Dr. Iwamura: Inspiration for a Generation

Dr. Iwamura: Inspiration for a Generation

MSH's 40th anniversary year has been a catalyst to revisit our origins, recommit to our mission and renew our values. As we approach the holidays and look toward 2012, I’d like to share reflections on one of the most poignant events of the year for me: my recent visit with Mrs. Fumiko Iwamura in Japan. Fumiko-san is the widow of Dr. Noboru Iwamura, who inspired our founder Ron O’Connor to create MSH.

MSH President Jonathan Quick and Fumiko Iwamura. (Japan, 2011) Photo credit: Miho Sato.


The Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo took us spectacularly close to Mount Fuji, through dense modern cities, by just a few of Kyoto’s many famous temples, and past plush rice fields and rolling hills to Kobe in southwestern Japan. From Kobe we took a series of subways and local trains and finally traveled through a mountain pass to a small town north of Kobe where Fumiko-san lives. On the journey from Tokyo, I reflected on the first time I heard Ron talk about Dr. Noboru Iwamura. Ron met Dr. Iwamura as a medical student working in a remote part of Nepal during the summer of 1962. Dr. Iwamura -- the only survivor among 80 high school classmates in the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima -- lived with a deep sense of mission. I regretted not meeting Dr. Iwamura before he passed away in 2005 at age 78 from chronic leukemia, a disease he had lived with since not long after the bombing. But, I was looking forward to meeting Mrs. Iwamura, now 83. My guide for the journey and translator for the visit was Miho Sato, a Japanese public health professional and assistant professor at Nagasaki University, where I spoke on World AIDS Day. Many at MSH will remember Miho from her eight years with MSH in Washington, Afghanistan, and Cambridge, first as an Iwamura Fellowand then on the staff as a gender advisor.

The Iwamura Fellows alumni and HANDS leadership gather with MSH President Jonathan Quick. (Japan, 2011) Photo credit: Miho Sato.


Mrs. Iwamura’s daughter, Maya, met us at the door of their small, but very tidy house. Maya is one of a dozen Nepali children the Iwamuras adopted, having decided not to have children of their own for fear of radiation effects. After the customary switch from street shoes to house slippers, we joined Fumiko-san, in their small reception room. I immediately felt Fumiko-san to be one of those rare but unforgettable people who -- very much like Archbishop Desmond Tutu -- exude a deep sense of inner peace and personal joy.

MSH founder Ron O'Connor and Dr. Iwamura in Nepal, 1962. Photo credit: MSH.


Fumiko-san offered some wonderful hand-crafted Japanese sweets and quickly launched into sharing stories and books from the eighteen years she and Dr. Iwamura had lived in Nepal. When asked about her memories of Ron, she immediately pulled out one of the three books Dr. Iwamura had written about his work in Nepal. She went right to the page with a description of their work together (in Japanese, of course) and a faded picture of a young Ron O’Connor by a river with Dr. Iwamura. A trained social worker who finished at the top of their group in Nepali language training (while Dr. Iwamura finished last!) Fumiko devoted herself to teaching children in Nepal. She has written several original children’s books in Nepali and translated classic Japanese children’s books into Nepali. Ever frugal, Fumiko continues to collect discarded Japanese children’s books. She translates the text into Nepali -- on the same page as the Japanese -- and sends to children in Nepal. As recently as eighteen months ago, she was still making trips to Nepal to deliver the books and visit families in the areas she and her husband had worked.

Dr. Iwamura tending to a child in Nepal. Photo credit: MSH


With characteristic Iwamura humility, the hero of Fumiko’s story about Dr. Iwamura’s first year working in Nepal was not her husband. The hero was instead a villager who carried a patient needing emergency care in a woven basket on his back over the mountains to a nearby town. When Dr. Iwamura passed away, the Nepali communities with which he worked wanted to erect a monument and name a building in his honor. But she would have nothing of it; she knew his deep sense of humility would not allow it. It brought tears to Mrs. Iwamura’s eyes when she saw the 1962 picture of Dr. Iwamura and Ron in Go to the People, the MSH 40th anniversary book by John Donnelly that we gave her. I shared examples of how the Tao of Leadership has inspired MSH since Ron founded the organization four decades ago. She was touched hearing that Dr. Iwamura’s life and the values that Ron saw in him have inspired a generation of MSHersaround the globe.

Dr. Quick meets with the staff of HANDS, an NGO started by MSHer Tomoko Fujisaki. (Japan, 2011) Photo credit: Miho Sato.


Shortly before we departed, Fumiko-san and I shared prayers of appreciation for Dr. Iwamura: for his service to Nepal and to global health development, for the example he set for so many, for his having inspired the creation of MSH, and for the opportunities that MSH has had to carry forward his passion for service. With spritely energy, Fumiko insisted on accompanying us to the train station, not hesitating to jog half way when it seemed we might miss the next train. As we come to the end of our 40th year, I humbly thank for your support, partnership, and encouragement for MSH over the years. Few of us will inspire a generation as Dr. Iwamura and Ron have done; and only some of us will have the energy in our 80s to show visitors the courtesy of “jogging them to the train”. Yet we can all strive to embody the values by which the Iwamuras have lived: integrity with simplicity and strong ethical standards, excellence in pursing health impact, vitality with joy and optimism, collaboration with warm humility, and empowerment by working for the success of others. Best wishes for happy holidays – and for health on Earth.

Jonathan D. Quick, MD, MPH, is President and Chief Executive Officer of Management Sciences for Health. Dr. Quick has worked in international health since 1978. He is a family physician and public health management specialist.