I just finished reading Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik of Wired magazine and his wife, Monica Murphy, who has degrees in public health and veterinary medicine. The book is entirely fascinating, but one of my favorite parts was the description of Louis Pasteur and all his work with vaccines. I always knew Pasteur was awesome, but I never realized how totally awesome. His legacy includes vaccines for anthrax, rabies, and (with a significant contributions by Emile Roux) chicken cholera, not to mention saving the French wine industry, as well as establishing the method for purifying and protecting food that bears his name: Pasteurization. Add to this his establishing the Institut Pasteur and all that it has accomplished both during his life and since his death, and you can’t help but be impressed.
Within the same day of finishing Rabid, I came upon a story about J.K. Rowling and what is likely to be her legacy. Beyond the beloved Harry Potter universe she has created, she has donated hundreds of thousands of her millions to charities, especially those that preserve families and aid orphans. Being someone who knows what struggling to survive is like, she is giving back in a significant way. I contrast this with the probable legacy of another extremely rich person recently in the news–Jeffrey Epstein. I think that people will not remember him as fondly.
I’m not sure people think much about their legacies. In a television program I like a lot called “A Craftsman’s Legacy”, the host, Eric Gorges, asks each person he spends time with two questions: do you consider yourself a craftsman or an artist; and, do you think about your legacy. Some folks are conscious of what they are leaving behind. Someone who creates a body of work or has trained a lot of students tends to have an awareness of their effect on the world and that it will linger after they have gone. Some people think about their children as a legacy who will carry on their genes and names, their looks and maybe their mannerisms, perhaps even their businesses and skills. But whether we realize it or not, everything we do “leaves a mark,” and people don’t often act as though they understand that. Abuse often begets abuse as families of abusers can attest. Kindness and generosity, often the same. I see my father in my family members and hear his humor and turns of phrase. He was a man who loved his children unconditionally, and I’m happy to say I think that legacy survives in his children and in the people whose lives he touched.
I’m not sure what my legacy will be. Nothing from my days as a researcher is significant as far as I know, but at least a few people lived and didn’t die because of things I did in the lab. I have some writing, fiction and non fiction, that may last a while, for better or worse. I have had students, and they have had students, so I think that’s good. It’s hard to say what will survive after we are gone. I’m no Pasteur or Rowling, but I hope my legacy will balance on the side of leaving things better rather than worse after I’m gone. Maybe between now and when I fall off my perch, I can add to that legacy in a positive way. Best get on it.
Image: Stable dog (not rabid) at Harrowway House, Penton Mewsey, Hampshire, UK. By Jonathan Hutchins.