In Memoriam: Dr. Richard Rockefeller, Founding Member of Doctors Without Borders USA
Dr. Rockefeller Critical to Launch of Medical Humanitarian Organization in the United States
Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) was deeply saddened to learn of the tragic death of Richard Rockefeller, Ed.M., M.D., who died on June 13, 2014, when the single-engine plane that he was piloting crashed outside of Westchester County Airport, and extends its deepest sympathies and condolences to his family.
Through his vast philanthropic network, passionate public speaking on the right for access to medicines, and field assignments in Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia, Richard was instrumental to the founding of MSF in the United States. In this space, we share some of our memories of working with him over the years.
In 1989, working with his father David Rockefeller, Richard helped MSF establish its roots in the United States by hosting a small start-up team at 30 Rockefeller Center, inside the offices of Rockefeller & Co.
Richard would spend the next 21 years on the Board of Advisors of MSF-USA, leveraging his credibility within the philanthropic community to garner the financial support that was so critical to ensuring MSF’s continued financial independence, which has been crucial to guaranteeing the organization’s operational independence in the field. While leading this advisory committee and visiting MSF programs abroad, including those in Cambodia, Malawi, Niger, Thailand, and Cambodia, Richard also worked as a field doctor in Peru in the 1990s and in northern Nigeria while a massive meningitis outbreak struck the country in 2009.
“Richard gave so much of his life to support Doctors Without Borders,” said Dr. Deane Marchbein, MD, president of MSF-USA. “He made so many vital contributions that have helped Doctors Without Borders provide independent medical humanitarian assistance to millions of patients in over 70 countries. The entire Doctors Without Borders family extends its condolences to Richard’s family. We are devastated by his loss.”
Richard regularly spoke out publicly against the lack of research and development for so-called neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). Upon his return from visiting MSF programs in Uganda in 2000 for treatment of the neglected disease African sleeping sickness, Dr. Rockefeller was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukaemia (CML), a rare and deadly form of cancer. A drug, imatinib mesylate , marketed by Novartis as Gleevec, saved his life but at an annual cost of $30,000.
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 other reason except my (or rather, my insurance company’s) ability to pay. One shouldn’t have to be a Rockefeller to have access to life-saving medicines.”
Later that year, speaking to policymakers, researchers, and doctors at an MSF conference announcing the creation of the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi) in New York, he said: “It's just not acceptable now in a world of global commerce, global communication, global travel, to have 14 million people dying each year of potentially treatable communicable diseases, and we in the West are paying $30,000 for a treatment to keep me alive and nobody is making enough noise about it.”
He would later call on Novartis to drop a case launched by the company against the Indian government’s refusal to issue a patent for imatinib mesylate. In the case, Novartis challenged the legality of India’s patent law, which was vital to ensuring the production of affordable generic antiretroviral (ARV) medicines that are critical to the treatment of millions of HIV/AIDS patients worldwide. Novartis eventually lost the case before the Indian Supreme Court, preserving the patent law.
In an op-ed published by the Times of India at the time of the case, Richard wrote, “Like me, without treatment, many of the people I met most likely would have been dead. And without a generic source of ARVs, only dozens would have been treated, not thousands. Even as millions around the world still have no access to treatment, these fortunate few are put at risk by Novartis's legal attack in India.”
While Richard stepped down as chair of the Board of Advisors in 2010, he remained an honorary member and trusted advisor of MSF-USA.
“Richard was so committed to the principles of Doctors Without Borders – the belief that everyone had the right to access medical care regardless of their religion, race, ethnicity, income level, or any other consideration,” said Victoria Bjorklund, Esq, a retired partner at Simpson Thacher Bartlett LLP, another one of the founding volunteers, who helped establish MSF-USA’s non-profit status. “He was absolutely critical to sharing those principles with a wide array of supporters at a time when the organization was not well known in the US. He will be sorely missed.”