I used to work with Dr Peter Piot, the Flemish microbiologist known for discovering Ebola in 1976. Piot is the former Executive Director of UNAIDS (The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS) and, for years, he was my boss there. I learned a lot from Peter Piot. One of the less obvious things I learned from him was the expression “my hair hurts,” commonly used in French, which refers to having a hangover. If one plans to spend time with great minds like Piot, a Belgian who is not only brilliant, but also proud of his national beers, this is a useful phrase. I remember him sharing on more than one occasion a remarkably long list of times he’d thought he was going to die. I don’t recall the specifics of all events on his list (reference the beer drinking) but I do remember being mildly astonished, yet delighted, that he had indeed, survived.
Surprisingly, however, being exposed to Ebola was not on his list. Perhaps a scientist takes those risks in stride and is more alarmed by unexpected vehicle malfunctions or political uprisings that set everything in question, far beyond disease. Piot is a passionate man who cares deeply about the problems he has dedicated his life to reverse. When we began our work at UNAIDS in the mid-90s the thing that struck me then, and stays with me now, was Piot saying “our goal is to work ourselves out of a job. We need to stop this epidemic. Only then will we have succeeded.” Ebola clearly still exists, as does HIV, but at least there are people on the planet who are genuinely trying to make the world a better, healthier place. Peter Piot is one of them.
—Martina Clark spent 20 years working for the United Nations on HIV education and is currently an MFA candidate at Stony Brook Manhattan. Her subject, Peter Piot, is now the Director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.