career, Dr. Smith did things a little bit differently and a little bit better than most. Beginning with his early days as a pediatrician and ending with his final days as an active member of The Nature Conservancy cadre, Dr. Smith was the epitome of quiet yet bold ambition in making positive changes. The changes for which he worked, in fields ranging from conservation to public health, are still present today. They are examples for all of us to follow. David Smith willed something even more valuable than his bequest - the legacy and example of himself.
The early years
Dr. Smith earned his medical degree from the University of Rochester in 1958. The University offered a "year out" program, in which third-year medical students spent a year working in the field. Dr. Smith spent his third year at the Children's Hospital in Boston and that is where he met his mentor, Dr. Charles A. Janeway.
One day, as the class made their rounds to see Dr. Janeway's patients, they stood around the bed of a child suffering from spinal meningitis. “I think there are very few seminal moments,” Dr. Smith said. But this moment, as he stood over the child’s bed, proved to be one of them. Dr. Janeway said to his students, "This can be prevented. It is wrong to wait until we have to try and treat these children. One of you should try and find a vaccine." Dr. Smith, the entrepreneur, was listening.
He went on to finish his studies at Rochester and subsequently applied for and received a three-year postdoctoral fellowship from Harvard Medical School. He was the first physician to be accepted into what Dr. Smith describes as a precursor of today's M.D./Ph.D. program. He focused his research theory on how bacteria learn to resist antibiotics. And though he had a strong appreciation for academia and the development of new theories and ideas, Dr. Smith wanted to solve problems - not just theorize. Taking the lead on new ideas and applying them to current medical and social dilemmas was David's goal. Having the dual degrees facilitated his ability to practice medicine as a pediatrician and still perform clinical research.
In 1976, Dr. Smith returned to his alma mater, the University of Rochester, where he chaired the pediatrics department. In the world of science at that point in history, most researchers were working on antibiotics to combat illness and disease, but Dr. Smith couldn't forget what Dr. Janeway said about the importance of vaccines and disease prevention. It wasn't far into his time at Rochester before Dr. Porter Anderson, one of Dr. Smith's colleagues from the Children's Hospital in Boston contacted him. He and Dr. Smith had spent many hours discussing the possibilities of a vaccine for spinal meningitis when they attended medical school together. Now Dr. Anderson was calling to find out if Dr. Smith was ready for the challenge. They contacted Dr. Janeway, their mentor. He helped them find funding for the research, and the proceeded on the long road to develop a vaccine.
“Trying to come up with a vaccine for a bacterial disease in the late ‘60s was pretty lonely work,” Dr. Smith admitted. Drs. Smith and Anderson had a very hard time getting funding for their work. “The manufacturers weren’t interested,” he remembers. “Most of them were producing antibiotics… maybe they thought we’d cut into their business. And the attitude at the National Institute of Health seemed to be, ‘Smith, if you want us to help, go out and find a new antibiotic.’”
After six long years of fund raising and research, Drs. Smith and Anderson secured a vaccine for the bacteria that caused spinal meningitis and were on the road to a second - one that would prove effective in infants. They spent long hours in the laboratory testing the vaccine on animals and they were so sure the vaccine would work in humans, that, when they could not find any volunteers to participate in their trials, they vaccinated themselves. Now, with such great accomplishments in tow and profound happenings on the horizon, the two doctors set out to have their vaccine manufactured. That is when the real challenge began.
Since most pharmaceutical companies were in the market to manufacture antibiotics, they were not interested in the Drs.' proposal of bringing the vaccine to the market. Though the FDA urged the companies to take on the project, the companies knew it was not business savvy to manufacture a vaccine that was slated to compete with their existing products. So, Dr. Smith did something completely unheard of. In April of 1983 he left his position as chair of the pediatrics department and founded his own Biotech company, Praxis Biologics.
Dr. Smith's own daughter attests that starting a business was something her father knew very little about. He went to the local bookstore to buy books on how to write a business plan. He raised $1.5 million in seed money to get the company started. With three daughters of college age, he mortgaged his house and sold family antiques just to raise enough money to get the company off the ground. The steps he was taking made Dr. Smith a true leader and the champion of entrepreneurs.
The first years at Praxis were difficult ones. The first employee showed up to find only a man with a vision and a closet. At first, Praxis Biologics consisted of only that large closet at the University of Rochester and a few employees with tireless dedication. Dr. Smith professed, “Our people walked on hot coals to make the company work, but they did it out of pride, loyalty, and commitment to an idea.”
Never losing hold of his vision, he made his dream a reality and brought the harsh chapter of spinal meningitis to a dramatic close. In just 10 years after brining the vaccine to the market, the number of cases of spinal meningitis plummeted from 20,000 in 1987 to 81 in 1997. A true success story. In 1996, Dr. Smith was awarded both the Lasker Prize, one of the most prestigious awards in the country, and the Pasteur Award from the World Health Organization. The recognition for years of work and sacrifice were well deserved.
The later years
Dr. Smith, the conservationist, was born in the years after he sold Praxis Biologics. He applied the same courage and tenacity that he used in developing and marketing his vaccine to solve problems and help protect the land on the island he loved, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. David was best known on the Vineyard for his strong and quiet leadership in many of the most important conservation efforts that have taken place in recent years. He played a major role in the Moshup’s Trail initiative, working with the Vineyard Conservation Society and Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation to protect more than 30 acres of globally rare historic heathland habitat. David was the driving force for the preservation of the nationally respected Polly Hill Arboretum, a 60-acre horticultural landscape in North Tisbury in 1997.
David often built a partnership between his foundation, a local conservation organization, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, with the Polly Hill Arboretum and Moshup’s Trail serving as the primary examples. “Dr. Smith felt collaboration was essential, and he modeled the public-private partnership approach to conservation which he believed in strongly. He felt that people had to work together and then he modeled how to do it,” according to Matthew Stackpole, former executive vice-president for the David H. Smith Foundation.
In times of crisis, it takes strategic vision to act effectively. David Smith knew that planning, not panic, was the key to success. His primary conservation work came at a time when the Vineyard was being inundated with increasing development and escalating land values. Dr. Smith’s guidance and thoughtful approach to conservation science led to prioritization of potential properties to protect biodiversity. He was so good at what he did on the Vineyard that, in recognition of his work for conservation science on the Vineyard, The Nature Conservancy selected Dr. Smith as the recipient of the 1997 Conservation Achievement Award. In addition, he was presented with the Governor’s Award for Open Space Preservation in Massachusetts in 1998.
In the same bold and quiet way, Dr. Smith used a portion of his foundation’s money to create the David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellowship Program. Over the first six years, the program was administered by the The Nature Conservancy and worked to transform scientists who were early in their career into communicative, precocious leaders who were able to apply the findings of their research to the challenges of everyday conservation science. Today, the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) leads the Fellowship program - SCB's relationships with leaders from a diverse constituency of conservation organizations world-wide offer Smith Fellows a broad range of research, management, and policy experiences.