By Victoria Bjorklund, Esq., founding member of MSF-USA and former secretary of MSF-USA’s board of directors
We were deeply saddened to lose our dear friend, field colleague, and founding chairman of our board of advisors, Dr. Richard Rockefeller, in a plane crash on Friday, June 13, 2014. An experienced pilot, Richard had flown from Maine to New York to celebrate his father David’s ninety-ninth birthday with him the night before. His plane crashed shortly after takeoff in bad weather as he was attempting to return home to Maine in time for a nonprofit board meeting.
Richard and his father, David Rockefeller, were absolutely instrumental in the launch of MSF-USA in 1989 and 1990. David Rockefeller so generously provided free office space to founding MSF-USA executive director Chantal Martell and her start-up team within his Rockefeller & Co. office at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. David proudly spoke to Chantal about his son, the family doctor in Maine, and introduced them. From that moment forward, Richard spent the next 21 years chairing the board of advisors, working in the field, advocating for better access to drugs, speaking on behalf of the organization, and leveraging his credibility within the US philanthropic community to gain needed support so critical to MSF’s operational independence in the field.
Richard was dedicated to the field. He worked as a field doctor in Peru in the 1990s and in northern Nigeria when a massive meningitis outbreak struck in 2009, in addition to visiting MSF programs in Cambodia, Malawi, Niger, Thailand, and Uganda.
Upon his return from Uganda in 2000, Richard was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), a rare and deadly form of cancer. He immediately attacked his disease by working with his doctors to design his own treatment protocol. A drug marketed by Novartis as Gleevec saved his life, but at an annual cost of $30,000. This caused Richard to speak out publicly, passionately, and personally about the lack of research and development for neglected diseases and access to medicines. For example, in 2003, Richard wrote in a Boston Globe op-ed, “I am glad that a treatment was found to prolong my life, but at the same time I find it troubling to live in an age that privileges my life over others for no reason except my (or rather, my insurance company’s) ability to pay. One shouldn’t have to be a Rockefeller to have access to lifesaving medicines.”
This type of outspoken commitment was quintessential Richard: humble, erudite, and thought-provoking. And it reminds me again of how Richard helped us in so many private as well as public ways. Chantal and I recently reminisced about how Richard was an early adopter of key technologies and helped us to understand how to use the internet to disseminate MSF press releases in real time and to use email to communicate with our members. One would see Richard in the front row of our early general assemblies avidly taking notes on the most current electronic device.
When one of our MSF-USA presidents or DNDi colleagues needed to call on a trusted speaker to tell it like it was, Richard repeatedly answered the call, from testifying at the 2003 DNDi conference in New York to publishing an op-ed in the Times of India about access to essential medicines. Because Richard had spent time in the field, because Richard had experienced access to medicines in his own treatment, because Richard believed fervently in the right of access to medical care, because Richard spoke passionately and humbly, Richard truly lived the values of MSF. We will sorely miss him.